This week sees yet another high court case against the government’s decision to close the Independent Living Fund (ILF) and transfer the money to local authorities. I have previously written about the problems with the fund and why the fund should close, and so now I wish to discuss what could exactly happen if the old guard disability movement campaigning to save the fund got their own way and the fund was forced to stay open.
The very first thing to say that if the fund was forced to stay open, under whoever was in power, it would certainly not be business as usual. The fund and its users have been protected from cuts and the realities of government pressures for the life of this parliament. If the fund has to continue in the hands of DWP, including the now infamous Lord Freud, it would likely experience a major transformation to reduce costs and bring it in line with a more coherent DWP mind set, which is frankly terrible for users.
I believe what is happening with Access to Work, where the soul of helping and supporting people as been replaced by a sanitised entitlement procedure that is built upon distrust and disharmony, is a very good indicator of what is likely to happen. I am convinced that whoever the next government is, Tory, Labour or Raving Mad Loony Party, it is very likely elements of the fund, if not the entire fund, will be contracted out to a big corporate provider like ATOS, Capita or now Maximus. And considering the recent handling of contracts by these giants, we can easily predict the chaos that is likely to happen.
If for one moment we believe the fund has been successful in delivering independent living, which I believe is very far from the case for many users, the principles of independent living and social care would quickly be eroded and replaced with a medical model approach to assessment, causing a significant backwards step in the liberation of people with high support needs. It is clear that DWP is now a toxic organisation that feeds upon distrust and it is too stretched with conflicting government priorities to manage anything. The law and guidance may be sound, but the welfare reforms, whether you like them or not, have not had a fair chance to succeed because DWP is not fit for purpose. Even if the next government restructured the department in some way, it may be a decade before it is effectively functioning again.
Meanwhile the last place I want my support needs to be assessed is at the hands of DWP. Even when those who want the fund to stay open acknowledge the fund is already not achieving independent living for most of its users, the argument always seems to be that it is better than the alternative. The disability community as a whole seems to have an unfairly dim view of councils. Many ILF users have not dealt with councils since the 1980s, before a whole raft of major changes and improvements. The residential care they worry about does not exist, especially for people with physical impairments of working age, and more importantly noone can legally put anyone in residential care, only offer it.
The bottom line is if I am going to have to fight to keep my support, I would much prefer to be fighting my local council as opposed the DWP. Under DWP, neither my Access to Work or my ILF is anything more than a discretionary grant with no legal basis. DWP is a faceless bureaucracy with people and offices across the country, so I have no idea who I am fighting. Under local council Direct Payments, I have rights to my support enshrined in law. I know where the people assessing me work and I know they will meet me face to face. I know who the director of social services is, as well as the Leader of the Council and indeed every councillor. I can visit them, make noise in the local media people care about, and more importantly people have to look me in the eye!
I know there is a risk in the closure of the fund but I think it is an opportunity for independent living to flourish as many users may gain access to new services for the first time. The alternative, saving the fund, is really not worth thinking about, as it will certainly mean the end of independent living. Unfortunately many of the users that worry about the closure have been misinformed of the issues and the assumption ‘business as usual’ was an option, which is not the case.