rightsinreality

Thoughts on the crossroads of law, politics and society – for when 140 characters just won't do. This blog contains general information and commentary on legal matters. It is not intended to provide legal advice. This blog discusses the law in England, unless otherwise stated.

Tag: Disability Rights

Time to fight the removal of children’s rights through the Children and Social Work Bill

There are bad ideas. There are really bad ideas. And then there’s clauses 29-33 of the Children and Social Work Bill 2016.

This handful of clauses, if approved by Parliament, will allow the Secretary of State to exempt local authorities in England from the requirements of children’s social care legislation in the guise of ‘test[ing] different ways of working’. At a stroke the Secretary of State could say that Durham doesn’t have to meet disabled children’s needs under section 2 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, Doncaster can forget about parent carers’ needs assessments or Dudley can ignore the duties owed to young carers. In the alternative, the Secretary of State could modify the way in which these requirements apply rather than exempt them entirely, just to increase the overall level of confusion.

I’m struggling to know where to start in explaining why this would be a bad idea. But here goes…This post is written from the perspective of the impact on disabled children, but similar concerns will apply across all children ‘in need’. For example, the clauses would seem to allow the Secretary of State to disapply every single requirement of the care planning regulations for looked-after children.

The law on support for disabled children, young people and families is already a mess. It derives from a patchwork of legislation enacted over the past decades, with duties and powers piled one on top of the other. The only saving grace is that it is the same mess everywhere – wherever a disabled child lives in England, their legal entitlements are the same.

If these clauses go through, even that saving grace will be lost. Rights and entitlements will vary across the country, depending on which exemptions or modifications the Secretary of State has granted to a particular local authority. This reduces rather than increases the transparency that is so badly needed if families are to enforce their rights.

What’s more, I simply do not understand why a local authority would need to be exempt from any of the baseline statutory duties governing support for disabled children in order to innovate or test different ways of working. The legislation governing children’s welfare creates a safety net which should never be removed or undermined in this way. Any specific amendments to the statutory scheme should require express and explicit Parliamentary approval, not the Secretary of State’s say-so.

All of the above is true at any time. However the statutory safety net is even more important at a time like this, when many local authorities feel constrained to cut services to the bone to balance their budgets.

The Bill comes back to the House of Lords for Report stage on 18 October – details of the Bill’s progress are on the excellent Parliament website. A coalition of individuals and organisations has come together to oppose these clauses under the banner of Together for Children. Please sign up to show your support – and please see this excellent article from Sara Ogilvie from Liberty for some of the wider concerns.

Hopefully the Lords will ensure that clauses 29-33 are removed from the Bill. However if they do not and they reach the statute book, it seems to me that there is a real issue here under Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, given that disabled adults will continue to have the benefit of coherent legislation in the form of the Care Act 2014 whereas the patchwork of disabled children’s law will simply acquire more holes. It is very hard to see how this differential treatment can be justified, given that the needs of a 17 year old disabled child will be very similar to those of that young adult at 19.

Final point – all this shows how urgently we need the Law Commission to review children’s social care law

Law Commission consults on review of children’s social care law – please respond

The Law Commission is consulting until 31 October 2016 on its next programme of law reform. One of the issues it is considering reviewing is children’s social care.

There will be competition for what goes into the Commission’s next programme. If, like me, you think children’s social care law is badly in need of an overhaul then please respond to the consultation before the end of next month – see the end of the final link above. One option would be to respond to say – ‘yes please, the current law is a mess’. However I’m sure the Commission would be assisted by slightly fuller responses. Here are some outline thoughts on the issues raised by the Commission in its consultation.

Firstly, the Commission must be right that many of the factors which required new legislation on care for adults in the Care Act 2014 also apply equally to children’s social care. As previously for adults, the law in relation to children’s social care is piecemeal and patchy. Although it centres around Part 3 of the Children Act 1989, the 1989 Act has been repeatedly and confusingly amended in the intervening years and there are other important statutes, not least the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act (CSDPA) 1970 for disabled children. There must be a compelling case for a simpler, more streamlined scheme for children as for adults.

