Anger has greeted Wiltshire Council’s decision to cut direct payments for leisure opportunities. Gordon Carson finds out how the cuts have affected service users and staff.
Direct payments have made a huge difference to Vivien Cantrell’s quality of life, allowing her to pay for personal assistance to take art lessons and ride horses with the Riding for the Disabled Association – until she broke her back in a recent accident.
But Wiltshire Council’s decision to end direct payments to disabled people for leisure opportunities will probably prevent her from carrying on with most social activities.
“I think it’s disgraceful,” says Cantrell, who has written to prime minister Tony Blair about the council’s conduct.
Cantrell, who has been registered as disabled since 1992, has fibromyalgia, a chronic condition that causes intense musculoskeletal pain, and also suffers from ankylosing spondylitis, which she was diagnosed with in her late teens. Now she fears her mental health will suffer because of the inevitable reduction in her social life.
She has had to stop using her personal assistant of two years, Colin Biggs, meaning she will find it difficult to make her way around college and travel anywhere (although she can drive herself, she needs his help to get in and out of her wheelchair). She’ll also lose a companion with whom she has clearly struck up a close relationship.
It won’t be so bad in the summer, she says, because at least she can sit in the back garden of her house in Corsham, four miles from Chippenham, where the temperature is nudging 30 degrees centigrade when I visit her. But she fears for her health in the winter when she will be stuck in the house.
The term “leisure opportunities” creates the wrong impression. It’s not as if this direct payment allows disabled people to live a life of leisure – in reality, it just helps them enjoy some of the activities that other people take for granted.
The 114 people receiving leisure payments in Wiltshire had been assessed as needing day care but elected to take direct payments to give them control of their lives.
Alison Barrett, who received the leisure payment, has collected letters from about 20 other people affected by the cut as she builds evidence to present to the council and to use in complaints procedures.
Many disabled people in Wiltshire opted to use direct payments because the council’s former director of adult and community services, Ray Jones, promoted them heavily. But he left the post in April when he agreed he was not the right person to make substantial cuts to adults’ services to tackle a near £7m shortfall caused by increased demand and cost shunting from the NHS.
Cantrell and Barrett only learned of the decision when they received a letter at the end of June from John Thomson, Wiltshire Council’s deputy leader and cabinet member for adult care, informing them that their payments would cease after July.
Barrett, also vice-chair of the Wiltshire Centre for Independent Living, says: “They could have written to people and said ‘we are struggling, we need to make cuts, you will be reviewed and you may find your care package will change, but we will put you on a waiting list for when things improve’, but there has been nothing.”
Barrett has been on direct payments, including for personal care as well as leisure opportunities, for nearly five years and employs four staff. She’ll just about be able to cope with the end of her £33-a-week leisure payment because her £600-a-month personal care payment is topped up with Independent Living Fund cash.
Like Cantrell, she has used her leisure opportunity payment to go to college – she does sugarcraft at Chippenham College and has also taken her maths GCSE – and fears this may be a casualty of the cut. She has been in a wheelchair for seven years, has no feeling from the hips down and has a blood disorder. “But that doesn’t mean my brain has gone,” she says.
She is also determined not to rely on the goodwill of friends. “My friends still work so I can’t expect them to be able to take me anywhere during the week,” she says. “You also can’t expect people to take you somewhere and not pay their petrol.”
Wiltshire’s cuts are also placing major stress on staff, according to Janet Dapson, secretary of Unison’s Wiltshire Council branch. “Terms like gut-wrenching are overused but this has got to be one of the most gut-wrenching experiences that our members are going through. Front-line staff are having to pass on unpalatable news to service users and are taking all the flack.”
The money Colin Biggs earned helping Vivien Cantrell for 15 or so hours a week helped him break even and gave him the flexible employment he wanted in his fifties after a career in electronics.
“For years I worked up to 60 hours a week,” he says. “I don’t want that now. There are a lot of people like me who are happy to work 15 hours a week. We have a good relationship, it has done Viv good.”
Biggs accuses the council of “picking on the people who can least afford it”, and has a dire warning about the impact of the cuts.
“Lives will be put at risk by this decision.”
Wiltshire has been at the forefront of direct payments and uptake has soared.
2006: 387 (as of 31 March)