Thousands are being pursued for unpaid social care costs

Julia, who is shown at home supported by floral pillows and who has debts totaling £4,700, has severe mobility issues

Last year, councils in England pursued debts from more than 60,000 adults with disabilities and chronic illnesses who had not paid for the social care support they needed at home.

Claimants told the BBC that they are unable to pay the fees due to rising rent and food prices as well as the additional expenses of living with a disability.

In 2021–2022, councils filed lawsuits against 330 individuals.

According to the Local Government Association, this was a "last resort.".

In nearly every region of England, councils require social care recipients to pay a portion of the cost of the home care they receive, but according to a previous BBC investigation, annual costs for some adults had increased by thousands of pounds.

Some disabled people have now told the BBC that they felt they had no choice but to live without home care, while other disabled people have said that they were afraid of being visited by bailiffs due to unpaid debts.

Disabled people "must live on very, very little money" due to the discriminatory charges, according to the advocacy group Disabled People Against Cuts.

It claimed that due to local government overwork, financial assessments were frequently hurried and occasionally did not account for recent increases in rent and utility costs.

The campaign group claimed that in many instances, councils neglected to take into account all the additional costs that disabled people must pay to maintain their health and wellbeing, such as those associated with accessible transportation, adapted clothing, or special dietary requirements.

In England, only those with the greatest need for assistance and savings or assets below £23,250 are qualified for council-funded care.

Greater Manchester resident Paula Robinson claims she was "shocked and distraught" to receive a letter from her council threatening legal action even as she was contesting the increased fees that put her in debt by £3,000.

She has chronic fatigue syndrome, also known as ME, as well as an endocrine disorder, and claims that the stress of the debt made her wonder if "life is worth living.".

The cost of her social care package, which included visits from caregivers who prepared meals and assisted with bathing, had increased by more than £4,000 a year, from £10 to £93 per week, according to the council.

Paula claims that the increased costs "wiped out" her ability to pay for the vitamins and physiotherapy that help her manage her ME because she is a benefits recipient.

The council eventually wrote off the £3,000 debt.

Paula chose to decline any further social care and is currently living without home assistance because she is still subject to the higher weekly fees of £93.

She said this has led to a deterioration in her physical health.

Because of my illness, "I can't even have family come visit sometimes," she said.

Rochdale Borough Council said it uses full financial assessments to ensure payments are fair, and takes a "sensitive, case-by-case approach" to recovering debt.

Campaigner Rick Burgess pictured at the offices of Disabled People Against Cuts
Rick Burgess, from Disabled People Against Cuts, said some assessments did not take into account hikes in the cost of living.

Data from 79 of the 152 local authorities in England that the BBC was able to obtain through Freedom of Information requests reveals that in 2021–2022, councils started more than 60,000 debt collection procedures against community-based social care claimants.

One of those worrying about enforcement action is Julia, who has severe mobility issues and a rare skin condition, and receives 13 hours of support each week at her home in St Leonards-on-Sea.

Julia, who lives on benefits, says she is unable to afford the charges of more than £58 a week, and was taken to court last year by her local authority for a debt of £4,700.

She is now fearful that bailiffs will be used against her.

"I'm always trying to be positive, but the fight is wearing me out and making me more ill," she said.

East Sussex County Council said the debt recovery process "will only ever begin after extensive discussions and assessments".

Campaigner Rick Burgess, from Disabled People Against Cuts, is now calling for all councils to update claimants' assessment to reflect the rising cost of living, and to put in place better support for those struggling with repayments.

Councillor David Fothergill of the Local Government Association, which represents councils in England, told the BBC rising demand and squeezed budgets meant councils had to collect money owed, but that legal action was a last resort.

"What councils should be doing, and I think the vast majority of councils do in the vast majority of cases, is they work with residents to find a solution [for how the debt can be settled]. ".

The Department of Health and Social Care said regulations ensured local authorities leave claimants with a set amount of money to live off once their social care charges have been paid - known as the "minimum income guarantee".

The amount changes to meet different people's circumstances.  Single claimants over the state pension age currently have a protected income of £194.70 a week.

Approaches to social care charging differ across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where expected contributions are lower than in most councils in England.

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