Councils can axe home helps, say law lords

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Local authorities may withdraw home help services from the sick and disabled if they cannot afford to provide them, the House of Lords ruled yesterday.

In a ruling of vital importance to the Government's community care policy, the Law Lords, in a 3-2 majority decision, held that a person's home help needs "cannot sensibly be assessed without having some regard to the cost".

Gloucestershire County Council and the Secretary of State for Health, Stephen Dorrell, were challenging a Court of Appeal decision last year. In 1994 the council had withdrawn services to 1,500 disabled people after pounds 2.5m cuts in government funding. An appeal, backed by the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation, was brought on behalf of one of those affected, 81-year-old Michael Barry, who had suffered a heart attack and a stroke. He also has poor eyesight and uses a walking frame as a result of a fractured hip.

From 1992, the council had organised home care, visiting Mr Barry twice a week to do shopping, laundry and cleaning as well as providing a meals on wheels service. But in September 1994, the council informed him that cleaning and laundry services would be withdrawn after government cuts which left it with "nowhere near enough to meet demand".

The 1970 Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act states that, where a local authority is satisfied that it necessary to meet the needs of a disabled person, it "shall make arrangements" for one or more of a range of specified services to be provided. The High Court ruled that it would be "impractical and unrealistic" to stop councils making cuts if their budgets were reduced.

But last June, Court of Appeal judges ruled that the council was wrong to consider its own financial resources when assessing the needs of disabled people and deciding whether there would have to be cuts.

Lord Nicholls said yesterday: "A person's need for a particular type or level of service cannot be decided in a vacuum from which all considerations of cost have been expelled."

But one of the dissenting Law Lords, Lord Lloyd of Berwick said the council was left in a "wretched position ... through no fault of their own"

"Even if the council wished to raise the money itself to meet the need by increasing council tax, it would be unable to do so by reason of government- imposed rate-capping," he said.

He said he had read the testimony of the council's director of social services, and its chief executive, "with something approaching despair."

"Most depressing of all" were councillors' feelings of "abhorrence" at the tough choices that had had to be made. A disabled person's needs "cannot be affected by the local authority's inability to meet those needs", he said. "Every child needs a new pair of shoes from time to time. The need is not less because his parents cannot afford them." Lord Lloyd said the decision had enabled Gloucestershire and other local authorities to escape from the "impossible situation" in which they had been placed by lack of central government funding. "The passing of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 was a noble aspiration." he wrote. "Having willed the end, Parliament must be asked to provide the means."