The scope to act limited - The UK Experience by Malcolm Morley*

All UK councils are now implementing the budget decisions that they took in February prior to the commencement of the financial year in April. Given the financial challenges faced by councils the options to change budget decisions in this year are extremely limited.

With the months passing, a change in decision now means that the cut required to achieve a full year affect may have to be deeper than going with the original decision being implemented. Sometimes, however, events force changes in decisions.

Take for example the result of a judicial review against a decision by Birmingham City Council. Birmingham is the biggest UK council and it has just been ruled to have acted unlawfully by the High Court. This ruling is likely to have a significant impact on Council's ability to meet its budget cuts for this financial year and potentially affects
all councils.

In formulating its budget for this financial year Birmingham Council decided to cut Council funded social care limiting it only to those assessed as being in 'critical' need. This decision, however, has been ruled as unlawful.

Mr Justice Walker said that councils must follow disability discrimination legislation even where that would mean that disabled people are treated more favourably than others. The judge described the Council's decision as potentially devastating and found that the cuts failed to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act.

While acknowledging that that this placed 'significant and onerous' obligations on councils, he said that there had been a failure to take proper account of the duty to promote equality under laws on disability and discrimination. He went on to say that the issue that the Council needed to address was "whether the impact on the disabled of the move to critical only was so serious that an alternative which was not so draconian should be identified and funded to the extent necessary by savings elsewhere".

Birmingham has stated that it will rerun the extensive consultation that it had undertaken in the light of the judgement and that all of those affected can input into it. It has also confirmed that people affected by the original decision will continue to receive care services.

The judgement highlights three issues. The first is that where options to reduce expenditure could have an impact on the disabled there has to be a full and detailed consultation that provides appropriate information for Councillors to consider the potential impact of those options on service recipients.

The second is that the eligibility criteria to be used for service provision decisions have to be very clear that is what does 'critical' mean?

The third is that the scope to make significant reductions in expenditure is more limited than had previously been thought.

As Council service portfolios reduce so too does the scope to achieve budget cuts. Those services left are often the most sensitive which will require full consultation processes. This means that budget preparation timetables will have to be longer. It also reinforces how difficult political choices are going to get.

*Malcolm Morley is Chief Executive of Harlow District Council and can be contacted via the Editor, email info@lgfocus.com.au The views expressed in
this article are not necessarily those of his employer.