Court ruling deals blow to self-advocacy movement

A high court ruling has delivered a blow to the self-advocacy movement, and the way in which user-led organisations are viewed by the legal system and local authorities.

People First Lambeth (PFL), which is run by people with learning difficulties, had sought a judicial review of the decision of Lambeth council not to renew annual contracts worth £118,000, funding which made up 94 per cent of PFL’s annual revenue, placing a huge question-mark over its survival.

Mr Justice Ouseley this week found that the council had breached its disability equality duty – under the old Disability Discrimination Act – by failing to pay due regard to the impact of the cuts on disabled people, when it made the decision to remove the funding early in 2011.

Although a council officer had carried out an assessment of the equality impact of the cuts, elected councillors had not examined that assessment themselves.

But because the council later took steps to re-examine the impact of their decision – after PFL launched its judicial review – the judge decided that the cuts to PFL’s funding were now lawful and could go ahead as planned.

The case was taken by disabled activist Gina Barrett, a director of PFL and a leading self-advocate.

She said she was “upset” by the court’s decision although she was glad that the judge had decided the council’s original actions had been unlawful.

She said: “I am glad I have stood up to them because I didn’t think I would have the guts to do it because no-one else with learning difficulties has taken a council to court themselves [over services run by people with learning difficulties].

“I showed them what they did was wrong. It was an organisation that I really loved and that is the most key thing.”

PFL’s lawyers had also challenged the council’s later consultation efforts, and used the new Equality Act to argue that removing the funding had made it impossible for PFL members to secure the support they needed to take part.

Although the council eventually appointed a part-time “user involvement worker”, that person was not employed or managed by PFL.

Louise Whitfield, a judicial review expert with Pierce Glynn solicitors, the firm representing Barrett, said the court had decided that, when deciding on the impact of a decision to cut services on disabled people, the identity of the provider of those services was a factor, but not a crucial one.

She said they had argued on behalf of PFL that whether the provider of the advocacy service was a user-led organisation was a “significant issue” in deciding if the council had breached its legal duty.

Whitfield said it was “helpful” that the judge had decided that the council’s original actions were unlawful, but she added: “What is unhelpful is that the judge did downplay the significance of a user-led organisation.”

Barrett and her lawyers are now considering whether to seek an appeal against the court’s decision.

Cllr Jim Dickson, Lambeth council’s cabinet member for health and wellbeing, welcomed the ruling, and added: “We have been forced to make very difficult decisions across all areas of service delivery including adult services and social care.

“The government has forced severe budget cuts upon all local authorities, which resulted in the unprecedented reductions witnessed across all council budgets since February last year.”

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Advertisements

Self-advocacy campaigner takes organisation’s fight for survival to high court

A disabled activist with one of the country’s leading self-advocacy organisations has spoken of her pride in taking her council to court over its decision to remove their funding.

Gina Barrett and colleagues from People First Lambeth (PFL) were in the high court this week for a judicial review of Lambeth council’s decision not to renew annual contracts with PFL worth £118,000.

The judge’s ruling is not expected until next month, but Barrett said she was “happy” that she had taken the council to court.

She said: “It was a good thing for me to do because not many people with learning difficulties go to court.

“It was good in a way that I did it for other people that have got learning difficulties. I felt good because it was a challenge for me to do it, but I found a good lawyer who was on my side.”

She said it was important to take a stand against the council because PFL was the only organisation run by people with learning difficulties in Lambeth.

Barrett said she had felt “upset and horrible” at the council’s “hurtful” decision to withdraw PFL’s funding and “pay someone else to do what we have done”, rather than paying people with learning difficulties to do the work themselves.

The council funding made up 94 per cent of PFL’s annual revenue, and Barrett and other people with learning difficulties from Lambeth are now fighting for the survival of their organisation, which was set up in 1985.

Louise Whitfield, a judicial review expert with Pierce Glynn solicitors, the firm representing Barrett, said: “It is important and significant for people with learning disabilities that the case was brought by a person with a learning disability.”

