M’learned friends have been having a great deal of fun, not to mention trousering some serious cash, at the expense of Birmingham City Council lately thanks to two judicial reviews that went seriously wrong for Britain’s largest public body.
In both hearings High Court judges found the council to be in breach of equalities legislation when making spending cuts, ruling that cabinet decisions to axe grants to voluntary organisations and to slash social services provision were unlawful.
The second hearing came as a bit of a shock to the council’s Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition which, for some strange reason, had been confident of winning. Perhaps they’d been told all would be well by the very same lawyers whose poor advice got them into such a mess in the first place.
A council press officer was even despatched to the court in anticipation of a famous victory, offering to set up a BBC television interview with Birmingham’s Director of Adults and Communities, Peter Hay, who would doubtless have explained why the council had behaved to the letter of the law while going on to add that he felt the pain of severely disabled people who were about to lose their council-funded carers.
Mr Justice Walker was having none of it. In a, mercifully, short interim judgment he ruled that the council had again fallen foul of the Disability Discrimination Act when pushing ahead with a plan to stop providing social care packages to about 4,000 adults whose needs are categorised as “substantial”.
His decision halts £17.5 million of cuts in this financial year growing to £53 million over four years, while requiring the council to continue funding care for adults with substantial needs until a fresh cabinet budget decision can be taken paying due regard to the law.
Mr Hay, needless to say, never did make that television interview and has not been heard from since. This newspaper’s requests to interview Sue Anderson, the cabinet member for adults and communities, have also been met with stony silence.
The difficulties faced by Coun Anderson during the local election period are clearly acute. She has been at pains to insist that no one in need of assistance will be turned away, although the council will only fund care packages for adults whose needs are “critical”.
Everyone else will be “signposted” to voluntary organisations who, it is supposed, will be able to help them.
It is impossible to say how Coun Anderson can be so confident that everyone currently receiving social services assistance for their substantial needs will continue to do so when they have followed the signpost and thrown themselves at the tender mercies of third sector groups.
To put it another way, she cannot and will not know until the cuts begin to make themselves felt.
Mr Hay and Coun Anderson face a huge problem which is not of their making, and there are no easy answers.
It is estimated that the impact of an ageing population combined with medical advances, which mean that people with severe disabilities now routinely live into their 60s and 70s, will land Birmingham social services with a £290 million bill over the next 10 years if steps are not taken to ration service provision.
Andrew Arden QC, representing the council at the social care judicial review, described Peter Hay as a “serious officer at the interface of national and international problems about how we cope with demographic changes and advances in health technology which mean we have elderly people living longer than we know how to pay for”.