Pilot Scheme Builds On Direct Payments For Disabled People

Cindy Peacock, 31, is losing her vision through retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive degenerative illness. She has neither a guide dog nor a white cane, but when, 18 months ago, she lost her bearings on her way to pick up her son from school in Dagenham, Essex, and suffered a panic attack, she realised she needed support. As someone who values her independence, Peacock chose to use Barking and Dagenham council’s direct payments system so that she could manage her own support.

Since April 2003, local authorities in England and Wales have been required to make cash payments to residents who are assessed as eligible to receive them and who want them in lieu of social service care. Recipients are still assessed by social services, but instead of the council arranging their care, users buy personal and domestic support from whatever source they choose, such as a care agency.

Peacock spends her direct payment money on an agency carer for five hours a day. The carer helps with anything from housework to dressing her two sons, aged one and five, and her seven-year-old daughter. “My life has totally changed since I got my carer,” she says. “I’d get frustrated easily – little things like not being able to feed my baby properly, or doing things around the house.”

Now Peacock is poised to take part in a two-year pilot scheme that goes a step further than direct payments, by offering users more control and choice. Barking and Dagenham, which will launch its individual budgets’ programme next month, is one of 13 councils chosen by government to pilot the initiative with cross-governmental funding of £2.6m.

Because funding for direct payments comes from social services, recipients are limited to using the money on personal care or help with domestic chores. Individual budgets, however, include other income streams such as the Independent Living Fund, and the Access to Work Fund, which provides practical support to disabled people at work. Users can arrange not only for home helps through individual budgets but also for a carer to accompany them to college, for example.

Peacock, who has been studying the pilot plan as a member of the council’s individual budgets’ steering group, plans to use her money for a carer to support her on a course. She wants to train in counselling and, ultimately, get a job. “Why should anyone with any sort of disability not be able to do things that other people take for granted?” she asks.

Simon Hart, Barking and Dagenham’s director of adult and community services, says: “While direct payments essentially provide a different approach to the social care budget, individual budgets provide access to the range of different support funds.”

According to the Department of Health, 24,500 adults received direct payments in 2004/05 – an increase of 62% from 15,100 on the previous year. But there has been criticism from user groups about councils making it difficult for disabled people to claim and, as a result, take-up has been slow. Research by the Health and Social Care Advisory Services attributed poor take-up to confusion among staff and service users. In Barking and Dagenham, however, some 10% of eligible residents (300 people) are signed up.

The DH says part of the goal of the individual budgets approach is “to help people overcome the barriers they may have experienced in taking up a direct payment”.

A DH spokeswoman says: “This might include offering support from a local voluntary organisation, a friend or a member of the family. It is also about transforming the system so that it is centred around the individual.”

Yet Jeff Jerome, co-chairman of the disability committee of the Association of Directors of Social Services, adds a warning that councils must ensure that the administration of individual budgets is as simple as possible so that users do not again face a bureaucratic hurdle.