Secondly, it is noteworthy that the first two specific issues identified by the Commission concern disabled children. This reflects in my view the fact that the current statutory scheme works particularly badly for disabled children. It is very difficult if not impossible for families and professionals to understand the links between the CSDPA 1970, the Children Act 1989 and the Children and Families Act 2014. The way social care law operates (or fails to operate) for disabled children therefore seems to me to be particularly ripe for review.

I will post my full response to the Commission nearer the time, but I hope the above is helpful as a starter for 10. Please do respond to the consultation and spread the word to others who may be interested. The Commission has an excellent track record of getting its proposals into law and so this is likely to be a worthwhile investment of time.

 

A new right to short breaks – but only in Scotland

I’m heading back from the fantastic International Short Breaks Association conference in Edinburgh, where I spoke about Aiming High for Disabled Children and the short breaks duty in England. This gave me a chance to look at the (relatively) new Carers (Scotland) Act 2016, which will apply from 2017-18. Although some aspects of the Scottish legislation are familiar from the English scheme (for example the requirement to publish a short breaks services statement), there are of course important differences.

The most striking difference to my mind is that in Scotland there will shortly be an enforceable right to services (potentially including short breaks) for some unpaid carers of disabled children, not just disabled adults as under the Care Act 2014 in England. This is because the Scottish Act applies to ‘carers’, who are defined simply in section 1 as ‘an individual who provides or intends to provide care for another individual ‘. There are then two exceptions, the first being ‘professional’ carers. The second exception is that the definition does not apply ‘in the case of a cared-for person under 18 years old, to the extent that the care is or would be provided by virtue of the person’s age’. It seems to me that applying this exception is likely to create practical difficulties – is the parent or other relative support a disabled child by reason of her disability, her age or both? Regulations should shed light on how this test is expected to work in practice.

Although the test may be problematic, the principle of extending a meaningful right to support to unpaid carers of disabled children in Scotland must be welcome. The high point of the English legislation in this respect is the duty under section 17ZD-ZF of the Children Act 1989 to carry out a ‘parent carer’s needs assessment’ (‘PCNA’), but as blogged previously these sections do not create any right to support.  The English short breaks duty and accompanying regulations are focussed on the commissioning of short breaks by local authorities and do not confer any individual rights.

The right to support (including short breaks) in the Scottish Act stems from section 24, which states that subject to certain criteria local authorities ‘must provide support to the carer to meet the carer’s eligible needs’. Eligibility is to be determined by reference to local eligibility criteria, although the Act contains a power for Ministers to make national criteria through regulations which would override local criteria. I can imagine some interesting discussions about whether that power ought to be used.

Section 25(1) of the Scottish Act states ‘A local authority, in determining which support to provide to a carer under section 24(4), must consider in particular whether the support should take the form of or include a break from caring’. As such there must be specific consideration of whether short breaks need to be provided in every package of support for carers with eligible needs. It may well be in many cases that the carer’s eligible needs can only reasonably be met through the provision of some sort of short break.

Much of the detail of the scheme under the new Scottish Act has been left to regulations, which are still forthcoming. I very much hope colleagues in Scotland are able to push for the most rigorous scheme that will provide an example in England and elsewhere.

One final reflection – the Care Act 2014 in England applies to disabled adults and their carers. The Scottish Act applies to carers of both disabled children and adults – but not to disabled people themselves. Is it naïve to think that we might be able to have a single joined up scheme covering disabled people of all ages and those who provide them with care? This seems particularly important when a short break must be a positive and rights-respecting service for the disabled person, not just a chance for a break for their carer.

There is a lot more in the Scottish Act than I have covered in these initial reflections. I should also stress that I am an English lawyer and am not familiar with the wider scheme in Scotland in which this Act sits. Any comments by those with more expertise will be very welcome.

Using the law to recover the cost of care which the state fails to provide

A recent case has shed some light on one of the most difficult problems that some disabled people and families may face – how to recover the cost of care which should have been provided by the state.

