THEY are some of the most vulnerable residents of Southampton whose families have chosen to devote their lives to care for them.
A total of 91 households in the city have at least one adult who suffers from severe learning difficulties and in many cases wide-ranging disabilities.
Every one of them requires specialist care. Many struggle to read and speak, they cannot be left home alone or venture out unaccompanied, and only day centres, groups and occasional respite breaks provide an essential lifeline for them and their relatives.
But today the Daily Echo can reveal how the most needy have found themselves at the heart of a savage round of funding cuts.
Adult social care bosses at Southampton City Council are axing ‘rent allowances’ which have been paid to each service user at an average rate of £40 a week for years.
They say the funding cuts are to bring the council in line with ‘national guidance’ – but they believe they should never have been making the payments in the first place as it means one group of social care customers have historically been receiving more money than others in the city.
But council chiefs are not able to say who implemented the payments, when they began and how much money they have spent.
The allowance cuts are one of 22 money-saving changes about to be implemented which will also see drastic hikes in how much people pay for day care at home.
Care services are currently used by 2,300 people in the city and the price hikes are predicted to impact on more than 700, mainly elderly, people over the next two years.
The changes will mean the council can save £563,400, of which £135,400 has been sidelined as ‘income’ as the council faces the worst cuts in its history and slices £16m from its budget.
Other cash will be put aside for a hardship fund for those struggling financially and to deal with bad debt.
The plans have provoked outrage and concern from service users and families who have branded the council consultation “a sham”.
Among them is mum Liz Chapman, 55, who has spent the past 24 years caring for her son Robert, who needs 24-hour care, has an intellectual age of four, is incontinent and has autistic tendencies. She only found out about the removal of his rent allowance in a letter “filled with jargon nobody with a degree could understand” that was sent to her son, who cannot even read – and said the consultation has been nothing but a shambles.
She said parents like her were already saving the council thousands of pounds every year by continuing to provide care at home rather than putting more people and more pressure into the system – something she as a mum would never contemplate.
The plan to slash funding and hike charges has also incensed opposition councillors who have called in the decision agreed by Cabinet last month to be reviewed tomorrow night in a last-ditch attempt to have it halted – or even put on ice for the next 12 months.
Cllr Jeremy Moulton, deputy Tory leader and chairman of the council’s scrutiny panel, said there had been “insufficient time” to examine the detail before the decision was made; neither Cabinet member Councillor Matt Stevens, who is responsible for adult services, nor council leader Richard Williams attended the hearing so they could be quizzed, and he felt there was a lack of understanding of the detail of the charging increases.
He said: “This has happened far too quickly and I want the decision to be stopped or at least looked at again.
“My worry is that in an attempt to introduce a new policy they are, through the back door, hiking up charges purely to raise money. The council has said it wants to support the most vulnerable but now they are targeting them instead. That cannot be right.”
Cllr Stevens said he wasn’t surprised that the decision had been called in – but he refuted claims that the consultation wasn’t good enough, saying the council had gone to great lengths using different mediums to ensure that the message reached service users.
Speaking about the rent allowances being scrapped, he said: “They were given more than others who receive social care and that can’t be seen as fair and it goes against national guidance.
There have been people receiving this money for years and we don’t know why it happened.”
He was unable to say when the payments began but said it had not been picked up during a review carried out in 2008 – and had only been spotted now because they delved “in depth” into the finances while faced with the city’s worst ever cuts.
He added: “We absolutely know that family carers are key and we will be taking individual circumstances into account, looking at individuals’ income and what they can afford.”
He said that charges may be waived or reviewed in “exceptional circumstances”.
The alternative, he says, is that services would have to be reduced and the council might consider only providing social care to those deemed as “critical”.
The matter will be debated by ten city councillors on the scrutiny committee tomorrow.
‘We’re on the breadline even with the allowance’
IT sucks the breath out of you.
That’s how Liz Chapman describes the constant fight she has endured for almost a quarter of a century, trying to get her son Robert the help and support he needs.
Now 24, he was born with complex learning difficulties that only became evident as he grew up
– but from the very early days Liz knew something was wrong.
“It was a mother’s instinct and for the first five years of his life I disliked him – I was struggling to bond and I knew something was wrong but nobody else could see it.
“I have lived with stress since Robert was born.
“It’s difficult to explain but when you have adrenaline running through you, you shake – and I have lived with those shakes every day of his life, but now there is nothing more rewarding and Robert has taught me so much.”
Robert needs 24-hour care. He has restricted speech, walks “like a puppet and falls over”, has an intellectual age of four and has autistic tendencies which mean he sometimes can attack, kick, bite and spit.
He has carers and he visits day centres four times a week which are chosen by Liz according to his needs and paid for through the personalised budget Robert receives.
The £40 rent allowance he has also been paid for, as long as Liz can remember, goes towards his cost of living, which she describes as “already on the breadline”.
The family mainly eat pasta and potatoes and can rarely afford luxuries such as meat, while Robert will occasionally be rewarded with £2 to spend at a charity shop because he loves to go shopping.
Liz, who describes how she has been “spinning plates” all her life, said: “Robert loves to go shopping and if they take this money away then little pleasures like that will stop.”
Since the news that rent allowances will be scrapped, Liz has had to find a part-time job that
allows her to work through the night three times a week as a carer going from home to home.
At home, Robert will be cared for by his stepdad Karl during those nights before he then spends the day working as an employment tutor and Liz takes up her caring duties at home again.
She said: “The quality of life with that £40 rent allowance is already borderline and now they want to take it away.
“I don’t have a choice and Robert doesn’t have a choice. His voice would not be heard let alone
understood – that is my job – and it makes you quite angry.”