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.”

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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.

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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”.

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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.”

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Stay of execution for ILF but DPTAC will go

The government has given a stay of execution to the Independent Living Fund (ILF) – despite fears that it was about to be abolished – but has confirmed that it will scrap its accessible transport advice body.

The decision to abolish the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) was announced by the Cabinet Office as part of its review of quangos.

Among those bodies on which a decision has been postponed are the ILF and Remploy, which provides employment services to disabled people, including running 54 sheltered factories.

The government also confirmed that the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) will be retained, although the Government Equalities Office (GEO) said part of its work could be given to other organisations, and reports suggest it will face a heavy cut in its budget.

Sue Bott, director of the National Centre for Independent Living (NCIL), said she had spoken to Maria Miller, the minister for disabled people, about the ILF’s future the day before the announcement.

Bott said she was “very pleased” that Miller had promised a consultation on any changes.

But she said she feared the government would still scrap the fund – which supports disabled people with high support needs to live independently – and pass its £359 million-a-year budget to local authorities.

She said she also feared that this money would be allocated to councils based on their size, rather than on the number of ILF recipients in their area.

Bott added: “It is all very worrying. On the other hand, she was keen to give some reassurance to people who have got ILF currently, but I don’t really know how much reassurance she can realistically give.”

The government also confirmed that its advisory network of disabled people, Equality 2025, was safe from the axe and would instead take on new duties as a result of the quango cull – a decision Bott welcomed.

Its new duties will include the work of the Disability Employment Advisory Committee and some of the advice currently provided by the Disability Living Allowance/Attendance Allowance Advisory Board, both of which will be scrapped.

Alan Norton, a DPTAC member and chief executive of Assist UK, said before this week’s announcement that it would be a “terrible mistake” if DPTAC was scrapped.

He said DPTAC was a “real success story” in which disabled people had “influenced change in the country”.

The Department for Transport said it would “continue to ensure transport policies promote equality” but the legislation governing DPTAC was now 25 years old, and there was “scope to reform the way disability advice is delivered to increase flexibility and accountability to the taxpayer”.  It will consult on how it plans to replace DPTAC’s work. 

The GEO said the EHRC would be “radically reformed”, although there will be a consultation on any changes.

It said the EHRC would be “refocused on its core functions” of regulating equality and anti-discrimination law, fulfilling EU equality requirements and acting as a national human rights institution.

Some of its work could be handed to government departments, or the private or voluntary sectors, although it was not clear which areas this refers to.

The GEO also said it would “strengthen requirements around financial and management controls” at the EHRC in the light of its “history of poor financial control”.

An EHRC spokeswoman said staff were “obviously pleased that the work we do has been recognised” and that it was already undergoing a review aimed at “streamlining” its operation.

She said what happened next was “totally dependent” on next week’s spending review and “how the GEO decides to spend that money”.

And she said it was too early to say what the GEO meant by saying the EHRC’s work would be “refocused” on its regulatory functions, and added: “There are different views on what regulation is and is not. We have to wait and see what plans the GEO has for us.”

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DPTAC and ILF set to be thrown on quango bonfire

The coalition government looks set to scrap its advice body on accessible transport and the Independent Living Fund (ILF) as part of its programme of spending cuts, according to a leaked government document.

A leaked list of quangos set for abolition includes the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, the ILF and the Disability Employment Advisory Committee (DEAC), as well as the Disability Living/Attendance Allowance Advisory Board.

But the list appears to confirm that the government will not scrap Equality 2025, its advisory network of disabled people.

The leaked document, published by the BBC, suggests DEAC’s functions could be transferred to Equality 2025, while DPTAC’s role could be “mainstreamed”, with its “remaining functions” transferred to other bodies.

The ILF looks likely to have its budget – currently £359 million a year – transferred to local authorities, although this is “awaiting a final decision”.

In June, the ILF – which is funded by the government and supports disabled people with high support needs to live independently – admitted it would only be able to fund 600 of the 1,000 new awards it had intended to make this year.

The leaked document also says that the future of the Equality and Human Rights Commission is “still to be decided”, although most equality campaigners believe it will not be scrapped but will have its budget cut.

The leaked list says the future of Remploy is also under review. The organisation employs about 3,000 disabled people in 54 sheltered factories, despite closing 29 factories as part of a modernisation programme.

Sue Bott, director of the National Centre for Independent Living, said she feared the impact of the loss of the ILF would be “horrible”.