A typical scenario might go like this. An assessment shows that a disabled child or adult has eligible needs. There may even be a care plan put in place or other agreement on the services or funding required to meet those needs. Then nothing happens – and so the disabled person or their family is left paying for care which the state has accepted it ought to provide.

There are a number of options in this situation. For example, a complaint can be made through the local authority complaints process and ultimately to the local government or health Ombudsman, which could recommend compensation for maladministration. These recommendations are almost always followed by public bodies. Alternatively, if the local authority is asked to refund the monies and refuses, that decision could be challenged by way of judicial review on the usual public law grounds, including rationality and reasonableness. This is particularly likely to be appropriate where there are other ‘live’ issues with the care package. The sums involved would need to be significant to justify a stand-alone judicial review to recover past care costs.*

A recent case however shines a spotlight on a third option – an ordinary civil claim for ‘restitution’. The case in question is Richards v Worcestershire CC and South Worcestershire CCG and the judgment at [2016] EWHC 1954 (Ch) concerned the defendants’ application to ‘strike out’ the claim.

The value of the claim was significant, amounting to over £644,000. This reflected the costs of care for Mr Richards after his discharge from hospital in 2004. Mr Richards had been detained under the Mental Health Act 1983 and so was entitled to ‘after care’ support under section 117 of the 1983 Act. Importantly, the judgment records (at [18]) that Mr Richards was ‘not challenging the defendants’ assessment of his needs and or their decisions as to what after-care services should be provided. His case…is rather that the defendants failed to provide the services that they considered should be supplied’.

The Judge did not have to concern himself with the factual issues in Mr Richard’s case, because the defendants’ application was to strike the claim out on the basis that it was ‘not properly the subject of private law proceedings’ (at [20]). The first issue the Judge had to resolve was whether it was possible in principle for Mr Richards to bring a restitutionary claim. He decided this in Mr Richards favour, firstly on the basis that the 1983 Act did not exclude any such claim at common law. It would seem that the same analysis would apply to any of the other statutes which give rise to an entitlement to community care services, for example Care Act 2014.

The Judge also considered that Mr Richards may be able to make out a claim for unjust enrichment. The Judge recorded that ‘failure to perform a public law duty has never of itself been held to be an unjust factor for the purposes of a claim in unjust enrichment or a sufficient basis for any other restitutionary claim’ (see [36]). However it was seriously arguable that the defendants had been enriched at Mr Richards’ expense and no argument was put forward that Mr Richard’s case that the monies had been paid by ‘mistake’ could not succeed.

The second issue was whether Mr Richards was entitled to pursue an ordinary civil claim (under Part 7 of the Civil Procedure Rules) or if he needed to bring his claim by judicial review. In short, the Judge held that Mr Richards was entitled to bring a civil claim for the reasons set out at [50] in the judgment. This is potentially helpful in future cases as there is a much less strict time limit for ordinary civil claims than for judicial review.

The defendants’ application was dismissed and Mr Richards’ claim will now proceed to trial unless it now settles, which my uninformed guess says is likely.

In terms of the factors which would seem to be needed to mount a successful claim of this type, the first requirement would be a clear breach of statutory duty to provide support by the public body. It would seem unlikely that another breach of statutory duty, for example a failure to complete an assessment, would be sufficient, even if this led indirectly to expenditure on care. The claimant would then need to show the presence of an ‘unjust factor’ such as a mistake – or convince the court that the common law should be extended so that failure to perform a public law duty alone would be sufficient.

None of this is likely to be straightforward and disabled people and families will of course need specialist advice on the facts of their individual case. It may however be helpful to consider a civil claim as part of the set of legal options where a local authority or NHS body is simply refusing to cover the costs occasioned by a breach of one of their duties.

Thoughts on the above and / or examples (anonymised as appropriate) of how costs of care have been recovered in other cases are most welcome via the comments below.

*Moreover it is not possible to bring a claim for restitution alone via judicial review (see Civil Procedure Rules r 54.3(2)).

