Sir Bert warns of threat to accessible transport if DPTAC is scrapped

One of the original architects of a pioneering government advice body has warned that coalition plans to scrap it would see accessible transport “disappear off the agenda”.

Sir Bert Massie drafted the amendment to the transport bill in 1984 that led to the setting up of a statutory Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC), and was a DPTAC member for more than 15 years.

But the Liberal Democrat transport minister Norman Baker wants to push ahead with plans to abolish DPTAC, and has launched another consultation to help him decide how it should be replaced.

Sir Bert, former chair of the Disability Rights Commission, said it was possible to trace nearly every major improvement in accessible transport since the 1980s back to DPTAC.

He said the move to scrap it was further evidence that the coalition did not believe in “properly involving disabled people in decision-making”, and added: “They are reducing opportunities for disabled people to influence policy across government.”

He said the idea that there were accessible transport experts already within the Department for Transport (DfT) was “absolutely laughable”.

He said: “The effect would be that current progress would be slowed down even further and there would be precious few new initiatives. It would simply disappear off the agenda.”

Sir Bert spoke out as both Alan Norton, a DPTAC member – although speaking in a personal capacity – and Labour’s shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle, also called for Baker to think again.

The renewed threat to DPTAC comes as the government plans massive cuts to spending on disability living allowance (DLA).

Norton said this could lead to a “substantial number” of users of the Motability car scheme having to give up their vehicles if and when they lose their DLA mobility support.

He believes this would come at a time when the public transport system was “not in a position to be able to cope” with all those disabled people who would still need to get to work.

Plans to scrap DPTAC were first announced in October 2010, as part of the coalition’s so-called “bonfire of the quangos”.

Now, after listening to advice from disabled experts, disabled people’s organisations – nearly all of which appear to want to retain DPTAC – and other groups, the DfT has published six options for how it can obtain “consensual, pan-disability advice” in the future.

Although one of the options is to retain DPTAC – the only option that would continue to see disabled experts being paid for their advice – Baker has told parliament he wants to scrap it.

Norton, chief executive of Assist UK, a charity which promotes independent living, said he believed DPTAC’s role was “absolutely crucial” at a “turning point” for disabled people, and called on disabled people to respond to the consultation.

But he warned that DPTAC had to be properly resourced.

The consultation document shows DPTAC’s budget for 2010-11 was less than £500,000, with 19 paid members and just six civil servants. Since 1 January 2011, this has been cut to 12 members and two civil servants, with the budget set to fall to £363,000 in 2014-15.

DPTAC members’ payments are often used to support the organisations they work for, and they frequently donate many extra hours to meet the workload demands, said Norton.

He said he believed it was “tokenistic” to ask disabled people to “offer their services without payment”, and added: “This can make them feel worthless and not recognised.  Many people on DPTAC are professionals and their contributions need to be recognised.”

Sir Bert said the government appeared to believe that improvements to society can only be made by paying million-pound bonuses, except with disabled people “who are the only people in society who work for free”.

Eagle, Labour’s former minister for disabled people, pledged this week that a Labour government would “restore DPTAC to its rightful place at the heart of decision-making” if it was abolished by the coalition.

She said: “The abolition of DPTAC is not only a backwards step in itself, but it is also symbolically extremely bad because DPTAC was a pioneer in the involvement of disabled people.”

Norton said she was “absolutely right”, and added: “It was a real model of what could be done and where disabled people were listened to, respected and actually saw some action.”

Baker’s preferred option is to set up a new “wide-ranging” panel of experts from which members could be drawn when specific advice was needed, combining this with input from Equality 2025, the government’s existing high-level advisory body of disabled people.

Other possible options include setting up a “stakeholder forum”, which again could be asked for advice when needed.

Baker told MPs: “I am seeking to ensure that any successor arrangement will continue to provide my department with consensual, pan-disability advice in a flexible way, and that any arrangement represents value for money.”


Minister steps back from new scooter laws

The government appears to have backed away from introducing new laws that could have forced users of mobility scooters and powered wheelchair to take out insurance, undergo training and take proficiency tests.

Two years ago, the previous government launched a consultation on possible reforms aimed at modernising the law on mobility vehicles.

