The bonfire of services in Wiltshire is not the only one burning furiously at a time when councils across the country have plenty of their own services to discard as they try to tackle financial deficits. But Wiltshire’s particular blaze, licking at the heels of disabled people who have much to lose, is symbolic. A quality that marked out Ray Jones, until recently the county’s adult and community services director, was that he never forgot his social work values even as he made the inevitable compromises that go with senior management. Other directors could claim the same, but few can say they have done as much to promote independent living among disabled people.
It seems the council is determined to set these achievements into reverse. A £7m deficit and flagrant cost-shunting by the NHS have led to the abolition of direct payments for leisure purposes and cuts in funding for Wiltshire’s popular user involvement network. It is directly opposed to the service ethos which Jones said in Community Care (Social work must brace itself) had moved from “‘doing to’ people, to ‘doing for’ people, to ‘doing with’ people, to being alongside people as an ally, advocate and assistant as [they] gain more choice and control within their lives.”
It is not an excuse that the scrapped direct payments were “only” for leisure. For some of the disabled people who get these payments, leisure opportunities make life worth living and may be what makes it possible to have a social life or even an education. Although there is evidence that the national uptake of direct payments has grown substantially in the past year, it has done so from a low base and even these gains will be jeopardised if, as seems likely, the Wiltshire offensive is replicated elsewhere. The experience of many local centres for independent living, often the first target for cuts, hardly inspires confidence.
Ironically, the Disabled Persons (Independent Living) Bill, intended to strike a blow against institutional care, has just had its second reading in the Lords. It is much-needed legislation. As new learning difficulties tsar Nicola Smith says in her interview in this issue, social attitudes still prevent disabled people from enjoying independent lives. She, for one, will not stand by as their dreams go up in smoke.
Wiltshire’s disabled people pay the price of cost shunting and deficit
Nicola Smith – new learning disabilities ‘tsar’