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.”

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Railcard journeys treble in 15 years, but industry ‘still has more to do on access’

The rail industry still has more to do to improve access, despite increasing numbers of disabled people using railcards, according to a leading expert.

The Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) this week marked the 30th anniversary of the Disabled Persons Railcard by releasing figures which showed journeys made using the card had trebled in the last 15 years.

Despite the recession, journey numbers have continued to rise in recent years, from about 2.8 million in 2008-09 to 3.2 million in 2009-10 and 3.5 million last year.

There are now 122,000 railcards in use by disabled people, an increase of more than 40,000 in just five years.

The railcard offers passengers and their companions a third off most rail fares across Britain, with the average card-holder saving £80 a year.

ATOC said the continuing rise in the number of journeys made was due to the success of the railcard, and “significant improvements in facilities and services on trains”, and also pointed to Stations Made Easy, an interactive web guide launched in 2009 that shows access facilities and layouts of all Britain’s 2,500 stations.

Ann Bates, a disabled transport access consultant and former chair of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee’s rail working group, said access had improved but there were still a “huge number of stations that have got no access whatsoever”.

She said one of the key reasons that more disabled people were able to use the rail network was the improvements paid for through the 10-year, £370 million Access for All fund launched by the Labour government in 2006.

Bates sat on the committee that advised the government how to spend the Access for All funds.

She said: “We spent the money very, very carefully. We put lifts in where they were really needed and spent a lot of money on things like automatic doors that help not just wheelchair-users but also elderly people.”

They also ensured the funding was spread geographically, so it was not just spent on the busiest London stations.

But she said the railcard had made a difference, particularly after ATOC relaxed its eligibility criteria.

ATOC now hopes that the new web-based version of its Assisted Passenger Reservation System (APRS), which went live in November 2011, will make travelling easier for disabled passengers.

The previous system relied on faxes being sent to alert station staff that a disabled person would need assistance, with passengers often having to spend up to half-an-hour explaining their access requirements on the booking line every time they wanted to make a rail journey.

Last year, the rail consumer watchdog Passenger Focus found disabled rail passengers were still being left stranded on trains and platforms because of continuing failures with APRS.

But ATOC believes the new web-based system makes booking “quicker and easier”.

Some stations do still receive bookings by fax, but ATOC said that “most are now migrating to email”.

An ATOC spokeswoman said that “ATOC and train companies absolutely recognise that improving facilities for disabled rail passengers is still a ‘work in progress’” but that there have been “significant improvements” in recent years “thanks to millions of pounds invested by the government and industry as a whole”.

She said: “We know that the discounts offered with the railcard are a huge help to holders, but we also know that guaranteed assistance from trained staff is also a major reason for increased travel.”

She added: “Britain has the oldest rail infrastructure in the world, but also has the highest level of investment in improving accessibility, with millions spent every year.”

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Airline no closer to solution on powered wheelchairs five years on

An airline has been unable to explain why it is still refusing to accept powered wheelchairs on its flights, at least five years after the issue was first raised publicly.

EasyJet claims health and safety rules mean it cannot ask baggage handlers to load any wheelchairs that weigh more than 60kg onto its aircraft.

The issue was highlighted this week after the mother of 12-year-old Declan Spencer, from Leicester, was told by easyJet that it would not allow his powered wheelchair into the hold of their holiday flight to Cyprus because it was too heavy.

EasyJet said it “welcomes more than a quarter of a million passengers with reduced mobility every year and we regularly carry powered wheelchairs, provided they can be collapsed into separate parts weighing less than 60kg each”.

But it has been unable to explain why it cannot pay for suitable equipment to load heavier wheelchairs onto its aircraft, or why it appears to have taken no steps to solve the problem since at least 2006.

Five years ago, Clare Gray, from Gloucestershire, raised almost identical concerns to the Spencers when easyJet told her it could not carry her wheelchair on a flight from Bristol to Newcastle because it exceeded the 60kg weight limit.

Declan’s mother Alexandra has now had to cancel their easyJet seats at short notice and book with another company, Thomson Airways.

She said easyJet’s policy was “ludicrous and discriminatory”, and added: “We have been told that they are refusing to carry Declan’s wheelchair on health and safety grounds to protect their staff, but this seems extremely hollow when you consider that every other airline in this country is prepared to accommodate us.”

