Disability user groups are rallying round to defend the attendance allowance from proposals that could see it absorbed into the social care kitty. Mark Hunter reports
The slow-burning furore over government claims that there is a case for integrating disability benefits such as attendance allowance (AA) into the general social care system, appears to have caught many charities and service user groups on the hop.
Most adopted a low-key response to the proposal when it was published in July’s green paper Shaping the Future of Care Together.
They pointed out that the plan is tentative, open to consultation and contained within the “greenest of green papers”. The government has said it will retain the current benefit system’s flexibility and promised that no one currently in receipt of the attendance allowance will lose it.
Moreover, the policy is highly unlikely to survive a change of government. In short, it will probably never happen. As a spokesperson for Age Concern and Help the Aged says: “We absolutely support the attendance allowance and the fact that it is flexible and not means tested. But at the moment we are awaiting further developments from the government, because the last thing we want to do is to alarm people who currently receive these benefits by suggesting that they will lose them, because they won’t.”
However, in the weeks that followed the green paper’s publication, a groundswell of dissent began to form. On blogs and message boards, campaigners and service users expressed fears that unless the proposals were vigorously resisted, it would offer a green light to the next government, whatever its complexion, to declare open season on AA and similar benefits such as disability living allowance.
The Royal National Institute for the Blind, which estimates that over 53,000 blind and partially sighted people currently receive AA, started a campaign in its defence.
“The important thing about AA is that it’s not means-tested and it’s not based on your national insurance contributions which obviously a lot of disabled people don’t have,” says Geoff Fimister the RNIB’s campaigns officer.
“It’s also been called the original personal budget because it’s up to the individual what they spend it on, whether that’s on taxis to help them get about or paying for some extra practical help in the home. Research has also shown that a lot of people spend their AA on extra heating and food so its role in helping people on low incomes shouldn’t be underestimated.”
Fimister believes that if the benefit were dissolved into the social care kitty, these funds would become means-tested, cash-limited and rationed. He has no doubt that the plan is a cost-cutting exercise. At a forecasted £5bn for the financial year 2009-10, real term spending on AA in the UK has almost doubled in the past eight years.
“After spending billions on the bankers’ bale out, the government has got its beady eye on the AA as a way of plugging the gap in the social care system,” says Fimister.
“They’ve said that existing claimants will be protected, although they haven’t said how. But that’s not the point. It’s the future we are talking about and if blind and partially sighted people have to take their chances with the social care rationing system then experience suggests that many will lose out.”
The offending paragraph in the green paper states there is “a case for drawing some funding streams together” of which the AA is given as an example. But, in fact, the case for integrating the AA into social services was examined thoroughly only last year by the Institute for Social and Economic Research.
Its report comprehensively rejected the idea, concluding that while a transfer of resources from social security benefits to social services might deliver more care to a small number of very disabled people, a much larger number of moderately disabled people would lose out. The move would also increase the amount of means-testing and reduce disabled people’s sense of independence.
Who pays for funding?
Author of the report Professor Richard Berthoud says: “No one disagrees with the need for a better system of paying for social care. But who should pay for the increased public funding of much needed care for very old or severely disabled people? Should it be taxpayers in the middle and upper ends of the income distribution? Or should it be other disabled people?”
The green paper’s consultation period ends on 13 November. Spurred into action by their own forums and message boards, most disability user groups have now followed the RNIB’s lead and issued statements in support of attendance allowance.
The message to any government eyeing up attendance allowance is clear. Hands off!
What is attendence allowance?
The AA is a tax-free benefit for people aged 65 or over who need help with personal care because they are physically disabled or mentally ill. About 1.58 million people currently claim it; two-thirds are aged over 80. AA is not means-tested and is usually awarded without a medical examination.
It is paid directly to claimants who may spend it on whatever they like. Higher rate AA is £70.35 per week; lower rate is £47.10 per week. AA may also act as a gateway to other benefits such as housing benefit, council tax benefit and pension credit.
Allowance provides independence and peace of mind
Linda Trench was 79 when she was diagnosed with the eye condition age-related macular degeneration in 2001. Today she is registered as partially sighted but determined to maintain her independence. For the past three months she has been receiving the lower rate AA of £47.10 per week.
“It’s already made a huge difference,” she says. “The biggest thing is the peace of mind.
I’m determined to manage on my own so it’s a great relief to know that I don’t have to depend on others. I’m spoiled rotten by my neighbours and my daughter but one hates to ask too much of people. Now I can easily take a taxi if I need to get somewhere. I wouldn’t dream of wasting the money. I’ll use it to help with things related to my condition, like getting to the hospital. But I wouldn’t use it to go and see a friend.”
Trench was helped to apply for the AA by the RNIB’s benefits adviser Jean Welch through the charity’s Here to Help partnership with British Gas. Now in its seventh year the partnership has reclaimed over £2m in unclaimed benefits for blind and partially-sighted people.
“I had actually applied for AA some time before but been turned down,” says Trench. “It’s a very long form and I suppose I must have filled it in wrong. But Jean helped me do it again and even though nothing had changed, they decided I was eligible this time.”
The allowance payments were backdated, giving Trench a lump sum of over £1,000. This allowed her to buy a Clearview video magnifier that, used with a computer, is designed to help visually impaired people read text.
“I bought it second-hand for £800 which I couldn’t have afforded in a million years if I hadn’t had the allowance,” she says. “It really is marvellous and means that I can read letters and bank statements. I used to use a hand magnifier but it was very slow and you have to hunch right over, which gets rather uncomfortable after a while. Now I can read sitting up.”For more information on the RNIB British Gas Here to Help programme call RNIB on 0845 330 4897
This article appears in the 17 September issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Alarm over allowance