The consultation document pointed to a “growing concern” about safety – particularly with scooters – although it said evidence suggested a “very low” number of injuries.

Responding to the subsequent consultation – which ended in May 2010 – Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat transport minister, said he would be meeting with “interested parties” to review the evidence on insurance, training, and the possibility of mandatory eye tests for users of class three scooters – those that travel at up to eight mph.

He said: “I am conscious of the crucial role such vehicles play in some people’s lives and that will be an important factor in deciding what further actions, if any, to take.”

Helen Dolphin, director of policy and campaigns for Disabled Motoring UK, said: “Our policy is that insurance should be compulsory because of the kind of problems people get into when they do not have insurance, such as injuring other people.”

But she said it would not be easy to introduce compulsory insurance, as there would probably also need to be some kind of driving test and licensing system for scooter-users.

She added: “We are very much in favour of training. People need to take responsibility for themselves and should seek training if they feel they need it.”

Dolphin said Disabled Motoring UK would continue to call on the government to introduce compulsory insurance.

Baker also said he had decided to make no changes to maximum permitted speeds or the current minimum age of 14 for using a class three vehicle.

But he did announce that the government would replace the outdated term “invalid carriage” in legislation.

And following recommendations by the transport select committee, Baker said the Department for Transport was now working with the industry to develop a kite-marking scheme that would let disabled people know in advance if they would be able to use their scooters on buses and trains.

Dolphin said she would be in favour of a kite-marking scheme if it helped cut the large number of scooter-users who are unfairly refused entry onto public transport.

Baker also announced the publication of new guidance for users of mobility scooters and powered wheelchairs on the road.

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Relief over government’s Access to Work driving U-turn

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has rewritten rules that were making it harder for disabled people to use a key employment support scheme to find and keep work.

The new rules had been highlighted by the Essex-based disabled people’s organisation ecdp in August after it was contacted by members and staff concerned by the new restrictions on Access to Work (AtW) funding.

The updated rules, introduced on 1 August, meant disabled people driven to and from work by their personal assistant (PA) were no longer able to claim AtW funding for that travel if they were being driven in their PA’s car.

Instead, they would have to insure the PA to drive their own car – if they had one – or a company car, or use taxis, or ask their PA to apply for a minicab licence.

The DWP claimed the new rules were introduced to comply with new Department for Transport (DfT) guidance on private hire vehicle licensing.

They came at a time when the government has been defending its commitment to the AtW scheme – only last week, government figures revealed alarming new evidence of a slump in the number of “new customers” helped by AtW.

Following coverage of the new AtW rules by Disability News Service and in other media, ecdp was contacted by other disabled people and organisations concerned about the implications of the changes.

The DWP has now agreed to return to its original rules, so that those using AtW to pay support workers to drive – using the support worker’s own car – will be able to continue to do so.

Mike Adams, ecdp’s chief executive, said: “We are delighted that DWP has reviewed the position and responded in such a positive way.

“We know that many disabled people with good jobs were concerned that the change in guidance would force them to give up the support that enables them to work.

“This commitment from DWP to ensure that this barrier does not prevent disabled people working with unnecessary constraints and at cost to the public purse, will be welcomed by disabled people in Essex and beyond.”

A DWP spokeswoman said: “The bar on AtW being used in this way was intended to protect support workers and disabled people from any possible prosecution by licensing authorities under a strict interpretation of the DfT legislation.

“Having considered and discussed with DfT their supplementary guidance we have concluded we can revert to our earlier position and this took effect from 12 October. AtW staff have contacted any individuals affected by the change.”

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Ticket office closures would add to transport access woes

The possible closure of hundreds of ticket offices would make it “nigh on impossible” for many disabled people to travel by train, MPs have heard.

The closure of 675 ticket offices was recommended in a report by Sir Roy McNulty, which is currently being considered by the Department for Transport.

Labour MP Lisa Nandy, who secured this week’s debate on disabled people’s access to public transport, called on the government not to approve the proposals.

Nandy said disabled young people had spoken to her of the “indignity and humiliation” they faced when they tried to travel by train, such as being unable to get on and off trains because there were no ramps, or the ramps being too long or too short, or there being no staff available to operate them.

She called on the government to put more pressure on train and bus companies to improve access.

