A local MSP drew cheers from the public gallery of the Scottish Parliament when she spoke out against care charge increases for disabled people in Dumfries and Galloway.
Disabled groups and carers from across Scotland broke with convention and applauded Joan McAlpine when she pointed out that Dumfries and Galloway were raising charges for disabled people while at the same time wasting money on a raft of new bureaucrat posts. Presiding Officer Linda Fabiani intervened and told the public that is was against the rules for them to clap – but they were permitted do so at the end of the debate.
Ms McAlpine told other MSPs that disabled people in Dumfries and Galloway faced massive care charge rises after the council reduced the threshold at which the start paying charges from £177 a week to £132.
She said constituents faced real hardship, and described the plight of local man Alistair Livingston, who has a son with profound physical and learning disabilities whose payments have risen from zero two years ago to £31.30 a week.
Speaking after the debate, Alistair said: “My son is one of 536 severely disabled people in Dumfries and Galloway who are able to live at home with support from care workers. As of 9 December 2016 my son’s contribution to his care costs will rise by 500% per week. Other disabled people are facing similar rises.
"What will be the impact of these huge increases on this highly vulnerable group? No one knows, because the council did not carry out an Impact Assessment before applying the rise in charges. Does Dumfries and Galloway accept it has a duty of care towards these highly vulnerable disabled people? Or does it see them as a source of revenue to exploit?"
Ms McAlpine also spoke of another constituent who cares for three adult children with disabilities - despite being a pensioner she now faces a bill of more than £3255 a year.
She accused the council of misleading the public by claiming that it was forced to reduce the threshold because the £132 threshold was ordered by COSLA, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. In fact, it is intended only as a minimum recommendation and several council’s continue to pay more – only Dumfries and Galloway has chosen to reduce their threshold.
A letter from health secretary Shona Robison to the MSP said: “I’m disappointed Dumfries and Galloway have chosen to reduce the threshold for social care charges.
“The Scottish Government provided £6m additional funding to local authorities in 2016/17 to tackle poverty, and if those people on the lowest incomes are worse off now than they were as a result of these changes.. that goes against the intention of the additional funding to the local authority to reduce charges.”
Speaking during the debate, Ms McAlpine said: “We are constantly being told that we should not centralise and that we should not dictate from the centre; this is a local decision by a local council and it is very damaging for disabled people in Dumfries and Galloway.”
After a heated exchange with Labour MSP Colin Smyth, who supported the cuts, she said: “Critically, the amount was not reduced for councils that were, as Colin Smyth might put it, overgenerous in their payments.
“Those councils still got the same allocation. Dumfries and Galloway Council got £182,000 extra as its share of the £6 million but, instead of using that to reduce the charges, it pocketed the money and raised charges for the people involved.”
Challenged again by Smyth, who is also a Councillor, as to how the council should cope with cuts Ms McAlpine pointed to the new posts of ‘ward workers and ward managers’ that are expected to cost about £450,000 per year. This is almost identical to the money made by raising care charges for disabled people.
Andrew Doyle, chair of Learning Disability Alliance Scotland (LDAS), who lives in Dumfries and Galloway and is directly affected by the charge increase said:
"My care charges have gone up a lot. I would like to know where councillors expect me to get the extra money to pay this big rise in my care costs every week but still have enough left to survive. I need care support to live. And there are lots of people like me who are the same. Now we're all really worried about what's going to happen to us. That's why we're getting together to try to get Dumfries and Galloway to change the decision. I've put up a petition on www.change.org called Right to a Real Life, because that's all we want, to live a real life like everyone else but with these extra charges we can't. If you sign the petition you can read all the comments on it and see what problems these changes are causing for folk."
Donna Nicholson, coordinator at LDAS said : "There are lots of people like Andrew coming to us who are getting desperate over the rising care charges in Dumfries and Galloway. Some are from households where there is more than one person with a disability. Many are looking at a rise of 600%, some are now paying £80 a week for the care they need to help them live. This policy is causing impoverishment and stress for the most vulnerable people in society who are basically being taxed for being disabled and that is unacceptable. I think councillors have not fully understood the implications that such a large rise in vital care costs will have on vulnerable people and on their families and communities. It needs to be reversed now."