Birmingham Social Services is facing a fresh funding crisis after a High Court judge ruled a controversial cost-cutting plan to be unlawful.
Mr Justice Walker found that city council leaders ignored provisions in the Disability Discrimination Act when they decided to stop providing care packages for about 4,000 adults whose needs are assessed as being substantial.
His interim judgment blows a hole in the council’s budget, since the local authority had been expecting to save £17.5 million this year by restricting social care packages only to clients whose needs are critical.
The decision could also have repercussions for other councils across the country which are attempting to make similar cuts in social care.
The council cannot carry on with assessing individual needs until Mr Justice Walker delivers his full judgment next month, and is likely to have to conduct fresh consultation on equalities issues before reaching a new decision on the future of social care – a process that could take several months.
It is the second time recently that Birmingham City Council has been found to have behaved unlawfully when making spending cuts.
Two weeks ago, it lost a similar case over the way it reduced funding for voluntary organisations, including the Citizens Advice Bureau.
It was found then to have ignored equalities legislation and not to have consulted properly on the impact the cut would have.
On this occasion, families representing four severely disabled adults succeeded in a judicial review by overturning the council’s decision to limit the care their grown-up children receive.
They argued that a move to restrict social services assistance was unlawful because it did not take account of equalities legislation.
Ian Wise QC, appearing for the families, said the council failed to consult properly about the impact the cuts would have and a decision to go ahead contravened a statutory duty to have due regard to the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act.
The council cabinet also failed to consider cutting spending in other areas or increasing council tax to find the £17.5 million without cutting social services, Mr Wise added.
About 11,000 adults in Birmingham were to have the care they receive reviewed as a result of the cuts, and 4,000 were expecting to be told they can no longer receive council-funded social services and will be “signposted” to services provided by the voluntary sector instead.
The council expects to save £17 million this year, rising to £53 million by 2014, by restricting care to adults whose needs are deemed to be critical.
Unison welcomed the ruling, with the union's regional head of local government Tony Rabaiotti describing it as a "landmark ruling and a tremendous victory for thousands of vulnerable people across Birmingham who rely upon social care provision".
He added: "Social Care workers across Birmingham have been telling Unison over the last few months that they are genuinely frightened by the proposal to so severely axe social care provision. They have been telling us that vulnerable people will simply be left to fend for themselves.
"The council now has the opportunity to pause, think again and work with us to maintain quality social care provision for the people of Birmingham.”
Until this year the council offered social care to people in the two highest bands of an assessment criteria – those with critical or substantial needs.
Under the cuts plan, the four would not qualify for council help in respect of their substantial needs, although they would still receive help for critical needs.
All of the claimants have severe learning disabilities and are unable to undertake simple tasks without constant supervision.
Mr Wise said the four had needs assessed by social services to be a mixture of critical and substantial. It was likely that assistance currently offered would be cut back, with responsibility for providing care falling on to parents and family members who would not be able to cope.
An equality impact needs assessment conducted by the council at the end of last year, which the families say is flawed, stated that restricting care to people with critical needs would not contribute to inequality.
Asked to state in the document whether there would be a detrimental impact in terms of equality, the council’s assistant director for equalities and human resources Dr Ally Mushaq said he had no concerns.
Mr Wise told the court that the council was clearly in breach of Section 49A of the Disability Discrimination Act, which requires local authorities to give due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity between disabled persons and able-bodied persons.
The act also requires councils to take account of the needs of disabled persons even if this means treating them more favourably than non-disabled persons.
Members of the council and the cabinet, who took the decision to cut spending, were not provided with copies of the equality needs assessment.
They could have asked for a copy if they wished, but there was no evidence that anyone did so, Mr Wise added.
In a written statement to the court, the council’s strategic director for resources, Paul Dransfield, accepted that the cabinet could have prioritised social services spending and sought to find £17 million by cutting other departments.
But members decided not to do so.
Andrew Arden QC, for the council, said there was “an air of unreality” about the claimants' case.
Birmingham City Council had been in the vanguard of equal opportunities for years and it was “absurd” to suggest councillors and officials were unaware of their duties and responsibilities.
Mr Arden said the decision to restrict support to applicants whose needs are critical was part of a long term plan to help cope with the cost of looking after a rapidly ageing population.
No one “will go unheeded or unassisted”, healthough their care needs may not necessarily be met by the council in future.
A new policy, concentrating on prevention work to stop people requiring social services and greater reliance on commissioning services from the third sector, had been devised by the council’s chief officers and there was no evidence of political pressure being brought to bear by councillors.
Mr Arden added: “This is a well thought out long-term plan. We are not abandoning those with needs, it is not the intention to cut people lose without help.
“There is no evidence of this leading to a reduced level of care or a reduced quantity of care.”
He said the council had conducted substantial consultation over its proposals, adding: “No one will lose any support until their needs have been assessed against the alternative resources available.”
He criticised the claimants for failing to state from where the council could find £17.5 million in savings if it did not take the money from adult social services.
“Ultimately, this challenge is that other areas of activity, unspecified, should be cut. It is a purely negative challenge.
The only thing that’s being said is ‘surely we could have made the savings somewhere else’, but they haven’t even pointed to a single item of expenditure in a much publicised budget in which they can say ‘it can’t be right to chop adult social care when they are spending money on x, y and z’.”