Now is the winter of our discontent.
Historically, winter has evoked different reactions in all of us – some of us look forward to idyllic wintry scenes, featuring warm scarves and hats, crisp air and open fires. Others, like me, dread the darker evenings and dropping temperatures.
But this year, what unites many families across the nation is a genuine concern about their ability to make ends meet. Spiralling inflation making the weekly shop ever more expensive, rising interest rates driving up mortgage and rent payments, hikes in energy costs, and a weakened pound are a massive worry to us all. However, we are not all impacted equally.
Protecting the vulnerable
As a solicitor representing children with brain injuries, my clients are vulnerable and their families face challenges typical households simply do not.
The current Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has pledged to look after the country’s most vulnerable people, whilst the current Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, talks of “…a compassionate conservative government”. In the context of impending cuts to public spending, and the spectre of a global recession, what that protection looks like, and how that compassion manifests is unclear.
The government under former Prime Minister Liz Truss introduced the Energy Price Guarantee; a cap on energy costs meaning that “typical” households will not pay more than £2500 in energy bills per year and guaranteed this for 2 years. Then, when Jeremy Hunt was appointed Chancellor, he limited that cap to six months, so it will no longer be available in April 2023.What government protection for “non-typical” households and the most vulnerable will look like remains to be seen.
In my role as a child brain injury specialist solicitor, I see first-hand how families with children with serious health conditions fall squarely into the “non-typical household” bracket, and tend to have much higher energy needs than the average household.
Many of the children I represent rely on electrical equipment; some to keep them alive, others for their rehabilitation, communication and independence needs. Pieces of equipment such as ventilators, SATs machines, ceiling track hoists, powered wheelchairs, eye-gaze machines, sensory regulation equipment and height adjustable profiling beds are crucial to both my clients’ well-being and safety, and they use significant amounts of energy.
Furthermore, many children with brain injuries struggle to regulate their temperature; this means they need their homes to be heated to high temperatures throughout the winter, and they need air conditioning units and fans to be used around the clock to stay cool during the hotter, summer months. Fluctuating temperatures can provoke serious declines in medical condition and potentially dangerous seizure activity.
To date the government has refused to confirm that the benefits which some families rely on for survival, will increase in line with inflation.
None of this is “typical”.
It follows that this winter, some families will be facing a choice between feeding their children, or turning off their vital aids; which in most cases will worsen their child’s condition. This is an impossible choice, and not one any parent should have to contemplate.
What support is available?
As ever, charities are working tirelessly to raise awareness for families facing these challenges.
Contact, a charity which supports families with disabled children have initiated a campaign ‘Out of Energy’ to call on the government and energy companies to offer a special tariff for families with sick/disabled children. They are gathering data and working hard to highlight to the government the scale and urgency of the crisis some families are facing.
There are some steps that families can take now:
- Register with the Priority Services Register for each energy provider if they have a child with disabilities. This offers a range of services and protections such as support during power cuts, home visits, accommodation in certain situations, and community welfare support.
- Check if their energy suppliers have signed up to a vulnerability commitment meaning they can’t knowingly disconnect a vulnerable customer.
- Access government additional costs of living payments.
- Use online eligibility checkers for benefits, grants, welfare assistance schemes and council tax discounts.
- Consider tips for saving non-essential energy use.
Charities such as Cerebra, also offer vital support to families, for example, with their Legal Rights Service which provides advice and template letters to help families of children with brain conditions access support and services.
Support through litigation
Where a child’s brain injury has been caused by negligence, support can also be provided through a compensation claim. Whilst we cannot turn back the clock, by helping children with brain injuries bring a claim, we can secure compensation to fund their complex and evolving needs, including family support, therapy, care, equipment, accommodation and running costs. Once an admission of liability has been secured, it is usually possible to access early payments of compensation for claimants to fund their immediate needs.
In the current climate, more so than ever, the help that can be offered through compensation cannot be overstated.
A final thought
In these unprecedented times, government promises of compassion and protection for the vulnerable need to sound meaningful in action and policy.
The political and economic landscape feels like it is constantly shifting beneath our feet, and the impact of this on families who already face the pressures that can come with having a child with additional needs is unfairly mounting.
I would encourage families of children with disabilities to consider all the options available to them, to try and stay up to date with charity campaigns and their results, and to continue to push to get access to all the extra help they are currently eligible for, in the hope that pending the announcement of further support, they can make what threatens to be a winter of discontent bearable.
Claudia Hillemand is a Partner in the specialist Child Brain Injury team at Bolt Burdon Kemp. The firm is based in London, but represents clients across the country. The team are passionate about fighting for compensation for children who have sustained brain injury as a result of clinical negligence or due to accidents.
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