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.”