New case law updates on disabled children’s rights

Quick post (first for some time) to flag the new case law updates published by the Council for Disabled Children with its Summer Digest. These will hopefully be of interest to disabled young people, families and professionals.

The first covers two Upper Tribunal appeals brought by Hillingdon and Buckinghamshire. Both appeals considered the appeal rights for young people (aged 16-25) and the approach to be taken where a young person lacks capacity to bring their own appeal. The Buckinghamshire decision gives important guidance on the meaning of ‘education’ for young people.

The second is about another important Upper Tribunal decision (this time in an appeal by Staffordshire) which gives clarity about school transport entitlements for young people. It is important for young people and families to note the conclusion that the Tribunal cannot resolve disputes in relation to school transport and that the correct remedy is judicial review.

The third concerns a successful human rights claim against Kent in the context of care proceedings. The judgment suggests that serious failures to comply with the duties owed to disabled children under the Children Act 1989 may result in breaches of the Human Rights Act 1998, which may in turn lead to damages being awarded.

All three updates are themselves summarised in the main CDC Digest (see p14 onwards).

Safer homes for disabled children – crowdfunding cases for disabled children’s rights

Disabled children need safe and suitable homes – but with the housing crisis in parts of the country it is unsurprising that many disabled children have neither. The families of two disabled children (M and A) are challenging Islington council for failing to provide them with accommodation where they will be safe from falling and have sufficient space to meet their needs.

The challenge failed in the High Court. In particular the Judge held that the duty to co-operate between housing and children’s services in section 27 of the Children Act 1989 did not apply to ‘unitary’ authorities, for example London councils. Secondly the Judge held that the failure to put in place a child in need plan for M or A was not unlawful – despite the clear terms of the statutory guidance requiring such plans. Both these findings may reduce the protection of the Children Act scheme for disabled children if left unchallenged.

To their credit M and A’s families are willing to carry on the fight to the Court of Appeal. The issues their cases raise are obviously of very wide importance, potentially affecting thousands of families with disabled children. As such their legal team has worked with the organisation Crowdjustice to see if money can be raised from the community. The initial target is 3,000 pounds, which will allow the appeal to proceed to the next stage.

In my view the attempt to crowdfund M and A’s appeal is hugely significant. If it works in this case it can work in other cases – and be an answer in the right cases to the problems caused by the restrictions on legal aid.

Please consider supporting this important appeal by donating through Crowdjustice Please also spread the link throughout your networks.

For information on disabled children’s rights to housing see chapter 7 of the second edition of Disabled Children: A Legal Handbook. The section of this chapter in relation to accessing suitable housing for disabled children and families was written by M and A’s solicitor Rebekah Carrier.

Disclaimer – I work closely with the legal team for M and A. However I am not instructed on this particular case.

Disabled Children: A Legal Handbook – second edition now available

I’m thrilled / relieved to say that the second edition of Disabled Children: A Legal Handbook is now available online.

Legal Action Group published the first edition in 2010. It is astonishing how much of the text has had to be rewritten some five years later. We have had a wholly new SEN scheme under the Children and Families Act 2014, major changes to social care for disabled young people and those in transition to adulthood under the Care Act 2014 and a massive reorganisation of the health service under the Health and Social Care Act 2012. All this change has basically made the first edition a museum piece.

As well as covering these headline Acts and the relevant regulations and guidance as best we can, we also have some fantastic new content for the second edition. Camilla Parker has produced the definitive guide to decision making and issues in relation to capacity and competence. Polly Sweeney has given us an incredibly useful resource by way of a chapter on all the forms of remedies available to disabled children, young people and families (as well as updating the Education chapter). Rebekah Carrier led on major improvements to the Housing chapter, including new content on how to help make sure families get a home which is suitable for their needs.

We also had the benefit of excellent input from Martha Spurrier who updated the Health chapter and Louise Price who updated the Equality and Non-Discrimination chapter.

The co-authors remain myself, Prof Luke Clements and Dr Janet Read. If (when) people discover we’ve got anything wrong, it’s our fault.

