2000px-International_Symbol_of_Access.svgWhen campaigners talk about vulnerable groups bearing the brunt of austerity policies, it is sometimes hard to know what that means.

However, the way councils have increased charges to the elderly and disabled for the services essential to daily living is a very concrete example.

Disabled people likewise are charged if they need help to prepare meals, get out of bed or get out of the house. Older people pay for alarms to call for assistance if they fall, and other telecare systems that help them live independently.

This is not new. However, in the context of challenging council budgets, charges have been rising, while councils tighten criteria about who is eligible to pay.

Disability Living Allowance, a benefit intended to pay for extra costs associated with having a disability, is often now reclaimed by councils to help meet care costs.

But this means funding for other expenses it was intended to help with, such as extra heating or laundry, have to be found from elsewhere.

The sense of injustice felt by many disabled people is compounded by the wide variations in charging policy and the levels of charges across the country.

A system of income disregards lets those with disabilities hold on to some of their resources before charges kick in. But campaigners say 23 councils have set that disregard level so low that people living on or below the breadline are being asked to pay care charges.

The Scotland Against the Care Tax campaign says charges should be abolished completely.

But is that justifiable? Councils argue that they have levied charges for care costs since the 1950s. Some people with disabilities have higher incomes than others, they say. Someone has to pay, and those who can afford to should do so.

There are two separate issues here. Firstly, it seems wrong that the level of income at which charges begin to accrue is so low in so many areas. Attempts by Cosla to clarify the rules and make council systems more consistent have not yet borne fruit and it is important that they do so soon.

However, the second issue is about raised expectations. Disabled people have been told, and it is enshrined in policy at central and local level, that they have an equal right to participate fully in life and live an independent existence.

Quite rightly, people with disabilities now want to insist on that right. And they are not clear what is equal about having to pay so heavily to make it a reality.

Councils have limited room for manoeuvre. They have to balance the books.

But there is a wider question here about who should pay for the help vulnerable groups need to play the fullest part possible in Society.

It might be the case that the taxpayer should shoulder the burden, but this is a decision for the Scottish Parliament.

A petition to be presented there in a few weeks will give MSPs the opportunity to begin to consider it.

Herald Scotland