Nandy said that many campaigning organisations, including Transport for All, Whizz-Kidz and Scope, had expressed concerns about access to public transport.

She said: “Not only did they say that the situation is not getting better fast enough, but many are concerned that the situation is getting worse and not better.”

The disabled Conservative MP Paul Maynard pointed to the investigation into rail access carried out by the Trailblazers network of young disabled people, and a subsequent public hearing held by the all-party group on young disabled people.

He said: “Some dreadful cases came to light. Buses pulled away sharply with wheelchairs going everywhere, and passengers with imbalance issues were sent flying.

“We cannot have passengers being left on trains, and we cannot have staff members ignoring them at stations. We cannot have that attitude, but we must recognise that there is a problem because of the age of many of our trains, buses and so on.”

The Liberal Democrat MP Dr Julian Huppert said the “sheer lack of information and the complexity involved in finding information make it very hard” for disabled people to plan a long-distance journey on public transport.

Lilian Greenwood, Labour’s new shadow transport minister, said government cuts of 26 per cent to transport spending would cause “unaffordable fare rises” and route closures.

She said: “Disabled people, who are often on low incomes and especially reliant on public transport, will be hit even harder.”

Mike Penning, the Conservative junior transport minister, said the situation for disabled people was “fundamentally wrong, but it is not easy to resolve”.

He said: “Constituents need to complain to their MPs and their MPs should tell us. If that happens, perhaps we can have a service for the 21st century that everyone deserves.”

Transport for All (TfA), which represents London’s disabled and older transport users, said before the debate that it had urged the government to reject McNulty’s proposals to close ticket offices and cut the jobs of up to 1,000 station staff.

TfA said many disabled people cannot use trains without the assistance of staff, with many blind people relying on them to guide them to platforms, wheelchair-users needing assistance to board trains safely, and many disabled people requiring advice on planning an accessible journey.

Other disabled people cannot use ticket machines and rely on staff to help buy a ticket, said TfA.

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Liberal Democrat conference: Quiet threat of electric vehicles ‘will be addressed’

The government is seeking international agreement on rules that would force car manufacturers to reduce the threat of their near-silent electric vehicles to the safety of blind pedestrians, a Liberal Democrat minister has announced.

Two months ago, a report for the government by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) downplayed the risk caused by quiet electric and hybrid vehicles to the safety of partially-sighted and blind pedestrians.

The Department for Transport (DfT) said then that a decision on whether manufacturers would be forced to add artificial noise to their electric and hybrid vehicles would be taken at European Union (EU) level.

The DfT said at the time that the TRL research would feed into the EU’s work, and that the government had yet to decide whether adding noise was a good idea.

But transport minister Norman Baker told a fringe meeting at this week’s party conference that the government was “on the case” and was trying to secure an “international agreement” on what level of sound would be needed, and what the sound itself would be.

He said this was a better approach than individual countries creating their own rules, which would just raise costs.

He told the meeting: “We are fully seized that there is the need for a sound with an electric vehicle.”

Blind and partially-sighted people have increasingly raised concerns about the environmentally-friendly vehicles because they say they are often impossible to hear approaching.

Engine noise can provide an indication of a vehicle’s speed, whether it is accelerating or decelerating, and how close it is to the pedestrian.

Jill Allen-King, chair of the European Blind Union’s commission on mobility and transport, welcomed the government’s new position.

She believes the issue is one of the two most important access and transport problems facing blind people across the world, together with shared space developments in town centres.

She has been among those blind campaigners who raised the electric vehicle issue with Baker this summer.

She added: “I welcome [the announcement] but they just need to make sure they put it into practice.”

The TRL report said accident statistics from 2005-2008 were inconclusive on whether electric and hybrid vehicles pose more of a risk to partially-sighted and blind pedestrians than cars with regular internal combustion engines.

But TRL’s own experiments with partially-sighted pedestrians in a semi-rural setting showed the risk was 1.4 times greater, and 1.3 times greater in urban conditions, while electric and hybrid vehicles were “far more difficult to detect” than normal engines at the “lowest steady speed and when pulling away from rest at the lowest speed”.

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New code could ease bus travel for scooter-users… but not in London

Campaigners have welcomed new rules that should make it easier for some mobility scooter-users to travel on buses.