The law affecting disabled children, young people and families is excessively and unnecessarily complex. The complexity has been made worse by the new legislation, which sits on top of old law dating back at least until 1970. We have done our best to make the book as accessible as possible while accurately stating the law. We hope the extensive cross-referencing will help non-lawyers find their way around the text.

As with the first edition, all the chapters of the book will again be published online free of charge by the Council for Disabled Children – I’ll confirm when the downloads are available. I hope anyone who would print the whole thing out would consider buying the book instead (!)

Above all, I hope the book continues to make a contribution to ensuring that disabled children, young people and families get the services and support to which they are entitled by law.

Final thought – as I tweeted earlier, we are very proud to have part of the Justice Quilt on the cover (see image above). I hope anyone who buys the book will also sign up to show their support for the Justice for LB campaign as they continue to struggle to get justice from the system.

Challenging local cuts – some key legal questions

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.

Talk to Housing and Support Alliance Independent Living conference

Absolutely cracking conference put on by the Housing and Support Alliance today. Real unity in the room that we need to fight for the right to independent living in these challenging times.

My slot was given the title ‘Rights are more important now than ever’. This is roughly what I said:

What’s the point of people with learning disabilities having legal rights? Some people (including I suspect some lawyers) don’t think that this area of law is ‘real law’. On this view, local authorities and NHS bodies should just be left to get on with providing whatever support they think they can afford, perhaps subject to inspections from official bodies to make sure things don’t get too bad.

But in the 21st century as a society we don’t think that’s good enough. Instead most of us sign up to a view that everyone, including disabled people, has fundamental rights that have to be respected.

We have these rights because we are human – that’s why they are called human rights. So when councils put disabled people in places where they are not free to leave and they are subject to continuous supervision and control (watched all the time), this is a deprivation of their liberty, the same as it would be for everyone else. It needs to be properly justified and approved by law to stop there being a breach of Article 5 of the ECHR, the right to liberty.

But we also recognise in the 21st century that if we just have one set of rights for everyone we won’t ensure that everyone’s rights are properly respected. So we reflect the fact that different groups have different needs and set out their rights – women, children and finally and most recently disabled people.

So Ian’s right* – we are part of the civil rights movement. And Gary’s right* – we need to save the Human Rights Act. I think it’s striking that two of the people fronting the Act for the Act campaign are Jan Sutton and Mark Neary. Jan is a disabled women who used the Human Rights Act to get a package of care which meant she could live with dignity. Mark, as I imagine everyone here knows, can speak to the power of the Human Rights Act in helping get his son Steven home. So the Human Rights Act is fundamental to realising disabled people’s human rights.

We now have the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (the CRPD). This is our Bill of Rights. It is a full package of rights, which if respected in every case would mean true independent living and community inclusion for every disabled person. Although it is still not part of our law, in the same way that the European Convention on Human Rights is through the Human Rights Act, the courts are giving the CRPD ever greater weight – for example, in helping find unlawful discrimination against disabled children in hospital who lose their disability benefits after 84 days.

If people think about the CRPD, they generally think about Article 19 – described as the right to independent living. But Article 19 is actually headed ‘living independently and being included in the community’. And that’s what it’s about – real inclusion, meaning ordinary lives, and the kind of love and relationships Sara** was talking about.

And then we have the next set of rights, those given by Parliament in specific acts like the Care Act 2014. These rights can move around and change in the details, but the basics endure.

For example the right for disabled people to have their eligible social care needs met in full regardless of the cost carries on from the old scheme to the Care Act 2014. However – if there are two ways of genuinely meeting the person’s needs the state can meet needs in the most cost-effective way; we see straight away how disputes arise.

But the basics aren’t enough. So there’s a right to personal care – but what about as Sally and Laura*** say, when your personal care gets ‘done’ by someone you don’t know, who only has 15 minutes with you and doesn’t have the time to get to know you or show you respect. Is that rights-respecting care? Of course not – either under the Care Act or the Human Rights Act.

So rights are always ‘important’, in the sense that if the law requires something to be done it must be done. Law trumps everything – even (surprise surprise) local authority policies.

