Tomlinson faces call to resign over PIP harassment of child abuse survivor

A minister has been urged to resign, after he threatened a traumatised child abuse survivor – who is waiting to give evidence about the abuse in court – that his benefits would be stopped if he failed to co-operate with an Atos reassessment.

David* is a key witness in the trial and has been told by police not to discuss his case with anyone, or to allow DWP or its assessment contractor Atos access to his medical records, because the court proceedings are now live and the case is sub judice.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) finally agreed earlier this month to stop contacting David until after the end of the trial, after Disability News Service (DNS) and his local MP drew its attention to his case.

But despite this agreement, Atos sent him a further letter, while Justin Tomlinson – the minister for disabled people – wrote to his MP threatening that David’s benefits would be stopped within just two days if he did not submit to a reassessment of his personal independence payment (PIP) claim.

David has severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), caused by the horrific child abuse he suffered as a child, and which has led to several suicide attempts.

Even though the toll of the criminal investigation on his mental health has been harrowing, resulting in a series of self-harm episodes, DWP has continued its attempts to force him to submit to a PIP reassessment, even though it has been told repeatedly that his health records are part of the court case.

David only found out about Tomlinson’s threat this week, when the minister’s letter was forwarded to him by his MP.

In a covering letter, David’s MP told him: “I do not normally comment on ministerial responses, as they are quite capable of speaking for themselves, but I will say that in this case I feel Justin displays a lack of humanity and understanding that does himself and you a great disservice.”

David said Tomlinson’s behaviour was “a disgusting, vile attack” on a vulnerable witness by a government minister, and called on him to resign.

He said Tomlinson “should not be anywhere near” vulnerable disabled people after his “insensitive, demeaning” actions, and added: “I wouldn’t put this guy in charge of a broom cupboard.”

David had already forced an apology from DWP after he received a letter last week – which apparently was “generated by Atos in error” – warning him the contractor had requested evidence from people involved in his care, and that he may have to attend a face-to-face benefits assessment.

Both letters – from Tomlinson and from Atos – were sent several days after DWP and Atos agreed that there should be no further contact with David until his trial was finished.

DNS has already revealed that DWP contacted the police force investigating the abuse allegations to ask about his evidence, and had to be told twice by officers that its actions were causing David “considerable stress and distress”, that he was a witness in their investigation, and that details of his abuse-related health condition were sub-judice.

The force is not commenting on these claims – while Tomlinson has denied any DWP contact with the police – but DNS has established that there have been several communications between DWP and the force, whose officers have continued to tell the department that it cannot release information about the case.

David’s treatment throws a harsh light yet again on DWP policies and procedures for dealing with vulnerable people, an issue highlighted last month when the department was finally forced to publish redacted versions of 49 secret “peer reviews” into the deaths of benefit claimants.

Those peer reviews showed that ministers were repeatedly warned by their own civil servants that their policies to assess people for disability benefits were putting the lives of vulnerable claimants at risk.

David’s MP had written to work and pensions secretary Stephen Crabb to ask him to review how his department had treated him, and it was that letter that Tomlinson was responding to.

The MP said in the letter that he/she believed DWP had failed in its duty of care towards David.

The letter added: “Sometimes intentionally, sometimes because of mistakes, errors or miscommunication within DWP they have continuously harassed him, reviewing his case unnecessarily, suspending benefits on a number of occasions, seeking details or interviews which could prejudice the criminal case and have in any case contributed to high levels of anxiety and distress being suffered by [David].

“Whilst I am only aware of [David’s] experience I would be surprised if others had not suffered similar treatment.”

The MP also asked Crabb to ensure that David continued to receive PIP and be exempt from any further medical assessments until after the trial.

David, who is currently recovering from an operation, said his treatment at the hands of DWP and Atos had been “dehumanising and humiliating”, a “grotesque breach” of his privacy, and “the most outrageously obscene way to treat someone”.

He refused to accept DWP’s apology about the Atos letter, and noted that the department had apologised via DNS, and not to him, and that he wanted an apology from a work and pensions minister, rather than a press officer.

David also said he had no idea whether his PIP and his employment and support allowance (ESA) were still being paid, and that he was “fearful of contacting them over this”.

He was appalled when, a day after a DWP press officer confirmed to DNS that he was still receiving PIP and ESA, he received a payment into his bank account that suggested that he was no longer receiving ESA and had instead been placed on jobseeker’s allowance.

