West Cheshire residents with mental health conditions will be negatively impacted by funding cuts to Dial West Cheshire’s Disability Rights Advice Service based at Dial House in Chester. Following the decision by the West Cheshire Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) not to award funding from 1 April 2019, the charity will no longer have a worker with a dedicated focus on welfare entitlements for people with mental health conditions.
The case for providing specialist mental health welfare advice is strong. In particular, a high court ruling in 2018 found that Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) policy had discriminated against Personal Independence Payment (PIP) applicants with mental health issues. Studies such as “Only Making Things Worse: A Qualitative Study of the Impact of Wrongly Removing Disability Benefits from People with Mental Illness”* highlight the devastating impact that incorrect decisions can have on mentally ill recipients. Expert advice and support from a mental health specialist ensures clients get what they are entitled to and avoids deteriorations in poor mental health.
CCG funding to Dial West Cheshire was unexpectedly reduced without notice or an impact assessment in 2017. Despite the reduction, Dial had continued to employ a specialist Disability Rights Adviser to focus on mental health cases. The Adviser’s expertise, together with support from trained volunteers, enabled the charity to help over 600 people with mental health difficulties last year, assisting them with more than 1200 enquiries and securing over £900,000 of welfare entitlements.
From 1 April 2019 the CCG has stopped the funding completely, leaving a £25,600 hole in the charity’s budget and throwing into question its ongoing capacity to continue providing vital advice and specialist support to people with mental health conditions including those with severe and enduring mental health issues, a particularly vulnerable section of the disabled community. Welfare reforms are already exerting additional pressure on Dial’s Disability Rights Advice Service. The transition from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to Personal Independence Payment (PIP), work capability assessments for Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and the roll out of Universal Credit mean that the service at Dial is in high demand. The service also responds to wider enquiries associated with welfare matters such as support to appeal against decisions to reject benefit claims, challenges against unfair benefit sanctions, help for people at risk of becoming homeless and requests for foodbank vouchers from people with no money and no food. This funding cut is particularly pernicious, as the organisation will have to refocus its priorities and face turning away people who are the most in need of advice and support.
The funding cut to Dial has echoes of a recent article highlighted in The Guardian entitled “Cutting disability services doesn’t save money. But it does damage lives.”** Written by Frances Ryan, the article was published on 4 April 2019.
Keith Roper, Chief Officer at Dial West Cheshire said: “Good advice is vital for good health. Our service has a positive impact upon the health and well-being of people with mental health conditions. It helps to combat the added stress, anxiety, depression and financial difficulties associated with the complex welfare system. It helps people as part of their recovery from mental illness and it saves the NHS money – by helping people to stay well and live independently in their local community instead of using more expensive mental health services and hospital beds.”
Trisha Bell, Chair, added: “It is incredibly disappointing that we will no longer have a dedicated resource to provide a mental health-related advice service when there is such a high demand and no comparable, alternative service to refer people to. Other local disabled people’s organisations have closed and the CCG’s decision does nothing to help Dial West Cheshire’s plans for sustainability. It flies in the face of wider news stories which suggest that mental health and physical health will be treated as equal priorities. We frequently encounter people with mental health difficulties in absolute crisis and the CCG’s decision means that vulnerable people will be further disadvantaged by this funding cut.”
It is important to understand the impact of this reduction in funding against the wider landscape of disability advice in West Cheshire. Other providers such as DICE, in Ellesmere Port, closed in 2018 and Vale Royal Disability Services (VRDS), in Northwich, closed in March 2019 leaving Dial West Cheshire as the only specialist, disability advice service provider in the West Cheshire area.
Before closing down, VRDS received funding from Cheshire West and Chester Council to provide advice and information aimed at physically disabled people being discharged from hospital. Dial West Cheshire had been led to believe that the funding would be redirected to enable Dial to pick up the service. But in a further blow to people with disabilities, the charity now understands this might not happen and the unallocated monies will not be utilised to support local disabled people in accordance with their intended purpose.
As disability advice service providers in our area shrink, ensuring the sustainability of Dial West Cheshire’s advice service should be of increasing concern to the wider disabled community and to decision makers.
* Only Making Things Worse: A Qualitative Study of the Impact of Wrongly Removing Disability Benefits from People with Mental Illness. Community Mental Health Journal, October 2016
** Cutting Disability Services Doesn’t Save Money. But it Does Damage Lives The Guardian, April 2019