But why might it be thought that rights are more important now than ever? The answer is obvious; because disabled people are under sustained attack from government policies that cut the specific fund to support independent living, undermine entitlements to social security, reduce access to legal aid and make it virtually impossible for councils to comply with their statutory duties through reducing their budgets.

And if it’s hard for councils now, we know that after the next spending review later this month it will almost certainly get worse. The Local Government Association say that with the expected cuts there will be:

  • Legal challenges because councils aren’t meeting their Care Act duties
  • Less dignified care
  • More unmet need

So rights matter because they are a way of fighting back. They give content to our shouts where people are living impoverished non-lives, as Sara said. If there is a legal duty to provide – for example – the personal care a disabled person needs to lead a dignified life, then the state can be made to provide it.

Tom**** seems to be saying we have to accept the cuts. I say no – we have to enforce the law. Isn’t it interesting that Tom says – rightly – that where you live is going to make a massive difference to the support you get. But yet the law of England is the law of England…

Should people keep paying for their support with their freedom – definitely not? Should the number of people getting state support be reducing, as Tom showed? Definitely not – there has been no legal change that would allow this. Indeed councils aren’t allowed any more to have only care for ‘critical’ needs. If anything eligibility criteria should be getting more generous rather than reducing.

We can’t fund fewer people or give them less support because the law doesn’t allow it. Indeed there is an open question as to whether Elaine McDonald’s case would be decided differently now the Care Act is in force. Would the Care Act well-being duty allow for the provision of incontinence pads in cases such as this.

With respect to Tom, it shouldn’t be a choice between libraries and social care. There are duties to have both. If the government wants to change that, they need to ask Parliament to change the law.

Until they do, surely soon we will see legal challenges by local authorities on the basis they haven’t been given enough money to comply with their legal duties? Indeed we already have – two councils took the government to court to get more funding to implement the Care Act, and it seemed the government backed down and provided the funding once the court granted permission for the claim to proceed.

The legal route to achieve this is judicial review – and the essential point I want to make in this short talk is that legal aid is still available to bring judicial review challenges. If commissioners are becoming a ‘hard to reach group’, sending them a pre-action letter before a judicial review often gets their attention.

So what should disabled people, families and allies do if their rights aren’t being respected? There are lots of options – contact their MP, start a petition, chain themselves to the council railings. I’m not discounting any of these – but I would say that one of the first things to do is get specialist legal advice. If you search ‘rightsinreality solicitors’ you will get a list of some of the solicitors with disability expertise who have legal aid contracts and can advise disabled people and family members. There are issues about financial eligibility – having too much money to get legal aid – but it is always worth checking this out with a specialist solicitor, don’t just use the online calculator.

I’ve never known someone with a legal problem take advice too early, because a good solicitor will always say if there are other things to do than go to court. But I’ve known plenty of people take advice too late, when much of the damage caused when rights aren’t respected has already been done.

It’s also vital to remember that for every case that goes to court there will be a hundred if not hundreds that get set sorted out well before, with a better package of support.

At the same time we need to improve and strengthen the legal framework. That is the point of the #LBBill which has been crowdsourced by the incredible Justice for LB campaign, with disabled people, family members and allies across the country. It would:

  • make the right to independent living in Article 19 of the CRPD part of English law;
  • stop there being caps on the cost of care;
  • require the state to respect people’s wishes as to where they live;
  • ensure that there is enough community support available; and
  • sort out problems with the Mental Health Act and Mental Capacity Act.

Many of these ideas can be read in to the existing law – and we need to push back when people deny that these rights exist. It is vital, as Sally says, that we don’t pretend everything is ok.

But #LBBill would make everything clear and put the rights in one place. We will have another go at getting the Bill into Parliament when the ballot for private members’ bills happens next summer. We are also very encouraged that the Law Commission is considering some of our ideas in its new scheme for managing deprivations of liberty.

We are less encouraged by the Department’s recent response to the No right ignored consultation. Issuing guidance isn’t going to do the job.