He then received a call yesterday (Wednesday) from a GP from his local surgery, apparently attempting to assess his state of mental health over the telephone on behalf of DWP.

A DWP spokesman claimed that Tomlinson had been trying to underline in his letter that David needed to be reassessed, although he was also “trying to communicate in every way possible… that we were going to try and leave [David] alone and not contact him, in acknowledgement of the fact that he is a vulnerable person and he is going through a trial”.

When asked why DWP and Tomlinson appeared intent on harassing and persecuting David, the spokesman said: “In no way is this persecution, in no way are we trying to hound [David].

“What we are trying to do is follow what we have to do with PIP, which is assess people so we can make sure they are getting the benefits that they need to be getting.”

He said in a statement: “In the minister’s letter he says that wherever possible in these situations PIP reassessments can be carried out in consultation with the patient’s GP and using other medical evidence provided.

“However, if there is not enough information available, a face-to-face assessment needs to take place.

“The assessment process is key to ensuring that the benefit is fairly distributed, so that it can fulfil its purpose of supporting people who have extra living costs due to their disability.”

He added: “When a claimant states that they do not wish to be contacted about their case or reassessment, they are advised that wherever possible we will do this in discussion with their GP without their involvement. This is always made clear to the claimant.”

But David said he believed his life was now at risk as a result of Tomlinson’s actions and those of his department, while he felt that he had been “utterly abandoned to this vindictive violation of my human rights”.

He said: “Every day is a struggle to live, robbed wholly of my dignity by the criminal process and further humiliated by the DWP’s utter inhumanity and failure to grasp my harsh predicament.

“The original PIP assessment indicated that I required additional support. I don’t currently receive any support from any service and life’s bleak.

“It’s not simply a question of money, but of life, living in guilt and fear, struggling with the horrors of childhood, and its impact upon one’s working life.

“I do not accept their apology, and thus again seek further discussion as to why they treated me in this manner and how they will assure me of my welfare.”

He is hoping that Crabb will agree to meet him to discuss his treatment.

He added: “In the Irish Republic they have a small government agency that specifically assists abuse survivors. Here we are alone and it’s not acceptable.

“My human rights were violated as a child and since. Both government and wider society need to stop, listen and act accordingly.”

An Atos spokeswoman said: “We apologise for any distress caused; the letter referred to was sent in error.”

A DWP spokesman said this morning (Thursday) that the review of David’s PIP claim had begun in June 2015 but the department had “made a special decision” to delay his reassessment for a year.

He said that procedures had been followed for cases in which a vulnerable claimant had failed to return their PIP2 claim form, and that Atos had contacted one of David’s GPs to gather information about his claim in an attempt to see if it was possible to carry out a paper-based assessment of his PIP eligibility.

DWP said David’s entitlement to PIP ended on 16 June and he would receive his last payment on 30 June. He said that David was still receiving ESA.

The spokesman added: “In summary [David] is still being reassessed for PIP and the department are accommodating him under additional support procedures.

“In order to continue to receive PIP he must be reassessed.

“This reassessment is in progress and may not require any contact with [David].

“We are awaiting evidence from his GP, and once we receive it we will be able to judge if it provides enough information for a paper-based decision to be made.”

Despite promising to do so, the spokesman failed to respond to concerns about Tomlinson’s apparent harassment of a vulnerable benefit claimant, and why DWP was refusing to exempt David from the reassessment process until the end of the trial.

*Not his real name

23 June 2016

 

 

Police force faces two watchdog probes over treatment of autistic people

A police force has launched an internal review of its treatment of disabled people, after it was forced to refer two separate incidents involving young autistic men to the police watchdog.

One case referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) relates to a young autistic man who was held in a cell for nine hours by Northamptonshire police, after he was the victim of a vicious disability hate crime in a local park last October.

Daniel Smith was only finally able to clear his name after a six-month ordeal which saw him dragged through the criminal justice system by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

He had been left bloodied and bruised after the attack but ended up being prosecuted for assault after the police refused to investigate the hate crime and charged him instead.

He spent nine hours in a police cell, without medical treatment for his injuries, even though he told officers he had only been defending himself against “the bullies”.

He finally managed to clear his name when he was cleared of the assault charges by Corby magistrates in April.

