ZannaTHE Government has backed down over its plans to cut Disabled Students’ Allowances. The decision has put a big smile on Zanna Messenger-Jones, 17, who hopes to start university in September.

Last month two disabled students were given the green light to launch a judicial review on behalf of others who felt ‘ignored’ due to the Government’s failure to consult on proposed restrictions to grants that were due to start this September.

But this week the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said that the changes “should be deferred until 2016/17 and that these changes would only be made once continued consultation with the sector and stakeholders has taken place”.

Awarded to more than 60,000 students with a range of disabilities from sensory impairment to mental health conditions, DSA pays for support such as support workers, specialist equipment and accommodation, which helps them complete their studies.

In 2012/13, nearly £150m was spent on DSA for undergraduate students.
Under proposals announced last April – and subject to a consultation that closed last month – the Government planned to reduce DSA for items including specialist equipment and accommodation and instead expect the universities to meet the shortfall.

Specialist law firm Irwin Mitchell, with the support of the National Deaf Children’s Society and Ambitious about Autism, challenged the way in which BIS consulted on the proposed changes.

Granting permission for the Judicial Review to proceed, Mrs Justice Laing said she was “not impressed” with the argument that there was no duty to consult.

Alex Rook, a specialist public lawyer at Irwin Mitchell, said: “Thousands of students are reliant on this support to enjoy a fulfilling and rewarding higher education, but the proposals meant there was a real concern many could be left without the help they need.

“We believe the student community should have been given a proper chance to have their voices heard on this matter prior to any decision being made and we are delighted that Government has done a U-turn on plans to introduce the changes this year.

“There is much confusion regarding these plans, with even our partner charities not being sure what they will mean for many disabled people going forward. It is vital that these plans are given proper consideration and we are determined to ensure our clients can access the help they require and deserve.”

Irwin Mitchell brought the legal challenge on behalf of Zanna Messenger-Jones, 17, who has hearing difficulties and who hopes to start university in September, and Joseph Bell, 19, a current student with autism who receives DSA.

Both say they have major concerns regarding the consultation process into the proposals and believe the plans could prevent many disabled students from accessing a university education or being able to complete their studies.

Susan Daniels, CEO for the National Deaf Children’s Society, said:

“The proposed changes threatened to severely compromise deaf young people’s access to higher education. It was unacceptable that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills was proposing to push ahead without consulting those most directly affected. Deaf students should not have to take legal action to force the Government to listen.”

Jolanta Lasota, chief executive of Ambitious about Autism, said:

“DSA is critical for students with autism and many tell us that they simply would not manage in university without having this additional support. It will be a great relief to next year’s disabled students that DSA will remain available.

“However, we’re concerned what the next government will do in 2016/17 and we hope it will listen to common sense and take into account the needs of these students and the negative impact on them and the economy of not supporting them.”

Irwin Mitchell is currently reviewing whether the application for judicial review will proceed in the light of the government’s change of position.