I want to end on some striking research which was covered yesterday by the brilliant team at Community Care. It concerns the new right to advocacy under the Care Act 2014, which is absolutely essential if that Act is going to make any real difference to people’s lives. Yet we learn that advocacy referrals are ‘way below’ expected levels; Reading council expected to provide 4,000 hours of Care Act advocacy this year, yet six months in they’ve only provided 170 hours. And this is a council that says it is actively promoting the new right. So we have to keep pushing to make these rights real.

My final conclusion is this. It is unacceptable for Parliament to pass laws and the government to sign treaties creating new rights, and then for funding to be cut to make it impossible for local bodies to realise them. This is the challenge for the next few years – and I believe rising to that challenge means using the law to enforce the extensive rights disabled people now have. If we bring the cases to show the law isn’t being respected then the funding we need must follow – that’s what the rule of law requires.

If government wants to reduce support for disabled people they need to get Parliament to change the law and face the consequences at the next election. We can’t let them get away with doing it by stealth through ever increasing cuts to budgets.

*Ian Birrell and Gary Bourlet co-chaired the conference (brilliantly). Ian is a journalist and Gary is from People First England (and judging by the mood of the conference a future Labour leader)

** Dr Sara Ryan gave an earlier keynote talk challenging the term ‘independent living’ being applied to ‘state supported non-lives’

***Laura Broughton and Sally Warren from Paradigm gave an earlier talk challenging people not to pretend things are as good as they can be

**** Tom Noon, Chairman of Cordis Bright, spoke powerfully about the present realities in relation to both housing and support

No voice heard, all rights ignored?

The train to the Housing and Support Alliance annual conference on independent living and people with learning disabilities seems an appropriate time to set out some thoughts on the Government’s response to the No voice unheard, no right ignored green paper.

‘Not best pleased’ would be one way to summarise the reaction from ‘stakeholders’ (ugh) to the response. Another way would involve plenty of expletives. The title of this post, without the question mark, was the pithy summary from @socialworkops on Twitter.

To understand the frustration it’s important to remember the context for the Green Paper. The former Minister, Norman Lamb MP, had reached a view that all the concordats and agreements in the world were not going to be enough and that legislation was required to give new hard-edged legal rights. There was plenty of room to debate what those rights should be (I had my tuppence here) but the principle seemed clear – new legislation was needed.

However after the General Election Mr Lamb was no longer Minister and the new government seems rather less enthusiastic about legislating in this area. The response was delayed and when it finally arrived it could be summarised (fairly?) as ‘issue some guidance and kick the rest into the long grass’. Or in the language of the consultation, the proposals ‘should be seen as part of an ongoing and evolving dialogue’ (p6, para 7). Let us know when you’re ready to stop talking and actually do something.

Another part of the frustration, as Rob Grieg puts very well here, is that we’ve had very good strategies and guidance for learning disability for years in the form of Valuing People and Valuing People Now. We don’t need another strategy or more guidance, we need some real action to deliver these shared goals.

So does the response meet the two tests in its title? In terms of voices heard, Chris Hatton has done some excellent comparisons between the Valuing People Now consultation and this consultation. Chris shows that the Department has heard from far fewer disabled people this time round – which is unacceptable as government should be getting better over time at engaging with the people their policies affect, not worse. As Chris says, when properly analysed ‘The numbers of people responding to the NVUNRI consultation start to look perilously small’.

And on the second test – well, it’s pretty clear that the Minister’s vision of new hard-edged rights has been ignored. In legal terms, guidance can be very important. It all depends on its legal force – some guidance must be followed by decision makers in the absence of a considered decision that there is good reason not to do so, other guidance (‘have regard’ guidance) is just something that decision makers must take into account.

However it’s surprising (to put it mildly) that the Department doesn’t appear to know yet which laws it will use to issue the guidance here. See para 8, p6; ‘we will rapidly determine the most appropriate powers under which to act to have the best and strongest effect’. Again, let us know when you’ve made your mind up.

