Around 60 people, including several wheelchair users, blockaded the offices of Fife council on Monday in a protest against new charges for homecare and transport services provided to disabled people.
Campaigners, who called the protest to coincide with the first day of the implementation of the charges, say they amount to a “tax on disability”.
Under the new scheme, homecare costs for many will rise from £4 a week to £11 an hour. The charges will be means tested and will hit under 65s and those receiving child-related benefits the hardest.
Services that were formerly free such as shopping and community alarms will now be charged for, and transport costs will rise as taxi vouchers and rail subsidies are cut.
Maureen Closs is one of the campaigners who helped organise Monday’s protest. She told Socialist Worker, “Our campaign has captured the hearts and minds of hundreds of people. We collected 3,270 signatures on our petition in two weeks.
“Everyone in Fife knows someone who relies on these vital services. Every time we have organised a protest even more people have turned up.”
Maureen says that there is a danger that many people faced with the new charges may give up vital services.
Fellow campaigner Anne Martin explained, “I, along with many others, have a community alarm – it’s there to keep me safe. Without it I could be found dead.
“Councillors might not like to think about this but it is the stark reality for many of us. Since the letters came out from the council telling us about the charges, I know of many people who are going to hand theirs back because they can’t afford them on top of all the other charges – this is a crime. I won’t be handing mine back, I just won’t be paying for it.”
Fife council was for a long time a Labour stronghold but is now run by a Scottish National Party (SNP)/Liberal Democrat coalition. The charges campaign has the new ruling coalition seriously rattled.
In order to try to end Monday’s blockade, councillors agreed that council chiefs responsible for the charges will attend a public meeting where campaigners and other members of the public can hold them to account.
Maureen says, “The council leaders are beginning to backtrack. They started out by saying the charges would be up £11 an hour per carer – now they are saying it does not vary with number of carers.
“They are also saying that the chief officer will have the right to waive charges if necessary.
“The council has agreed to carry out an impact study. This is a small victory – although they still refuse to halt implementation while the study is carried out.”
Campaigners are putting pressure on the SNP-led Scottish government to try to embarrass them to put pressure on their councillors. They have written to Scottish health minister Nicola Sturgeon who recently announced plans to phase out NHS prescription charges saying they are a “tax on ill health”.
Maureen points out, “The SNP say that services should be free at point of delivery. Surely that should apply to services for people with disabilities?”
Louise McLeary lives in Gordon Brown’s home town of Kirkcaldy in Fife. She has a visual impairment and told Socialist Worker that the cut in travel subsidies will affect many people like her. “The council seem to think that if you have a disability you don’t have a life,” she said.
“Where I live there are no amenities and the way the high street is developing all the shops will be soon be located out of town. There are not enough buses so I need taxis to get around.
“The council leaders are always telling us what an ‘inclusive’ and ‘empowering’ approach they have to service provision, but when it comes down to it it’s all just hollow words. The charges were agreed without any consultation with service users.”
Louise thinks that behind the rising charges lies the threat of privatisation. The new shopping charge is £7 a trip, a huge extra cost for many who only spend £15 to £20 on a typical weekly shop. This means that people may end up giving up the service, increasing the chance of it being abandoned altogether or handed to private companies.
Louise says, “Many people will be scared off by the council charges or will look for cheaper homecare elsewhere. This means less security and accountability for the services that are offered. It is an attack on public services.”
The campaign is calling on people not to give up their services but not to pay the charges. There are more protests and lobbying planned.
“It is important that we win this campaign,” says Maureen. “The new charges make Fife the second most expensive council in Scotland for homecare services – it used to be one of the best.
“If we win then this could have national implications and become a national campaign.”