Disability fund heads for massive underspend: Tough new criteria are blamed for the low take-up of grants from a pounds 4m scheme to aid handicapped people living at home. Lynn Eaton reports

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A pounds 4m FUND set up to enable severely disabled people to continue to live in their own homes has spent only pounds 150,000 in its first nine months and is heading for a massive underspend by the end of its first year.

The Independent Living Fund 1993 was introduced last April when local authorities officially took over responsibility for community care. Its aim is to help seriously ill or disabled people buy extra help to supplement the care they already receive from their local council. But if grants continue to be given at the present rate, it will have spent only pounds 500,000 by the end of the financial year.

By 1 December, nine months into the new fund, only 93 people had received aid from it. A further 54 had been made offers but not yet taken them up. Of the 686 applications received, 195 - more than a quarter - have been rejected or withdrawn. The rest are still being processed.

The fund was introduced by Nicholas Scott, Minister for Disabled People, after an outcry when the old Independent Living Fund closed. That fund, which had a pounds 97m budget, allowed people to buy in their own care package without having to go to their local council first. But ministers argued this was not appropriate under the new community care arrangements.

Applicants to the fund have to meet tough new criteria, which partly accounts for the low take-up. They must be over 16 and under 65; already receiving the higher rate of Disability Living Allowance; receiving income support, with savings below pounds 8,000; and be capable of living in the community for at least six months, a factor which can rule out terminally ill people.

But hardest of all, they must first be receiving pounds 200 worth of services from their local council. In 32 per cent of cases turned down, the council had failed to provide that level of service, or was unable to cost them accurately. Margaret Baldwin, the fund's director, admits there will be a significant underspend this year, though she blames it partly on the fact the trust only got under way in the summer. Pauline Thompson, director of the Disability Income Group and a trustee of the original fund, was disappointed at the news. 'The pounds 200 threshold is too high a hurdle for people to get over,' she said.

Roy Taylor, chair of the Association of Directors of Social Services disability committee, believes the threshold should be revised downwards to pounds 100. 'There are people desperately in need who would have got help under the old Independent Living Fund but who have disappeared because we can't get a high enough care package worked out,' he said.

Alan Howarth, Tory MP for Stratford-upon-Avon, and a keen supporter of direct cash payments to disabled people, said it was disappointing.

'There are a considerable number of people with severe disablities who badly need the help the fund is there to provide. I hope the trustees will make a major effort to make sure clients do get the benefit of that funding. Clearly the mix of services from the local authority and the cash support from the fund is not working satisfactorily,' he said.

Labour's spokesperson for community care, David Hinchliffe, said he was not surprised at the low take- up, adding that there was 'utter confusion on the current role of the fund'. He said with the change that has taken place since last April 'we have seen a very effective scheme radically reduced and made completely ineffective'.