Hammersmith & Fulham Council is well-known as the only borough in the whole of England to have free homecare services. Other resident-friendly policies include no bailiffs to recover debt, universal free school meals for primary-age children and a free meals pilot for secondary-school students. Meals are provided to all school students, not just low-income families, to take away stigma for children and the unfair means-testing which denies struggling families whose income is just over the level. The Council Leader, Steve Cowan, has said: “H&F Council is committed to doing things with residents and not to them.”
The Council has a completely different way of working with local disabled people. They call it “coproduction”, which is making decisions together, where the Council is genuinely accountable about how services, support and policy are developed and provided.
A massive advantage of the Council’s approach and keeping disabled people connected to free services, is that disabled residents in Hammersmith & Fulham are in a better position to get through the pandemic.
Our experience with other Councils and public authorities is that consultation is often tokenistic. Groups or individual disabled people are invited to meetings with no real power, but our involvement is used to justify harmful changes. In consultations on charging or cuts to services, information is often presented to the public in a biased or even manipulative way to influence how people will reply. Questions like, “Do you believe that people who can afford it should pay their own way?” to justify charging severely disabled people who can’t afford it, from our disability benefits. Most of the time, people in the community have no confidence that our opinions will be taken seriously. Often consultation is an exercise to fend off legal action on discrimination against groups covered by the Equality Act.
In contrast, Hammersmith & Fulham’s genuine commitment has made it more effective during the Coronavirus crisis. Staff have done a lot of outreach to disabled residents directly by letter and phone, not assuming it is enough to put out generalised messages on a website. But on the website, disabled staff helped to ensure that some COVID-19 information was in Easy Read for people with learning disabilities and in British Sign Language (BSL).
Hammersmith & Fulham abolished charging for homecare in April 2015. So disabled residents have not dropped out from receiving the essential support they need, due to unaffordable and discriminatory charges. Everywhere else in England, everyone who gets disability benefits is charged for assistance with basics like having a shower or going to the loo. Unaffordable charges have caused people to drop out and Councils don’t bother with them anymore. Thousands of people have also had their services reduced or cut completely against their wishes. During the pandemic, thousands of disabled people have not been contacted by the Council and have been completely abandoned. This disproportionately affected disabled women/of colour.
Rather than make social care a priority and treat it as “key infrastructure”, the government’s Coronavirus Act (March 2020) suspended Care Act obligations to provide support, and made these duties discretionary. Across England, many Councils of all parties were quick to stop what they previously provided.
But in Hammersmith & Fulham, Lisa Redfern, the Strategic Director of Social Care, gave a lead by sending out a letter reassuring local residents:
“Please be assured that H&F Council remains fully committed to providing care and support during this time. Essential services are running as usual and we have a daily status update call with all our care support suppliers. There are no plans to reduce care support. We have robust contingency plans in place.”
Up to 2018, Hammersmith & Fulham Council had a Disabled People’s Commission with ten disabled residents as commissioners, looking at the issues that disabled residents face in their day-to-day lives, across all areas where the Council could make changes.
The Council now has a co-production implementation group (HF-CIG) made up of disabled residents, councillors (including Cabinet members) and senior Council staff to put in place the Commission’s eight recommendations for change.
They are supported by senior Council staff who are themselves disabled people. Importantly they are based in the Council-wide strategy and community engagement team, rather than being restricted to social care.
The Council’s response to the COVID-19 crisis also includes:
- Taking responsibility by asking residents what they need (having an open door), and creating ways to support residents with access to food and personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies.
- Allowing people to spend their Direct Payments flexibly on any costs they may have that arise related to their support (as long as it’s legal) and to employ family members during the lockdown, which is usually not allowed by Councils.
- The Council’s direct payments support service is involved in the local response and is helping to set up ways to enable people employing their own PAs and carers to support each other.
- Lifting parking restrictions for people providing key support to residents who need it.
Read the full letter sent to people on Direct Payments here.
This is part of a wider range of COVID-19 support for people in the borough, hardship payments and other help.
Many disabled people across England who have personal assistance in their own homes and who get direct payments have not been included in local COVID-19 responses by statutory services.
WinVisible is against charging and cuts to services, especially now when people have extra disability expenses and food bills due to self-isolating. If all Councils had Hammersmith & Fulham’s approach, older and disabled people would be safer and not feel abandoned in the pandemic.
Hammersmith & Fulham Council is the only Council in the whole of England to have free homecare from April 2015. This followed an eight-year campaign by disabled people who formed Hammersmith & Fulham Coalition Against Cuts (HAFCAC) to fight charges.
A legal challenge in 2008 against the then Conservative Council, which WinVisible backed, asserted that charging for essential community support was in breach of disability, gender and race equality law, as charging has a disproportionately harsh impact on severely disabled people, women, and people and communities of colour. Though the case which went to the appeal court was not successful, it helped to mobilise community support against an injustice, and halted charges for years while it went through the courts.