Barrett’s lawyers claim the council failed in its public sector equality duty – under the Disability Discrimination Act – to pay due regard to the impact of the cuts on disabled people and the need to promote disability equality, and to consult or engage with PFL members, before making the decision.

Whitfield said it was one of the first cases to look at these duties in respect of people with learning difficulties.

She said: “If you decide to consult, you have to do it fairly, and obviously if your consultees have particular needs you need to address those needs to make the consultation process fair and lawful, and part of our argument was that that had not been done.”

They also challenged the council’s continuing consultation efforts, using the new Equality Act to argue that removing PFL’s funding had made it impossible for members to secure the support they needed to take part in the process.

Although the council eventually responded to these later concerns by appointing a “user involvement worker”, this was only a part-time post and the person was not employed or managed by PFL.

The case is just the latest in a series of high-profile judicial reviews of decisions by public bodies to slash services and spending following huge cuts by the coalition government.

Lambeth council declined to comment.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Disabled activist wins right to challenge council cuts

A disabled activist with one of the country’s leading self-advocacy organisations has won the right to challenge in the high court a council’s decision to remove its funding.

Georgina Barrett has secured the right to a full judicial review hearing of Lambeth council’s decision not to renew annual contracts worth £118,000 with People First Lambeth (PFL).

The funding made up 94 per cent of PFL’s annual revenue, and Barrett and other people with learning difficulties from Lambeth are now fighting for the survival of their organisation, which was set up in 1985.

Her lawyers will claim the council failed in its public sector equality duty – under the Disability Discrimination Act – to pay due regard to the impact of the cuts on disabled people and the need to promote disability equality, and to consult or engage with PFL members, before making the decision.

Earlier this year, the council refused to provide Disability News Service with a copy of the equality impact assessment it claims it carried out on its proposed cuts to adult social care services, which were agreed on 23 February.

But Barrett’s lawyers will also be challenging the council’s continuing efforts to decide on future services. They will use the new Equality Act to argue that removing PFL’s funding has made it impossible for members to secure the support they need to take part in the new consultation process.

Christina Watkins, a PFL member who attended the court hearing, told Disability News Service afterwards: “People First Lambeth had all their funding stopped by the council. They never even told us, they just done it. It’s disgusting what they have done.

“It has very badly affected everybody here. This is a lovely organisation. We have got nowhere else to go. You have got to stand up for your rights.”

Wenda Gordon, another member who attended the hearing, said: “They have cut away our support. We can’t take part in decisions and they took our voice away and we are not happy with it.

“I am angry and upset. We sit at home and do nothing. It’s not right. We try to keep People First open so people with learning difficulties can come here. I think it’s right that we do that.”

Jennifer Taylor, who also attended the court hearing, added: “I am pleased because we have got somewhere. We are people with learning difficulties and we have a right to advocacy and support. All they want is money, money, money. It’s disgusting what they have done.”

She called on other self-advocacy organisations to take similar action. She said: “They should stand up and fight for their court case like we did.”

The case is likely to be heard in the high court in London this autumn. It is the latest in a series of high-profile judicial reviews of decisions by public bodies to slash services and spending following huge cuts by the coalition government.

But this will be one of the first cases to challenge a council using the Equality Act’s new single equality duty, which came into force on 5 April.

It will also be one of the first to suggest that a public body has failed to have due regard through its decisions to the need to encourage disabled people to participate in public life.

Louise Whitfield, a judicial review expert with Pierce Glynn solicitors, the firm representing Barrett, said: “The whole point of having the services at PFL was so people with learning difficulties could engage in decision-making. But the council has now taken that away without consulting anyone.”

In order to secure its survival, PFL is relying on volunteers, just one paid, part-time support worker, and temporary office space secured at a peppercorn rent.

Lambeth council said it could not comment on the judicial review itself, but a spokesman said it was “facing some extremely difficult and painful choices” due to the “unprecedented £37 million of government cuts to Lambeth’s funding this year”.

He said the council “will still be spending more than £30 million next year on vital services for people with learning disabilities, including supporting a range of independent organisations that work across Lambeth, but for a number of reasons we had to take the decision not to renew our contracts with People First Lambeth”.

