They say the devil is in the detail but the Council Budget proposals are a muddle of details when it comes to services for children with disabilities. Nowhere is it more confusing than what the Council is proposing for short breaks for children with disabilities and their families.
Short breaks are an important support service and highly valued by their users. In the city over ‘13,000 children access short breaks as a preventative intervention.’ (p22 pdf) A recent consultation of city carers showed ‘the effectiveness of the service in meeting needs, as one family identified: ‘without the short break service we would not be a family, we were at breaking point’. (p8 pdf)
So let’s try and make sense of the confused proposals for this critical service.
The original Budget consultation documents, issued in December 2012, identified that included in the £4.4m worth of cuts to the Voluntary and Community Sector was the decommissioning of provision of short breaks for disabled children (p28 pdf) and that there would be a reduction in support services for parents with children with disabilities.
From the Budget for Birmingham 2013+ we learn that included in the cuts to the Children Residential Homes is a review to respite care provision for disabled children. Dressed up in the language of promoting choice for families the Council announces it will ‘retain some residential respite provision’ while broadening the range of options to enable ‘more individually tailored packages’ of care. This is a clear intention to cut Council provided respite care. (p202-3 Budget for Birmingham)
This intention to close Council respite care places was omitted from the original Budget consultation information and is not equality assessed in the Budget for Birmingham in spite of the significant equality dimensions to these cuts.
Finally, within the half million pounds worth of cuts to Disabled Children’s services is the proposed review of the eligibility criteria for families to receive direct payments. (p204 Budget for Birmingham) If money is to be saved there will have to be a tightening of the eligibility criteria restricting the number of families able to receive direct payments. Direct payments can be used to enable families to purchase services including short breaks.
So from this information on the public record what is being cut? The Council appears to be intending to decommission short breaks provided by the voluntary sector while simultaneously reducing the amount of in-house residential provision. Restricting eligibility to direct payments will reduce the number of parents who can purchase short breaks.
All this would suggest that overall provision for short breaks in the city will be reduced and that the ‘offer’ available from the Council to individual children and families will in turn be cut. The offer of one week in seven is possibly at threat. These cuts expressly move against the ‘Early Help’ strategy which the Council is currently developing to support families. If this hypothesis is wrong we say to Birmingham City Council, please correct us!
But the overall direction of travel is clear, these cuts to short break support are an existing trend and one that was noted in one by a major Council partner in their Budget consultation response:
Anecdotally, families are already reporting a reduction in the short breaks offered to their children. Our families also tell us that they are experiencing a reduced availability of specialist childcare and childcare during the summer holidays. This support is vital as it keeps parents in the work place. (p11 pdf)
This anecdotal trend is supported by harder evidence supplied under a recent Freedom of Information request which shows a dramatic cut in available funding for short breaks by the City Council.
Recent research from Mencap shows that these local cuts fit with the National picture, with a peak of spending on short breaks in 2010-11,
probably due to government investment, but has since fallen away. 63% of local authorities reduced their expenditure on short breaks for children in 2011/12 and 43% projected cuts in 2012/13.’
Returning to 2013-14 there is a question to be asked about the absence of a clear and honest reporting of the cuts to short breaks and their impact on families through the consultation and Budget setting process.
Many of the important budget cuts to Children’s services, including respite care provision, have been rolled over into future service reviews. The Labour Group is using administrative processes to obscure the hard political facts of their vote in the Council chamber on 26th February 2013.
Birmingham’s Labour Group should at least be honest and tell family carers what the impact of these cuts to short breaks will mean for them and their young people.
An activist from West Midlands Social Work Action Network