So whether the guidance is likely to be legally important depends on what the Department eventually decide in relation to the powers they will use to issue it. But what about its practical effect? Experience suggests that the likely fate of more guidance is to end up on more shelves. I’m not saying for a moment that if Parliament passes new laws they are automatically followed (hello, Care Act 2014) but the chances of cultural change must be must higher when there is new primarily legislation, not merely further guidance. Surely? Please let this be true or we are wasting a lot of money on those MPs…

Also, guidance cannot create new legal rights and duties – it can only reflect existing law. So if (as we are told at p14, para 41) there was ‘strong support for proposals about NHS commissioners sharing duties to promote individual wellbeing in the Care Act 2104 with local authorities’, why not get on and legislate for this now?

It is also concerning that even phase 1 of the proposals (which includes the new guidance) will take place ‘during the current financial year (2015/16) and into 2016/17’ (p9, para 15). So we may have to wait quite a while even to see the guidance. The grass for the guidance may not be long, but it could certainly use a trim.

There are some more interesting ideas in phase 2, including the named social worker proposal (*cough* funding *cough*) and the idea of extending Care and Treatment Review principles to local authority-led placements. However there is no timeframe for this phase. We are told at para 16, p9 that ‘This phase will involve further consultation with stakeholders, with any resulting legislation to be introduced as soon as parliamentary time allows’. So not only will there be more consultation (why?), but the real mischief here is that there is no legislative slot allocated for any Bill in the Parliamentary timetable. Doesn’t look from this like there is any chance of new legislation until the end of next year at the earliest – hope I’m wrong.

Phase 3 is described as ‘more radical solutions’, however the summary only lists two:

  • ‘monitor implementation of the new service model for commissioners of health and social care services, and of CTRs on care planning, admissions, transfers and discharges and consider the need for further legislative proposals in response to review of impact’. I’ve read this three times and I’m still not sure I understand what it means.
  • ‘further consideration in principle of whether and how the Mental Health Act should apply to people with learning disabilities and/or autism and if this remains appropriate’. I know this is a controversial issue but surely the point of the Green Paper consultation was to allow the Department to reach a view on the principle here, subject to further consultation on the detail? As I read this it essentially means ‘no change’. Note also (p21, para 81) that ‘some stakeholders, especially individuals, their families and supporters, and the voluntary and community sector were keen on the principle that some sort of change was needed’ (emphasis added). No voice unheard?

So that’s the government response. I’d contrast it to the coherent package of new rights that we have set out in the second draft of #LBBill, with input from a wide range of disabled people, families, professionals and allies. Of course a key difference is that #LBBill is trying to improve the legal framework so disabled people can realise their right to independent living and community inclusion generally, and the Green Paper response is trying to fix one part of the problem for one specific group of disabled people (supposedly ‘the people who need most help’, see the response at p12, para 31). Even if I fundamentally disagree with the second approach, it is still terrible to see the opportunity to strengthen the rights of this group lost.

Two slivers of light:

  1. New guidance won’t necessarily be useless. It all depends what it says and even more importantly what statutory force it has. Let’s hope it is strong and clear guidance with the greatest possible legal force.
  2. The Law Commission are working up proposals for a new scheme to replace the Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards which may yet result in legislation that contains some of the #LBBill ideas. Given the Department’s response, there’s now a huge amount riding on the Law Commission’s draft Bill due in 2016.

Other than that, looks like it’s back to the private members’ bill ballot for #LBBill in summer 2016.

I can’t let this piece end without highlighting something said in the Minister’s foreword to the response (p4). Towards the end of his piece, the Minister (Alistair Burt MP) says; ‘As a country, a key measure of our success will be how we care for the weakest and most vulnerable in our communities’. There are so many things wrong with this sentence it’s hard to know where to begin – so I’ll just suggest that if anything makes people with learning disabilities ‘weak’ and ‘vulnerable’ it’s government policies and state actions, from cutting social security and legal aid to detaining people without lawful authority. It’s hard to see how any real change can come from a position where disabled people are perceived as weak and vulnerable victims needing to be saved.

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