Jobs fear as council slashes free service to disabled Cumbrians

Council chiefs have dramatically scaled down a service which previously gave disabled Cumbrians vital equipment to help them live safely and independently.

Hundreds of Cumbrians – many of them frail pensioners – benefited from the free service, with trained workers installing on-loan equipment such as shower chairs, commodes, grab-rails, bed levers and bath seats.

Most of the items were ultimately recycled – collected, cleaned and reused.

But a shake-up by Cumbria County Council has seen the service withdrawn for all but the most needy, sparking fears that around 40 jobs may be at risk at equipment depots in Maryport and Carlisle.

Pensioners and others who need specialist living aids are now given an equipment “prescription” after a telephone assessment of their needs.

They then have to buy the items and possibly pay for its installation – though some may be able to apply for a small charitable grant.

The county council branch of the public sector workers union Unison says the move could put some people at risk as cash – strapped pensioners may try to cut costs.

Union chiefs fear pensioners may either buy second hand equipment or have it installed by somebody who is not properly qualified.

One Carlisle charity for carers says some pensioners have already turned to it for help, saying they can’t afford the equipment they need.

Unison says the Council will save around £500,000 by cutting back the scheme.

But the authority has already written off £575,000 worth of equipment which is in the community and will not now be recycled.

Paul Lloyd, Unison’s Carlisle-based social services convenor, said: “We’ve been told that a county wide fund has been given to Age UK (formerly Age Concern) so people can apply for grants.

“But that will only scratch the surface of what’s needed.

“Previously, people had their assessments done by occupational therapists. Now it’s done over the telephone by a trained assessor.

“They then basically direct you to the nearest available equipment retailer so you can buy the stuff you need privately – or suggest you get an Argos catalogue because all the equipment’s in it. Our view is that this approach will be counter-productive.

“Our members who work in the Integrated Community Equipment Stores [ICES] are trained to do the whole job – delivering, installing, collecting, and cleaning this kit.

“People will face significant costs – and there’ll be a public health issue if people try to dispose of equipment themselves inappropriately

“Equipment may have been used by people who have MRSA or some other infectious condition.”

A council spokesman said the old system was time-consuming and bureaucratic.

The new one includes a criteria that if someone is deemed to be substantially or critically in need of the equipment then it is given for free using the “prescription,” he said.

“If someone is classed as low or moderate in their need for the equipment then they now need to pay for it themselves and we have made available a £10,000 fund available to assist people across the county.

“We have yet to finish discussions with the union and we are still looking at options for the future of the service.”

Dawn Kenyon, from the Carlisle Carers Association, said: “We’ve already had some people come to us to say that they can’t afford the equipment they need.

“But I think the cost of not providing it could be greater than providing it, given the potential impact.”