The code of practice, drawn up by the industry body the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) and backed by the Department for Transport, puts in place standard procedures that should allow users of many scooters to use low-floor buses safely.

Disabled people will be able to apply for a free permit that will show the driver their scooter has been approved by the bus company and that they have been trained in how to board and alight from the bus safely.

The credit card-sized permit will be accepted by all bus operators in England that adopt the code, except for those in London – because of the refusal of Transport for London to sign up to the scheme – and will only apply to accessible, low-floor buses.

The code says that class three scooters – which are larger and faster – will not be approved for a permit, while class two scooters will be allowed on low-floor buses, as long as they are no more than 600mm wide, 1,000mm long and have a turning radius no bigger than 1,200mm.

Liberal Democrat transport minister Norman Baker said his department’s aim was “to give passengers clarity over which scooters will be accepted on a particular operator’s bus, and I hope that this initiative will go some way to achieve that”.

Sallyanne Currie, a scooter-user from Tottenham, north London, and a member of the accessible transport charity Transport for All (TfA), said the card was “a brilliant idea”.

Sometimes she is allowed to board a bus, but she is often refused, because Transport for London’s drivers are allowed some discretion in deciding which scooters are allowed on their buses.

Lianna Etkind, TfA’s campaigns and outreach co-ordinator, said: “Scooter-users face inconsistent treatment when travelling by bus: some bus drivers may allow them to board, while other flatly refuse them entry.

“With more people now using scooters than ever, we welcome CPT’s efforts to make it easier for scooter-users to know where they stand on bus access, and be able to travel with confidence.”

But she said bus operators must “do all they can to ensure the training which scooter-users must undergo to qualify for a permit is available quickly and easily”.

And she said it was “a shame that scooter-users in London will not be able to benefit from this permit system”.

Steve Whiteway, CPT’s president, said the code would “make clear to all concerned the types of mobility scooters our vehicles will be able to accommodate and will, I am sure, improve the service we provide”.

He called for bus operators adopting the code of practice to add their names to the CPT website.

So far, bus companies Arriva, Blackpool Transport Services, Country Bus, East Yorkshire Motor Services, Quality Bus, Safeguard, FirstGroup, National Express, Stagecoach, Thamesdown Transport and Western Greyhound have signed up to the code.

No-one from Transport for London was available to comment.

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Government puts brakes on cheap coach travel

The government is to stop the financial support that funds half-price long-distance coach travel for disabled and older people in England.

The decision was first announced quietly as part of last year’s spending review, but the Department for Transport (DfT) has now confirmed that the funding will stop on 31 October.

The concessions – a 50 per cent off-peak discount and a 30 per cent discount at peak times – have been in place since 2003 and are funded through a government grant handed to coach operators.

The DfT said the coach industry could continue offering a concession scheme “on a commercial basis”, but one company – National Express – is already encouraging disabled and older people to protest about the government’s decision.

National Express said it was “looking to introduce a replacement scheme”, but warned the discounts would not be as high as under the present scheme.

Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, criticised the government’s decision to cut funding for the scheme.

She said: “The loss of yet another transport service at a concessionary and therefore affordable price will lead to even further isolation of disabled people, preventing many from visiting friends and relatives.”

Neil Coyle, director of policy for Disability Alliance, added: “A third of disabled people already live in poverty in the UK, and discounted travel – especially long distance – has been a significant help to see family or to be able to take a short break.”

He said the DfT had failed to consult with disabled people over the withdrawal of funding and could have breached its duty under the Equality Act to assess properly the impact of its decisions on disabled and older people and other disadvantaged groups.

Eligibility for the scheme for disabled people is the same as for the national concessionary bus travel scheme, which is being retained by the government.

Theresa Villiers, the Conservative transport minister, said the “pressing need to tackle the deficit” had “required us to take a number of difficult decisions, including this one”.

She said: “For many older and disabled people a free local bus service can be a lifeline, providing access to employment, healthcare and other essential services.

“That is why we have given priority to the local concession scheme and retained it despite the deficit crisis. That has meant that some other areas of transport spending, such as support for long distance coach travel, have had to be cut.”

The coach companies will be able to claim funding for all bookings made up to 31 October 2011, even if the tickets are for travel on a later date.

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