Voices: This winter, charities can’t be expected to do the government’s job for it

·5-min read

Heat, eat or ventilate. This is how, in a recent column, I encapsulated the horrible dilemma facing disabled people requiring specialist equipment to live their lives in the midst of the current cost of living crisis.

Living with a disability frequently requires specialist equipment, which requires powering. The cold is also much more of an enemy if your mobility is restricted, which requires more heat. I could go on like this all day.

In recognition of this, the government has so far ponied up a pitiful £150 to help get people with disabilities through a winter in which bills are nearly doubling, and may increase by another 50 per cent in January, the coldest month of the year.

That number is not nearly enough and the consequences are potentially horrific. It’s like applying a sticking plaster to someone hit with a shotgun blast to the stomach. In recognition of this fact, Sense, a charity focused on helping people with multiple serious disabilities, has decided to act. It is providing emergency grants of £500 to 1,000 families to help them through the worst of the winter.

This is a move that clearly now throws down a gauntlet down to the sector’s bigger and better resourced operations (Sense is best described as a medium-sized charity). If they’re doing it, then why aren’t you?

The question is one that ought, at the very least, to be discussed at board level by every nonprofit in the sector. What’s more important? Campaigning work? Ads? Quirky fundraising campaigns? Or keeping people alive?

The answer ought to be easy. Why, then, do I feel a sense of ambivalence? The answer to that lies in the statements of Tory politicians during the party’s seemingly interminable leadership contest. An exercise in which it has engaged in a self-indulgent bout of bloodletting, while tripping off into fairyland as the wolves sharpen their claws and take up position behind the doors of half the households in a country they are supposed to be running, but have largely abandoned.

Over to Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has been aggressively making a pitch for the job of the new administration’s high priest of nastiness. “Our departure from the European Union necessitates a re-thinking of the British state,” the minister for Brexit opportunities wrote in a recent newspaper article.“This means going beyond ministers looking for fiscal trims and haircuts and considering whether the state should deliver certain functions at all.”

In the fever dreams of people like Rees-Mogg, as the state retreats, the gaps will be filled by a mixture nonprofits and private businesses. Sense would be in the former category. Insurance companies the latter.

This is already starting to happen. Dentistry has, for example, been privatised by stealth through paying practitioners too little to make treating NHS patients worth their while. Other services, like physiotherapy and psychotherapy, are on the same journey, although the route may vary. Take the shears to welfare next, and there’s Sense, with its grants.

The danger in what it is doing, and what other charities probably should be doing, is that it may give the government confidence to completely abandon disabled people, adding supporting them to the basket of “functions the state should not deliver”.

The trouble is that however good charities are, however tirelessly they work, however innovative their approaches, however effective their fund-raisers are, they just can’t cover everyone. It simply isn’t possible. People are already falling through the gaps. In the hard right-wing fantasies of people like Rees-Mogg, those gaps will turn into chasms.

To illustrate the problem, Sense is stepping in to help 500 families. Per the Social Market Foundation, 42 per cent of people living in families that rely on disability benefits are in poverty, and Sense CEO Richard Kramer puts the total number of people in poverty who are either disabled or living with a disabled person at seven million. The cost of extending its grant to all of them would be £3.5bn.

Even if every disability charity replicated its scheme, it wouldn’t be enough. Not even close. Only governments can cope with numbers like that.

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Kramer is clearly alive to the danger of ministers cynically assuming that a grant scheme like his gives their government a free pass. This comes from his blog: “For months, we have been campaigning for the government to tackle the cost of living crisis and to offer long-term support for disabled people. But we are frustrated by its lack of urgency.” Sense has to take action, he says, because “the government has failed to help”.

“We must not let the government off the hook; however, it is incumbent on the voluntary sector to try and plug the immediate gaps where possible.”

I think he’s right, despite my misgivings, chiefly because of the consequences of not acting. We’re back to heat, eat, or ventilate again.

But the first part of Kramer’s quote is just as important as the second. Maybe more so. We absolutely must not let the government off the hook because if we do, it’ll be charities or bust for some of Britain’s most vulnerable people. And bust, right now, could easily mean dead. I realise that’s a highly emotive way of putting it. But it’s also the truth.