National Ombudsmen
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Suffolk Council criticised for cancelling Talking Books service for some blind users

There were flaws in the way Suffolk County Council decided to cancel subscriptions to an audio book service for some blind and visually impaired adults, finds Local Government Ombudsman, Dr Jane Martin.

In her report, issued recently, she says: “They will rightly feel aggrieved that they have lost out on an opportunity to influence a decision affecting them and to have a say in what and how services are provided to them. They may have had opportunities to join in normal and important aspects of personal life, such as education and leisure activities, diminished.”

The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) complained on behalf of seven blind or visually impaired adults about the Council’s decision to stop paying for them to have RNIB’s Talking Books service. Talking Books is an audio books service provided by the RNIB on an annual subscription (currently £82), designed to meet the needs of people who are blind or visually impaired.

The Ombudsman found fault in the way the Council decided to cancel the complainants’ subscriptions, in particular, that it:

  • did not properly consider the likely impact on disabled service users
  • did not consider the need to promote equality of opportunity and to take account of disabilities, even where that involves treating disabled people more favourably than others
  • failed to carry out individual consultation or assess the impact on individual users before it decided to set, retrospectively, a ‘minimum usage’ of 20 books per user below which it would not fund a subscription
  • did not identify that it funded Talking Books under community care legislation
  • did not use the social care complaints procedure to respond to a complaint made by one complainant, and
  • did not consider carrying out social care assessments for those whose subscriptions it stopped.

The Council agreed to implement the Ombudsman’s recommendations to remedy the injustice. It has updated its equality training and provided further training to its staff on the public sector equality duty and equality impact assessments. It will also reconsider its decision in each case having proper regard to its legal duties and will:

  • contact the 250 people whose subscriptions it stopped and assess the impact on them, and review the decision to stop funding
  • offer social care assessments to everyone whose subscription it stopped and reinstate it if, following a social care assessment, there is an eligible social care need that a subscription could meet, and
  • pay compensation equal to the value of the lost subscription to anyone who has the service reinstated.

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