Boris Johnson promised to take action three years ago. Since then, nothing has happened and over-burdened parents are being forced to court to access the money saved for their children.
We’ve become all too familiar with this Government being alarmingly out of touch with people’s real lives. But the decision taken yesterday not to help disabled young people and their families access their own savings takes their uncaring attitude to a new low.
The issue facing the Ministry of Justice and the Treasury was over how disabled children without the mental capacity to manage their finances can legally access their Child Trust Funds – and by implication how others can access their Junior ISAs.
Child Trust Funds (CTFs) are a type of savings accounts set up by the government back in 2005. The concept was to encourage families to save for a nest egg for their children, who could access the cash when they turned 18.
The first generation of 18-year-olds started to be able to access the money in their Child Trust Funds two years ago – and many young people have. Except many disabled young people, who have found themselves locked out from their own savings. Because they don’t have capacity to open a bank account, their savings are locked, and the only way parents can unlock the money is by going to court to be appointed a deputy for their finances.
Ministers have been promising to tackle this discrimination and unfairness for nearly three years – but have now decided the challenge is just too difficult. A proposal was suggested to allow parents get access to their children’s money without going to court, but this proposal was roundly rejected by the Government yesterday. Obviously, it’s proved far more difficult than the Northern Ireland Protocol.
I was first alerted to this problem by the father of Mikey, a young man who is severely disabled due to a neuro-degenerative condition. As his disabilities prevent him from managing his own finances, Mikey couldn’t access his savings himself. And under the rules governing CTFs, nor could his parents.
I should declare an interest. My 15-year-old son, John, also has a small Child Trust Fund, and he’s severely disabled too. We dream about him being able to understand that he has savings he could spend. But sadly it’s a pipe dream to think John could ever manage his own finances.
Mikey and John aren’t alone in this. There are tens of thousands of disabled young people with Child Trust Funds who are or will be in the same position as they turn 18. Thousands more will face exactly the same obstacles when they try to access their Junior ISAs – the newer saving vehicles that replaced Child Trust Funds.
In the vast majority of cases, a disabled young person’s CTF won’t be that valuable. Most will only have a couple of thousand pounds in them. But that’s the point: for not a lot of money, ministers are forcing some families of disabled young people to jump through hoops, that families of more able-bodied youngsters won’t have to.
After Mikey’s dad made me aware of the problem, I decided to take it to the top, raising it at Prime Minister’s Questions back in 2020. Boris Johnson promised to look into it.
There then followed a long series of meetings, emails and promises of action. And at first, it seemed ministers wanted to help – albeit not with the straightforward solutions we proposed, and which financial services firms managing CTFs told us were the best solutions.
Instead, justice ministers decided they still wanted to force the parents of the disabled young person to apply to the Court of Protection (CoP) for the legal power to manage their child’s finances – as opposed to using procedures used elsewhere in government, for example, at the Department for Work and Pensions with respect to a disabled young person’s benefits.
While we felt this would still mean a discriminatory and unnecessary prolonged system for disabled young people, we engaged in a constructive manner. And to be fair, ministers began well, agreeing to waive the application fee, so parents could apply to the CoP for free. And they promised to make the lengthy and complicated court process much simpler. But then nothing.
Time and again, we were told they were studying the problem. Eventually they decided to consult. Ministers came and went during the chaotic deck-chair rearranging that’s characterised this Government. Now it’s Dominic Raab in charge, in his second stint at the Ministry of Justice.
Unsurprisingly, the consultation process has been far from perfect. Parents of disabled young people felt fobbed off and excluded. Alternative solutions were not examined.
So when news broke this week that the consultation has finally wrapped up, with the conclusion that parents of disabled young people will still need to apply to the CoP, no-one was surprised. The feeling is more of depressed resignation. Justice ministers of course are still promising to “simplify” the CoP process and “improve” waiting times – yet they’re still failing to detail how they will actually do that.
This Government just doesn’t get it. If you’re a parent of a disabled young person, believe me, life can be stressful enough. By the time they turn 18, you will have battled bureaucracy after bureaucracy – from fighting for an education, health and care plan that meets your child’s needs to repeated requests for a little respite care. You worry about their future – not least, what happens when you’re gone.
So you might have thought any government, with a modicum of compassion, might have wanted to make accessing people’s own money a bit easier. Especially for disabled young people. Especially when it won’t cost the Treasury a penny.
The Justice secretary’s failure to tackle this simple injustice is beyond disgraceful.
To be clear, I’m not worried about my own son, John – or even Mikey. I’m aware of the problem, and thanks to my wife’s legal training, we won’t be put off by the hassle and inconvenience of going to the Court of Protection. And Mikey’s father is so smart and capable, even this Government’s obduracy hasn’t stopped him. But we worry about the tens of thousands of families who aren’t aware. And if and when they become aware, will feel going to court is just too much hassle, given all the other challenges they face. Given how tired they are of fighting. Given the sums involved are relatively small.
Compassionate conservatism? Don’t make me laugh.
Written by Ed Davey – the leader of the Liberal Democrats party
1 March 2023