An 87-year-old woman who relies on regular visits from care workers has been threatened with having her case turned over to a debt collection agency if she does not pay more than £1,200 to Hammersmith and Fulham Council.
The pensioner was told she no longer qualified for free home care when the authority began charging her and hundreds of others for the service two years ago, and she was asked to pay £26.73 a week from last February.
But the octogenarian, who lives on the Edward Woods estate, failed to pay her bills and was sent a final warning letter from the council last month.
In a document seen by the Chronicle, the council's finance manager, Zelealem Tessema wrote: "In accordance with the debt recovery procedure of the council, on February 2 a debt recovery letter advising her that her account is seriously overdue and failure to settle the account or contact the home care charging team to discuss payment will result in the account being transferred to our debt recovery agency."
Critics of the approach claim hundreds of other elderly and vulnerable residents have also been sent threatening letters since home care charges were brought in by the Conservative administration.
Previously, Hammersmith and Fulham had been one of the few authorities left in the country which did not demand some contribution towards the cost of the service.
In a debate at an annual budget meeting last week, opposition leader Stephen Cowan said Labour would abolish home care charges.
Referring to the 87-year-old resident, he said: "I spoke to this lady and she seemed quite confused.
"I'm told there are hundreds of people across the borough that you have referred to a debt agency – we don't think that's better value services for those people."
Council leader Stephen Greenhalgh said only 340 people across the borough had been invoiced for care since the charges were introduced, and praised the budget for including another three per cent cut in council tax for all residents.
He said: "We were elected with a very clear mandate to cut council tax bills year on year, so I'm proud that this is the fourth year that we're proposing to cut it.
"It's an achievement unsurpassed in the history of local government and I'm proud that other councils across the country are starting to do the same thing."
He added: "None of these cuts have been at the expense of the poor and disadvantaged. The vast majority of council tax spent is on protecting the vulnerable."
Making his last speech as a Labour councillor before standing down, Reg McLaughlin said he had been dismayed by the introduction of home care charges.
"Doing this is nothing but putting a tax on disability," he said.
And Debbie Domb, of Hammersmith and Fulham Coalition Against Community Care Cuts, said:
"So many people have lost services. I know people who have worked all their lives and have a minimal pension, and they have to pay charges because they have an income, whereas if they had millions stashed away in savings, they wouldn't have to pay.
"It's an extremely scary time for disabled people."
Mr Greenhalgh this week remained unapologetic about the approach taken by the council.
He said: "We have not sent any debt collection agency to anyone's home in order to collect home care charges. We have made every effort to minimise the impact of introducing home care charging.
"If individual people refuse to cooperate, despite numerous offers of help from our staff, we have a duty to recover the money that is owed. This is because if we are to retain our commitment to the widest possible access to care services, we have no option but to ask for contributions from those more able to afford it."