European regulations, introduced in 2008, should prevent airlines discriminating against passengers with “reduced mobility”.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is supposed to enforce the regulations, but this week it said it was “still reviewing the circumstances of the complaint to identify whether easyJet acted reasonably”.

CAA said each case “should be treated on its respective merits and the airline should work to find a solution where practicable”, while it was working with UK airlines on the issue of wheelchair weight and had raised the matter with the European Commission.

The Spencers’ case was taken up by the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign (MDC), whose Trailblazers network of young disabled campaigners criticised easyJet in a report last August.

MDC said it was “totally unacceptable” for an airline to impose a rule that “makes it all but impossible for users of powered wheelchairs to use their service”.

An MDC spokeswoman added: “It seems to us that other budget airlines have found solutions. How is it that Thomson are finding solutions and easyJet aren’t?”

Ann Bates, a disabled transport access consultant and former deputy-chair of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, has flown often with easyJet and always supervises baggage handling staff as they remove two heavy batteries from her chair, taking the weight below 60kg.

But she said some wheelchairs were not so easy to dismantle, while she also would not want to risk baggage handlers dropping her chair.

Bates said it seemed “reasonable” for easyJet to invest in machinery that could load heavier powered wheelchairs onto its aircraft.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Minister defends decision to abolish ‘different era’ DPTAC

A transport minister has described the government’s accessible transport advice body as “a creature from another era”, as he tried to justify the decision to abolish it.

Liberal Democrat Norman Baker was speaking as two members of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) were in north London to help him launch government reform of the blue badge parking scheme.

Four months ago, the government announced that DPTAC would be abolished, as part of its so-called “bonfire of the quangos”.

Baker accepted that DPTAC had played an important role in advising on the reforms, and he said: “We also listen very carefully to DPTAC.”

But when asked by Disability News Service why the government was scrapping the advisory body, he said: “They were created in a time when legislation did not mainstream disability issues. They are a creature from a different era.”

He said the government would “still have access to the expertise” but would “just arrange it in a different way”.

Dai Powell, chair of DPTAC, replied: “I am a creature from a different era and hopefully for the future as well.”

He said the government had worked “very closely” with DPTAC on its blue badge reforms.

When asked whether he was happy that the government was abolishing DPTAC, he said: “It is important for us that the views of disabled people are heard at the highest level.”

Helen Dolphin, a DPTAC member and director of policy and campaigns for the charity Mobilise, who was also at the launch, added: “We also have to recognise that although there have been improvements it is still very, very difficult for disabled people to get around.

“There has been progress but it is still a very inaccessible transport system for disabled people.”

She said later: “I sincerely hope there will be a successor body.”

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Blue badge reforms are ‘huge step forward’

The government has announced major reforms of the blue badge parking scheme for disabled people – the first on such a scale since its launch 40 years ago.

Councils will be forced to use more independent mobility assessments – instead of asking GPs to assess applicants – of those who do not qualify automatically for a badge.

How this will work has not yet been finalised, with new guidance for councils expected in May or June.

Included in the reforms is a long-awaited plan for a national database of the 2.5 million badge-holders, which should make it easier for councils to enforce the scheme. The database could include badges issued in Wales and Scotland.

Councils will be given “tough” new enforcement powers, including the right to cancel badges that have been lost, stolen, have expired or been withdrawn due to misuse, and on-the-spot powers to confiscate such badges.

The government also plans to contract a company to design, print and supply all blue badges across England – with a new electronic badge that will be harder to forge and alter – although councils will still process applications.

The maximum fee a council can charge will rise from £2 to £10, the first increase in nearly 30 years.

It will also be possible to renew badges online through the government’s directgov website.

The government says faster renewals and less abuse could save £20 million a year.

The National Fraud Authority’s latest estimate is that blue badge fraud costs the UK about £46 million a year.

Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat transport minister, said at the launch of the new plans in Camden, north London, that they would ensure the badge was “fit for purpose” and that “people who need blue badges can get them and use them”.

He also promised to write to supermarkets to encourage them to tackle abuse of accessible parking bays in their own carparks.

Dai Powell, chair of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC), said the plans were “a huge step forward” but it was vital that they delivered “integrity” to the scheme.

