Senior Greenwich councillors voted through controversial new charges for social care at their cabinet meeting last Wednesday, with one service user branding them “murderers” for making the funding cuts.
Cabinet members unanimously voted to move forward with the package of new charges as part of a wider package of budget cuts, which the council says the move will make the service more sustainable and bring it into line with other local authorities.
Activists and service users, however, claimed the changes would drive some of the borough’s most vulnerable residents to depression and potentially suicide. They protested outside Woolwich Town Hall before the meeting.
Councillors had originally been due to vote on the cuts last October, but postponed the decision so it could be studied by a scrutiny panel. The panel heard harrowing testimony from service users before recommending an amended package of cuts.
Anne Novis, a wheelchair-using resident who was awarded an MBE in 2011 in recognition of her advocacy for disabled people, claimed “the poorest are targets to increase your funds for an unrealistic budget.”
“All your plans and statements show we are of less value as human beings in this world,” she told councillors. “We have to live on far less and are the poorest in the borough, yet your plans to help the poorest do not apply to us.”
Sue Elsegood, the chair of disability advocacy group Metro Gad, said the changes could see some residents “take their own lives in despair”.
“These proposals are nothing short of a tax on life and health,” Ms Elsegood, who uses a wheelchair and respirator, said to cabinet.
Another resident, Fred Williams, said in an address which was read to the cabinet by a fellow campaigner: “How does it feel like being a murderer? The stress will lead to some people killing themselves. The responsibility for that lies firmly on your doorstep, whether you like it or not, that in my eyes makes you all murders.”
He also threatened legal action against the council. “How much will this cost Greenwich Council in legal fees? Another thing to think about before you vote.”
In response, the cabinet member for adult social care and health, Averil Lekau, said the issue was “one of the most difficult proposals” she’d faced in her time as a councillor.
“I don’t think any of us in this cabinet have come into politics to try and disadvantage vulnerable people, however we still have a context we need to operate within,” she said. “Austerity is not our invention but we have to live with it … we’ve been tasked with making difficult decisions, but responsible decisions.”
She added that she had tried to make herself as available as possible to members of the public who wanted to discuss the changes, alongside the director and team behind social care. “We’ve been really open – the difficulty is we still have a decision to make,” she said.
Fellow cabinet member Jackie Smith said to the assembled public: “Please don’t think it hasn’t given some of us sleepless nights”.
“I find this very difficult, none of us came into politics to make decisions like this but sadly they’re decisions we have to make to make sure we don’t get the council in a serious financial predicament,” she said.
The member for children’s services and community safety said Greenwich could find itself in a situation like Northamptonshire council “where they blew their budget” if they didn’t make “tough decisions”.
Among the proposals are increases to charges for disabled residents’ homecare services, an end to subsidised meals, and charging residents who can afford to pay for sheltered and supported housing.
The changes to adult social care were part of a £7.1 million, four-year package of cuts. However, councillors deferred a decision on the other cuts until their next meeting on 19 February.
Video, audio and additional reporting by Darryl Chamberlain. More video from the meeting can be found on this Vimeo playlist.
Lachlan Leeming is the Local Democracy Reporter for Greenwich. The Local Democracy Reporter Service is a BBC-funded initiative to ensure councils are covered properly in local media.
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