22nd Jul, 2019

BREAKING: Coventry council breaks law with FOI silence over cuts to blind and vision impaired people

Felix Nobes 5th Apr, 2019 Updated: 5th Apr, 2019

COVENTRY council has broken the law by failing to respond to blind and partially sighted people’s concerns about cuts to their care, we can reveal.

The Coventry Branch of the National Federation of the Blind of UK had challenged the council “to come clean about a drastic reduction in social services for people with serious sight loss.”

It lodged a Freedom of Information request in July last year with the council in its search for the truth about staff reductions.

But the Coventry Observer can reveal the council broke the law by failing to provide a response at all – let alone without the statutory time limit to do so of 20 working days.

The branch had sent a formal reminder, but the council still failed to respond.

In a new report, ‘Support for sight Loss:  the Challenge for Coventry’, the branch claims that, since 2010, the council has “cut the number of specialist care staff qualified to help people recover from serious sight loss from 10 to four.”

The branch’s campaign officer, Dr Fred Reid, said: “The cuts are damaging, not least because serious sight loss is on the increase, the report says.

“It cites research by the Royal National Institute of Blind people, confirming that, as people live longer, they are more likely to acquire diseases of the eye, like macular degeneration. They then need specialist care.

“The report shows the kind of help that specialist staff can provide to people faced with serious loss of sight. They can teach them to make simple meals, get about safely within their homes, and outside, use adapted computers, check out their rights to social security benefits and generally return to a measure of independent living.

“The first six months of sight loss are vital for this support to be effective, the report points out. Yet the Federation believes that many people who need the support are not getting it, owing to the cuts.”

The charity, Coventry Resource Centre for the Blind, says it has attempted to fill the gap. Last year, it won The Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service for its efforts.

But it says it has resources to cater for only 150 people.

The number of ‘registered blind’ people in Coventry is 1125, but this is thought to to be a serious under-estimate.

The true number, the report claims, may be 6000 and rising.

The Coventry Branch of the National Federation of the Blind said it “wishes Coventry Resource Centre for the Blind success in its appeal for funds to increase the number of people it serves, but believes that only a restoration of the council’s cuts can fully meet the need.”

The Coventry Branch is now campaigning for that, and claims the cuts have been disastrous. The report states: “People with Sight loss …   are being abandoned, sometimes literally, to the darkness.

“Everyone in Coventry should support the campaign, it urges, because serious sight loss ‘is not something that can only happen to someone else. IT CAN HAPPEN TO YOU.”

The Coventry Observer asked the council for several days this week to state whether it had met its duty in law to respond to the branch’s Freedom of Information request. We have recently reported how the council had stopped publishing its response to FOI requests for two years.

It has now responded: “In respect of the FOI, I can confirm that an FOI was received on 17 June 2018 and we are investigating why this was not responded to. Now that this oversight has been brought to our attention we will respond in the next few days”

Dr Reid said the Coventry branch would be willing to meet with councillors and council officers, and its campaign now has the involvement of MPs. The branch recognises councils’ fundimg issues natoonally, he added.

FULL COUNCIL RESPONSE:

A Coventry City Council spokesperson said:

“In 2010 the Council employed a number of people within the sensory impairment team which included six posts for staff qualified in the specialist care for vision impaired people (five permanent posts and one temporary casual worker to support with particular service pressures). Other posts within the team did not directly relate to specialist care of people with visual impairments. In 2013 and 2014 there were five permanent specialist rehabilitation workers.

“In 2015  one of the team left and, based on the low referral rate into the team the post was not replaced. This has left 4 permanent specialist rehabilitation workers in the team since 2015.  Early in 2017 we replaced one of the posts with a senior specialist rehabilitation worker post to provide leadership to the other members of the team, but the numbers of qualified staff have remained the same. The team continues to comprise of 3 specialist rehab workers and 1 senior specialist rehab worker.

“We realise the importance of ensuring adequate support for all people with a visual impairment Coventry and work hard to ensure the team has the necessary knowledge and skills to provide a high quality service. For example, we have commissioned external training for rehabilitation workers and qualified social workers to achieve formal qualifications in deafblind assessment. We have commissioned a specific sensory impairment needs assessment to inform our understanding of the future scale of sensory need. In addition, we are currently reviewing and refreshing the process for registration of people who are deaf, hard of hearing or deafblind.

“In 2017 the Council enhanced its support offer for people with visual and hearing impairment. BID, a company, specialising in direct working with this group of people, were awarded a five year contract to complement the work of the visual and hearing impairment team and increase the Council’s support to residents of Coventry. Their role is to support people with visual and hearing impairments to provide direct support to people, for example, access to work, housing and personal finance issues, to enable people to live independently in the community. Working with the voluntary sector is a key way in which the City Council can continue to ensure people are supported within the context of significant funding reductions.”

FEDERATION BRANCH RESPONDS:

“It is shocking that it has taken a media campaign by the Federation Branch to elicit information that was required to be given by law within 20 days or, failing that, an explanation given why it couldn’t be provided.

“The response we have been given now is inadequate. It is distressingly vague as to the actual cut in the number of staff ‘qualified in the specialist care for vision impaired people’. It does acknowledge that they numbered six in 2010 but, with regard to the present position, it drops the specific reference to vision impaired people and states merely that ‘The team continues to comprise of 3 specialist rehab workers and 1 senior specialist rehab worker.’

“In view of this lack of definitional clarity it is impossible to estimate the size of cuts to staff qualified in vision impairment rehabilitation. Clearly, however, the Council recognised the impact of the cuts by turning to a private company, BID,  ‘to complement the work of the visual and hearing impairment team’. It is just this kind of stop-gap provision that the Coventry Federation is challenging as a dangerous dilution of the specialist adult care service to vision impaired people.”

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