An end to a means

Life might be set to get a little easier for some families with disabled children as last week saw the end of means testing of the grant that helps families in England pay for adaptations to their home. From now on parents of disabled children who apply for the disabled facilities grant (DFG) will not have to worry about whether their income puts funding out of reach. 

The DFG is administered by housing authorities in close conjunction with social services. Occupational therapists assess and recommend the adaptations required.

This reform came about after the government commissioned a team from the University of Bristol to review the DFG. The findings were published in October,(1) and one of the main recommendations was the removal of the means test. Such a step brings England in line with Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland families can apply for a discretionary non-means-tested grant under the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. 

For families in England who had been refused a grant because their income was deemed too high, this change in policy could lead to a surge of applications. Virginia Shaw, director of Hodis, the National Disabled Persons Housing Service, says that Hodis has anecdotal evidence of people not bothering to apply for the grant, or dropping out half way through, because of the strictness of the test.

Understandably, the abolition of the means test has been welcomed by all in the social care sector. Learning difficulties charity Mencap, along with 14 other organisations, spearheaded a campaign for the means test to be dropped. Chief executive Jo Williams, says: “It is really exciting and a step in the right direction.”

But despite the good news, families of disabled children will still have to find some money to contribute towards the costs of adapting their homes. This is because the current grant limit a family can receive to make adaptations is £25,000, which in many cases does not go very far. The Bristol University review found the average cost of an extension on a house is £35,000 and that building costs have risen by 9 per cent in the past three years.

Frances Heywood, research fellow at Bristol University’s School of Policy Studies, led the review of the DFG. She voices the opinion of many when she says that despite the scrapping of the means test, the grant ceiling is not high enough. “The government, and everyone else in the sector, knows that it is not covering the basic need for the most seriously disabled.”

Williams agrees that families with disabled children are going to have to fund some of their adaptations and says this is why Mencap is campaigning for the grant to be raised to £50,000.

Scrapping the means test itself will save councils some money although, according to Bristol University, the cost to the government of scrapping it will be £12m a year. According to Brian McKeever, co-chair of Homes Fit for Children, it costs local authorities £1m each year to conduct the test.

But will housing and local authorities have enough money to allocate the grant to all those who apply for it? In September housing minister Baroness Andrews said the government will “substantially” increase the ring-fenced budget for the grant from April 2006 and told the House of Lords: “I am satisfied that this increase will be sufficient to accommodate this important change.” The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which runs the DFG programme in England, has increased the budget for the scheme from £104m in 2005-6 to £121m in the next two years.

Despite this £17m increase, many people remain unconvinced that supply will meet demand. Jill Harrison, director of external affairs at the charity Contact A Family is concerned that as more families apply for the funding, it will take longer to obtain a final decision. “There is the possibility that local authorities will extend waiting times in order to ration grants if they feel they have insufficient resources. This could increase waiting times, which is the last thing anyone in the sector, or parents themselves, want.” Local authorities that struggled to meet demand for the grant when the means test existed are still going to struggle now, adds McKeever.

Adequate funding is also something the Local Government Association is perturbed about. Mike Belleraby, LGA DFG review representative and Kingston Council assistant environmental health officer, argues the change will result in higher costs for local authorities. He adds: “It is hoped that the government will take these increased costs into account as part of future financial settlements.”

If local and housing authorities have trouble providing the grant to all those who require it, is there another way for families to have their needs assessed? Williams believes there is, citing the Belgian example that Philippa Russell, a commissioner for the Disability Rights Commission, recently presented to government. In Belgium families of disabled children are assessed just once before decisions are made on their entitlement to services. Williams says: “In Belgium people don’t have to keep going through assessments as a number of things follow as a right. We are a long way from that in the UK.”

Having a single assessment would benefit families who find having to repeat personal information to numerous professionals “tedious, intrusive, humiliating and wearing of the soul”, adds Heywood.

Disabled children and their families face many  challenges, and at last the government has offered them a helping hand by abolishing the DFG means test. Whether in practice enough families are able to access the funding remains to be seen.

(1) Reviewing the Disabled Facilities Grant Programme, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, October 2005

Too much to borrow
You wouldn’t think that Angela Stewart-Paul and her husband Curtis would be eligible for a loan of £68,000. Yet the couple – who earn £45,000 between them working part-time as a teacher and administrator respectively – were told this was the case after social services assessed them for the disabled facilities grant. 

They applied for the grant two years ago to adapt the downstairs of their house because their 10-year-old son Patrick has Duchenne muscular dystrophy and is autistic. They wanted to create a ground floor bedroom and bathroom for Patrick so that they no longer had to carry his eight stone frame upstairs on their backs – Angela only weighs eight and a half stone herself. He sleeps with the couple in their bedroom because of his health problems while their 12-year-old son Joe, who has Asperger’s syndrome, has his own room.

Three months after they applied for the grant, social services did an assessment and means test of the couple and came to the conclusion that they could borrow £68,000 from a private lender to make the necessary changes to their home. This outcome surprised Angela and so she approached her mortgage provider who reassured her there was no way they could borrow that amount of money on their income. The couple did not apply for the loan and now that the means test has been abolished will reapply to their local authority for the grant.

Angela describes the experience as “an absolute nightmare” and says the family just about keeps its head above water at the end of every month.

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