Challenging local cuts – some key legal questions

by stevebroach

Following the political choices set out in the recent Spending Review, it would seem inevitable that local authorities are going to need to make cuts to important services next year, including those provided to children and disabled people. Recent Kings Fund analysis shows that the 2% precept on council tax is a totally inadequate solution to the funding crisis for adult social care. No-one seems to be talking about what the Spending Review means for children’s social care, which wasn’t even mentioned on the Department for Education press release – but it is unlikely to be good news.

The issue now is not whether there should be cuts, but whether the cuts which have to be made are lawful, both in terms of their effect on services and those who use them and the process by which the decisions were made. As Mr Justice Blake said in R (Rahman) v Birmingham City Council (para 46) in relation to the ‘public sector equality duty’ (PSED) found in section 149 of the Equality Act 2010:

Even where the context of decision making is financial resources in a tight budget, that does not excuse compliance with the PSEDs and indeed there is much to be said for the proposition that even in the straightened times the need for clear, well-informed decision making when assessing the impacts on less advantaged members of society is as great, if not greater.

In rather an Alice in Wonderland way, Parliament has continued to impose new duties on local authorities at the same time as central government has taken their funding away to comply with them. However this means that councils need to take the hard decisions that will be made in their budgets for 2016-17 and beyond with a crystal clear understanding of their legal obligations. Although there may come a time where a local authority is unable to set a budget which allows it to meet all its legal duties, I doubt we are there yet.

Councils are currently working up and consulting on their budgets for 2016-17, so now is the time when residents and local groups may want to ask some of these legal questions:

Will the council be able to meet all its ‘specific’ statutory duties owed to individual residents? For example:

  1. The duty to meet all ‘eligible’ needs for disabled adults and their carers under the Care Act 2014
  2. The duty to meet ‘eligible’ needs for disabled children under section 2 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970
  3. The duty to provide free suitable home to school travel arrangements for all ‘eligible’ disabled children under section 508B of the Education Act 1996
  4. The duty to secure special education provision in education, health and care plans for disabled children and young people in section 42 of the Children and Families Act 2014
  5. The duty to provide advocacy to disabled people and carers during the care and support assessment and planning process under section 67 of the Care Act 2014.

Will the council be able to meet its ‘sufficiency’ duties to have a sufficient level of particular services to meet local needs? For example:

  1. Childcare, including childcare for disabled children up to the age of 18, under section 6 of the Childcare Act 2006
  2. Short breaks for disabled children under regulation 4 of the Breaks for Carers of Disabled Children Regulations 2011
  3. Education and care services for disabled children, under section 27(2) of the Children and Families Act 2014
  4. Children’s centres, under section 5A of the Childcare Act 2006
  5. Services for disabled adults and their carers, under the ‘market shaping’ duty in section 5 of the Care Act 2014

Has the council had ‘due regard’ to the needs specified in the PSED (see above) – for example the need to advance equality of opportunity for disabled people (children and adults)?

Will the proposed cuts give rise to unlawful discrimination between different groups, contrary either to the Equality Act 2010 or Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights?

Has the council had regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children under section 11 of the Children Act 2004?

Has the council treated children’s best interests as a primary consideration in its decision making, as required by Article 3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child?*

Has there been ‘fair’ consultation on the proposals? In particular (quotes are from the leading consultation case of ex parte Coughlan:

  1. Has consultation taken place at a ‘formative stage’, i.e. sufficiently early in the decision making to influence the outcome?
  2. Have consultees been provided with ‘sufficient reasons for any proposal to permit of intelligent consideration and response’ – i.e. do residents know what cuts are being proposed and why?
  3. Have consultees had ‘adequate time’ for consideration and response?
  4. Once the consultation has finished, has ‘the product of consultation’ been ‘conscientiously taken into account’ in the final decision.

Several of these legal principles – for example consultation, non-discrimination and the PSED – apply equally to NHS bodies such as clinical commissioning groups who may also be contemplating cuts to valued services.

If residents and local groups are not getting answers to these questions, or are unhappy with the answers coming back, then the next step may be to consult a specialist solicitor who can advise on whether there may be a challenge via judicial review. It is essential that any challenge to financial decision making is brought extremely promptly – so advice should be obtained before any final decision is made if possible, or otherwise straight after the decision.

It is also important to bear in mind that not all councils are equal – particularly given the increased focus on councils raising revenue from their own areas. Residents and local groups may want to ask questions about what level of reserves their particular council holds – particularly ‘free’ or unallocated reserves. Although spending reserves is obviously only a short term solution, it may be possible to use reserves to mitigate some of the cuts and help with transition to alternative forms of provision.

It is unlikely that legal challenge alone is going to be sufficient where cuts are proposed – there also needs to be political pressure. There are a number of guides for local groups on how to campaign, including campaigning against cuts or to save services. I really like this one from the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign.

Local politics will still come down to local priorities, although the choices will get harder than ever. In the light of the duties above, the law requires councils to give significant priority to services for children and disabled people. It is hoped that the decision by Hampshire not to cut its short breaks budget for 2016-17 is therefore one that other local authorities will follow to the extent they can.

*We can save detailed arguments about whether and why the UN CRC has to be followed when it is not directly incorporated into English law for any case that goes to court.

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