She said: “I am really, really concerned because we are talking about people with high support needs, and they have got to be met for you to have any chance of being able to participate in life as a citizen

“I really want to urge the government to draw breath and understand what things like the ILF do before reaching these decisions.”

Bott said indications from civil servants were that any funding saved by scrapping the ILF would only be provided by the government to local authorities for three or four years, and after that they would “just be expected to get on with it and fund people from existing resources”.

Alan Norton, a DPTAC member and chief executive of Assist UK, said it would be a “terrible mistake” if DPTAC was to be scrapped.

He said DPTAC – already set to be cut from 19 to just 10 members at the end of this year – was a “real success story” in which disabled people had “influenced change in the country”.

He added: “I really feel it is totally the wrong thing to do. It would put us backwards in many areas.”

Trevor Phillips, chair of the EHRC, told Disability News Service that he would be “a bit surprised” if the commission was scrapped, because “somebody has to do this job”.

But he added: “There is no issue about the idea that we need to do things differently. We are not afraid of change at all. [We have] no problem about somebody saying, ‘You could be better,’ because we think so.”

Marije Davidson, RADAR’s senior policy and parliamentary officer, said she had “concerns” about some of the bodies that could be scrapped, but what was important was how the government planned to replace the vital work they did.

She said there could be opportunities for third sector organisations to take on some of these roles.

And she said it was crucial that the government listened to disabled people when carrying out its equality impact assessment of its plans.

Sue Sharp, head of public policy and campaigns for Guide Dogs, said that scrapping DPTAC would be “a retrograde step”.

Sharp, who previously worked in the Department for Transport’s mobility and inclusion unit, said DPTAC provided a “unique” opportunity for both disabled people and industry to present their cases to government, and that it had a “long record of moving forward the agenda”.

She said this work would “not get done” if DPTAC was scrapped, with the responsibility for such work left to the third sector to fund itself.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “The government has made it clear that it is committed to radically increasing accountability and improving efficiency.

“As part of this, work is already underway to make substantial reforms to its public bodies. This work is on-going and an announcement will be made in due course.

“We deeply regret any extra uncertainty for employees that this irresponsible leak has caused.”

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Government to slash DPTAC membership

The Department for Transport (DfT) is to slash the membership of its advisory body on accessible transport by nearly half as a result of the coalition government’s freeze on civil service recruitment.
The DfT admitted this week that membership of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) – most of whom are disabled people – would be cut from 19 to just 10 people at the end of this year.
The three-year terms of nine members are due to end on 31 December, and none of them will now be replaced or have their membership renewed.
Those being forced to leave include many of DPTAC’s most experienced members.
The DfT also admitted that the cuts could mean the government breaches its legal duty to ensure that DPTAC – which provides a pan-disability view on the impact of transport laws, regulations, guidance and policy to government and the transport industry – has a chair and at least 10 other members.
A DfT spokeswoman said: “It hasn’t happened yet. We need to take stock and see what we can do about it.”
Helen Smith, director of policy and campaigns for Mobilise and one of the DPTAC members who will be forced to leave, described the situation as “pretty dire”.
She said the cuts would mean DPTAC would have to scrap its structure of four working groups, each specializing in different areas of transport, while many of the 10 remaining members were much less experienced than those who were leaving.
She said: “I think there is a great deal of disappointment. We feel that the work of DPTAC is not being particularly taken seriously.”
She fears the government might be considering scrapping DPTAC altogether in a bid to cut spending even further.
Alan Norton, chief executive of Assist UK and another member due to leave in December, said DPTAC’s work had led to a “massive improvement in services for disabled people, without wasting money”.
He said: “It is one of the areas where disabled people have really made a difference in advising ministers on policy. Recommendations that we have put forward have been implemented.”
He added: “DPTAC’s remit is very wide. It covers all forms of transport. Obviously if it has reduced numbers its scope would have to be reduced and its priorities would have to change.”
A DfT spokeswoman confirmed that the number of members would be cut from 19 to 10 at the end of 2010. She said there were no further cuts planned to DPTAC’s budget.
She said the DfT could not say whether DPTAC would still be equipped to perform its advisory duties “until we have looked at the implications of the recruitment freeze”.
In a statement, Dai Powell, chair of DPTAC, said it was “vital” that it continued its work so “the dedication, expertise and commitment” of its members could keep the “needs of the disabled traveller” at the “forefront of government transport policy development”.

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