Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Parents and campaign groups fight austerity

From the Royal Courts of Justice to petitions website change.org they have used every weapon at their disposal to thwart the almost unstoppable momentum of austerity.

Campaign groups and parents across Britain have turned to activism to protect vital services and demonstrated how ordinary families can mitigate the impact of the cuts on the most vulnerable. They might not have always won, but without their efforts, for themselves and each other, the austerity agenda would have left services for families living with learning disabilities decimated.

Time and again the intervention of families mobilised by futures they dare not contemplate has served as a roadblock to the self-propelling juggernaut that is austerity. West Berkshire provided one of the most powerful examples of this trend. There, two families of children with autism took the local authority to the High Court last July and won. The move came after a controversial vote to slash respite funding by more than 57%. When, a few months later, the council decided the cuts would go ahead anyway, the parents dipped into their own pockets to pay law firm Irwin Mitchell to assess whether there was a case for a new challenge. In the end the lawyers decided fighting on was unlikely to yield a further victory. But elsewhere stories have ended on more triumphant notes.

In Ealing the local authority voted to spend £1.5m on a new respite centre after families battled the closure of Heller House, in Southall. This had offered crucial short breaks for the families of 10 to 18-year-olds with special needs.

Parent Siobhan Bryar, who has a 22-year-old son with high-functioning autism, led the way by starting a petition that won the support of more than 12,000 people. Her words after the victory were as significant as her efforts before it. Ealing’s investment doesn’t have to be an isolated example of an authority swimming against the tide, she said. Rather, she wants it to inject fresh purpose into moves all around the country to defy those who push austerity as inevitable.

In Haringey, families’ group Save Autism Services has fought for three years to protect adult care centres. The families fear planned replacement services will see a reduction in their respite hours.

And in Essex the authority reversed a decision to slash funding for one-to-one supervision for children with learning disabilities at a local kids club offering out-of-school care. The about-turn came after parents spoke out in protest before they secured funding that will protect the children’s places in the kids club up to March of this year.

Families on the receiving end of the cuts might have been hoping that the end of the David Cameron/George Osborne axis that originally championed austerity would bring relief. But the gamble that sealed Cameron’s demise — the June 23 referendum — has also protected his legacy. Because, while chancellor Philip Hammond has abandoned Osborne’s pledge to achieve a budget surplus by the end of this Parliament. the economic shockwaves left by Brexit will continue to put public spending under pressure.

The Office for Budgetary Responsibility has forecast Britain’s divorce from Europe will slow economic growth and end up costing the country around £60bn in additional borrowing — meaning austerity is certain to continue. And with the Labour Party left impotent by the civil war over its leadership it’s clear where the most likely source of meaningful opposition to the threats to public services and social care will come from.

The next seven years, like the last, will see us depending on families like those in West Berkshire, Ealing, Haringey and Essex to go on fighting for a vision that offers more than the politics of slash and burn. Unless we replicate their efforts every family depending on day centres or visits from respite workers to bring routine and purpose to the lives of their children is vulnerable.

About the author

Darren Devine is a freelance journalist and the father of a 20-year-old daughter with autism.

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