Helen Dolphin, a DPTAC member and director of policy and campaigns at the charity Mobilise, said: “I am pleased that at last we have some reforms that are hopefully going to make a difference to the tremendous abuse the scheme is still suffering from.”

She said too many local authorities were issuing badges to people who do not need them.

Eligibility for the badge will also be extended to more disabled children aged between two and three, with automatic entitlement given to disabled service personnel and veterans with high support needs.

Many of the changes announced will be introduced within a year.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Government ‘should copy DPTAC, not scrap it’

The government should rethink the decision to scrap its accessible transport advice body and even set up similar committees in other departments, according to a disabled peer.

Lord [Colin] Low said the Department for Transport (DfT) had “lost its focus” on disability issues, and abolishing the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) would be a further backward step.

He told fellow peers that DPTAC was one of the first such bodies representing disabled people in which at least half of its members had to be disabled themselves, and that it had won over senior figures in the transport sector.

During discussion of the public bodies bill – which will give ministers powers to scrap organisations like DPTAC – Lord Low also called on the government to rethink its plans to abolish the Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board.

He said the board would have saved government “red faces” over the much-criticised plans to remove the mobility component of disability living allowance (DLA) from most people in residential care.

He added: “Axing the body risks undermining the government’s ability to understand the benefit and provides ammunition to those who suggest that the government’s plans are unfair.”

The Labour peer Lord McKenzie said the government seemed to want to abolish DPTAC because it “has a degree of independence and takes forward areas of work that reflect its own priorities and not necessarily those of the government”.

And he questioned how the government could now ensure that disabled people’s voices were not “drowned out by those of transport providers”.

Other peers also called on the government to reprieve the two disability bodies.

But Lord Freud, the Conservative welfare reform minister, said he could “see no circumstances in which this would be desirable” because they “no longer reflect the world in which they operate”.

He said the DLA board had not been asked by the government to provide advice since November 2008 and had “outlived its useful life”.

He said that Equality 2025, the government’s advisory network of disabled people, was “well placed to provide personal insight into the effects of policy initiatives”, while the Office for Disability Issues now organises “a much wider range of channels from disabled people’s organisations and groups”.

But he admitted that abolishing the DLA Advisory Board would not save any money.

Lord Freud said access to transport had been “transformed” over the last 25 years, while disability equality was now a “core element” of the DfT’s work.

He said there would be a consultation on how to replace DPTAC “in the coming months”.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

New Year Honours: OBE recipient criticises decision to scrap DPTAC

One of the country’s leading experts on access in the transport industry has been awarded an OBE, less than three months after the government decided to scrap the advice body she served on for nine years.

Ann Bates, a wheelchair-user herself, was deputy chair of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) and chaired the committee’s rail group.

But in October, the government decided to scrap DPTAC as a cost-cutting measure, as part of its notorious “bonfire of the quangos”.

Bates is deeply critical of the government’s decision, and said that a review of DPTAC’s work found it was doing a “fabulous” job. She said she believed that she and other DPTAC members provided “value for money”.

Her comments came as the Commons public administration committee heavily criticised the government’s “quango bonfire”, and said the process was “rushed and poorly handled”, the tests used to evaluate each public body – including DPTAC – were “hopelessly unclear”, and there was “no system of consultation with the bodies concerned or with the public”.

Bates said she was mystified as to why the government decided to scrap DPTAC.

She said: “Who knows why the government gets rid of things? It’s something that I just don’t understand.

“There is still a job to do and I have no idea who will do it. I am disappointed that all the work we put in is in danger of drizzling away.”

Bates – who works as a rail and air access consultant – said DPTAC had been instrumental in the “huge strides” made in improving access to rail and aviation and that scrapping the committee would “cause some problems”.

She said she was “very surprised” to be awarded the OBE – for services to disabled people – which was announced on the final day of her third and final term of office with DPTAC.

Once described by a rail journalist as the “Disability Taliban”, she believes she gradually won over senior members of the rail industry and demonstrated that making trains more accessible would also help their services run more smoothly.

She said: “Anything that makes your journey smoother helps the railways as well as us. By the end of our run, I think people saw that and I think I gained the respect of people in the rail industry.”

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com