He said the council was beginning a consultation on “alternative services, to which all users of People First services are invited”, with the process supported by an independent “user involvement worker”.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Questions raised over council’s equality impact refusal

A local authority has refused to explain why it will not release an assessment of how its savage spending cuts will affect disabled people and other minority groups.

Members of Lambeth council pushed through a package of spending cuts last month, including a decision not to renew annual contracts worth £118,000 with People First Lambeth (PFL).

Without the funding, PFL – one of the country’s leading self-advocacy organisations – said it would be forced to close.

But the council has refused to provide Disability News Service with a copy of the equality impact assessment (EIA) it claims it carried out on its proposed cuts to adult social care services – including PFL’s funding – which were agreed by the council on 23 February.

A Lambeth council spokesman said: “We are satisfied that we have fulfilled our EIA requirements. An EIA was carried out as part of the overall savings proposals for Adults and Community Services.”

He said the assessment – a legal requirement which obliges public bodies such as councils to assess the impact of policies on disabled people and other groups – was “in the process of undergoing some reviews but it will be available for public inspection very shortly”.

But one leading lawyer said the council’s failure to provide the EIA could open it up to a judicial review.

Louise Whitfield, a judicial review expert with solicitors Pierce Glynn, who specialises in public sector equality duties, said: “If the final decision has been taken, the EIA that was considered when that decision was taken should have been complete so it could inform that decision properly, and it also should be in the public domain.”

She added: “It seems very odd to me to suggest that they should not publish any of it or they are finishing it off. How can they finish something that should have been in front of decision-makers?”

Whitfield, who represented the charity that last month succeeded in a judicial review of London Councils’ decision to slash spending on its grants programme, said she believed Lambeth council’s apparent failure to complete and publish an EIA could provide grounds for a judicial review.

Anne Kane, policy manager for Inclusion London, added: “We have concerns about the devastating impact on equality that public sector cuts are going to have, including those local government cuts that are passing on the impact of central government cuts.

“We would want to be sure that all public authorities were properly assessing the impact on equality of any cuts… and being transparent in how they are doing that.”

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Council delivers death blow to leading self-advocacy organisation

One of the country’s leading self-advocacy organisations will be forced to close next month, after a council withdrew its funding without any warning.

Members of People First Lambeth (PFL), run by people with learning difficulties and set up in 1985, said the decision by Lambeth council not to renew annual contracts worth £118,000 meant it would close on 31 March.

The funding makes up 94 per cent of PFL’s annual revenue. Two people with learning difficulties will lose their jobs.

PFL members have trained doctors and other public sector workers, run support groups, and have written a book which is on the Royal College of Nursing’s recommended reading list.

PFL has worked with organisations such as the government’s Valuing People Now team and the Social Care Institute for Excellence.

The council’s decision came only two months after PFL members wrote to the prime minister and deputy prime minister to protest about the impact of the coalition’s spending cuts on people with learning difficulties. They have yet to receive a reply.

Georgina Barret, one of PFL’s members, said: “As far as I am concerned they sit on their butts and do all the paperwork but they don’t come and see how we operate and what we do.

“My message would be: you are not going to find an organisation like this and you are going to regret what you have done. It is very sad.”

Jennifer Taylor, another member, said: “I think it is very sad why the government have done this to us. I am disgusted. Where are people with learning difficulties going to go and what are they going to do with their lives?”

Lambeth council said it had to find savings of £79 million over three years, about a third of its budget, due to government cuts.

Cllr Jim Dickson, the council’s cabinet member for health and wellbeing, said: “We’ve worked hard to protect funding for dozens of organisations that do important work with vulnerable adults across the borough, but for a number of reasons, we have had to take the decision not to renew our contracts with People First Lambeth.”

He said the council planned to cut £200,000 from services for people with learning difficulties, less than one per cent of its spending in this area.

He added: “We will of course be working with People First Lambeth to make sure their clients are directed to other sources of support.”

To watch a film made by PFL about the decision to remove its funding, visit: www.youtube.com/watch?v=os9_5pmXUUw

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com