Axing the Independent Living Fund without a plausible alternative will hurt vulnerable people while saving very little money
That test, he admitted, “is even more difficult in difficult times, when difficult decisions have to be taken.”
We are certainly living in difficult times, with plenty of difficult decisions to be made about Government spending. But while many of the welfare reforms have been popular with voters on all sides of the political divide, there is now a big question whether the latest decision passes the Prime Minister’s own personal “test of a good society”.
Today sees the end of the Independent Living Fund, a little-known benefit that affects only 18,000 people across the nation and costs taxpayers £320m a year.
David Cameron and George Osborne (Photo: Getty Images)
The fund, started 30 years ago, makes payments of, typically, £450 to £500 a week to people with severe disabilities to enable them to live more independent lives. It funds the cost of carers and personal assistants to provide daily help with their everyday needs, even allowing some recipients to go out to work.
Yet, in these “difficult times”, the ILF will cease to exist at midnight tonight.Disability campaigners, who have fought hard against its end, say this will be catastrophic for some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
Their worries have been brushed aside by the Government as “scaremongering”. This is, Ministers insist, a mere administrative change that won’t leave anyone out of pocket. From tomorrow all the funds will simply be transferred to local councils for them to manage.
So why is this such a test of Mr Cameron’s good society? The answer is, as always, in the small print.
Yes, the fund’s cash is being transferred to local councils from tonight but, with just hours to go, those councils have not yet been told exactly how much money they will each get.
In addition to that, the money – which will come from the Department for Communities and Local Government rather than the Department for Work and Pensions – will not be legally ringfenced for the severely disabled. Indeed, only one third of councils have so far committed to spending the money as intended rather than simply adding the cash to their general budget.
And, given that the social care for the elderly provided by many cash-strapped councils is already scandalously poor, with carers able to spend only minutes with frail and vulnerable pensioners, we can hardly hold out much hope that the care given to the severely disabled will meet anything but their most basic needs.
Finally, to add insult to injury, the central Government funding is guaranteed for only another nine months. After that, who knows? The disabled recipients and their carers will have to wait for the next spending review to find out what their future holds.
Without the ILF, people with full control of their bodily functions will have to face the indignity of being forced to wear incontinence pads for the simple fact there will be no one to help them get the toilet.
This is nothing short of obscene.
Yet here’s the thing that confounds me. David Cameron was himself the father to his severely disabled son Ivan who, if he had grown into adulthood, would have benefited from just the sort of care that the ILF provides.
The Camerons with their children Elwen, Nancy and Ivan in 2007 (Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA)
The Prime Minister’s critics point to the fact that the Prime Minister has taken every opportunity in recent years to talk about his own experiences with Ivan as proof of his personal dedication to help people with disabilities – yet he is making the “difficult decision” to take away a vital benefit on which disabled people rely.
Either way, the severely disabled recipients of the ILF don’t know yet if they continue to get their funding and, if so, how much and for how long.
Even if the funding is not extended, the saving of £320m a year will hardly make a dent in the deficit. In Whitehall terms, it’s the equivalent of loose change lost down the back of the sofa. That’s an awful lot of pain – for people who are already suffering a hard enough life already – for very little financial gain to the Treasury.
Mr Cameron is quite right: the test of a good society is how it treats its most vulnerable members. And right now, his Government is failing that test very badly indeed.
This raises the very real prospect of some of the most severely disabled people in our country losing their lifeline to the outside world. Without full-time help, they will be unable to leave their homes, to enjoy a social life or even to go out to work.