There’s an intriguing disagreement reported in the Herald between disability organisations and CoSLA, which represents local authorities. CoSLA has been arguing for building up the role of local authorities in benefits administration. At present the Scottish Local Authorities administer Housing Benefit, Council Tax Reduction and the Scottish Welfare Fund; they are also effectively responsible for support in social care, including the fashionable (and misguided) trend to individual budgets. They stand to lose responsibility for a large slice of the work relating to Housing Benefit (relating to working-age benefits). That has raised questions about the viability of the operation and the prospects for people working in that field.
Others have expressed concerns about the possibility that disability benefits will be transferred to local authorities. Tressa Burke, of Glasgow Disability Alliance, is concerned about cuts – a reasonable fear, because the experience of local authority administration to date has been that social care is expected to work within fixed budgets, and benefits don’t work that way. Sally Witcher, a former director of CPAG who is now CEO for Inclusion Scotland, comments that there will be a ‘postcode lottery’ and points to the problem of people transferring across local authority boundaries. (As a carer myself, I’m more worried about the discontinuity of care: quite apart from the effect on personal relationships, putting together a fresh care package in Scotland can take months or even years.)
The main concern raised by CoSLA’s statements to date – such as the delivery plan for people with disabilities – is that they’re based on a narrow concept of disability, dominated by the model of ‘independent living’. I’ve sat before now through a long presentation arguing for disability benefits to be unified with social care, a prospect which appals. It implies the replacement of entitlements with assessment and bargaining within the constraints of fixed budgets; a system where assessments of need are geared to what’s available; and a subordination of all the other objectives of disability benefits – social protection, income smoothing, compensation, rehabilitation, empowerment and so on – to the priorities and demands of the social care budget.
There may be room for compromise. A CoSLA spokesman is reported as saying that “councils are not suggesting they should make decisions about who gets benefits or how much they get.” If that’s right, this could be taking as proposal for something very different, focusing on effective benefits administration, and there’s a good case to think about administration at local levels. One of the first priorities has to be to ensure that benefits are not swallowed up by an misplaced identification with social care.