While investigating concerns raised by Daniel and his family, Northants police widened its internal investigation to look at the way it deals with all disabled people, because of concerns over the way it handled an incident involving another young autistic man, Tristan Perry, which took place last August.

The IPCC is already investigating how Perry was treated, after a film was posted on social media which appeared to show police officers shouting at him, before pushing him to the ground, while one of the officers seemed to punch him four times.

Northants police originally denied this week that there was any wider investigation into its treatment of disabled people, but eventually admitted that there was after DNS forwarded an email about the Daniel Smith case written by the assistant to Janette McCormick, the disability lead for the National Police Chiefs Council.

In the email, McCormick’s assistant said the Northants force “have had a similar issue with another young man on the autistic spectrum recently, so are looking at the whole issue of the way police officers in their force handle their approach to this particular disability”.

After his press office was shown this email, superintendent Mark Behan, head of professional standards at Northants police, was forced to issue a new statement, which said: “Northamptonshire police received a complaint in relation to this case in October 2015.

“The force’s professional standards department assessed the incident and, owing to the nature of the complaint, subsequently made a mandatory referral to the IPCC.

“The IPCC is also investigating an incident that took place in Northampton in August last year.

“These investigations are being managed separately by the IPCC and as they are on-going, it would be inappropriate to discuss [them] in more detail at this time.”

But he added: “We are undertaking an internal review of how officers respond to incidents involving people with disabilities to assess how we can enhance the service we provide, which will include acting on any IPCC recommendations should their investigations identify opportunities to improve our service.”

An IPCC spokeswoman said: “The IPCC has decided to independently investigate the actions of Northamptonshire police officers following the arrest and detention of a vulnerable man in October last year.

“The man was arrested following an altercation with two men in Rushden on 17 October 2015, and was subsequently acquitted of assault in April 2016.

“A complaint has been made that officers failed to provide appropriate care to the man following his arrest and during his detention at the Northampton Criminal Justice Centre.

“This includes allegations that the man was refused medical attention for facial injuries, and was not offered an appropriate adult to support him while he was in custody.”

She also said that an IPCC investigation was continuing into allegations that two Northamptonshire police officers used “excessive force and inappropriate language” in dealing with Tristan Perry during an incident in Northampton on 13 August last year.

But she said that any wider investigation was “a matter for Northamptonshire police”.

Stephen Brookes, a coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, said: “The members of the Disability Hate Crime Network have been pressing police forces and the CPS for a better approach to cases involving disabled people.

“The case of Daniel and other recent questionable outcomes in courts has caused us to have some serious concerns at the totally unacceptable inconsistencies in prosecution and sentencing.

“We are reviewing some recent cases and will be discussing these with key members of police and CPS to try to ensure that people such as Daniel and in fact with any form of disability receive fair and appropriate justice.”

Meanwhile, Daniel’s father Owen says he has been told that Leicestershire police will be re-examining the failure of Northants police to prosecute the two men who attacked his son in the park.

He is also angry that CPS has so far dismissed his concerns about its decision to prosecute Daniel.

A CPS spokeswoman originally claimed that his complaint had “been concluded”, but after that was questioned by DNS, she has now said that the chief crown prosecutor for the East Midlands, Janine Smith, will be writing to Owen Smith in due course.

The CPS spokeswoman claimed that “comprehensive mandatory training has been provided to prosecutors on handling disability hate crime cases”.

She added: “The CPS carefully reviewed this case and decided there was sufficient evidence to bring the case to court, to allow a court to determine whether an assault took place and whether the defendant was culpable.

“It is not for the CPS to determine the guilt or innocence of a suspect, but to bring cases to court which meet the code for crown prosecutors.

“All cases are kept under constant review as they progress through the criminal justice system.”

23 June 2016

 

 

Election leaves UN disability committee with 17 men and just one woman

Disabled activists are calling on the UN to take action after elections to the 18-strong committee that oversees the implementation of its disability rights convention left it with just a single female member alongside 17 men.

The committee on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD) currently has six women members, but from January next year that will fall to just one, the German representative Theresia Degener.

The elections were held at the UN in New York to replace nine expert members of the committee whose four-year terms are due to expire at the end of the year.

All 160 states that have ratified the convention voted in the election, and each of them voted for nine out of the 18 candidates in a secret ballot.

But many disabled activists were appalled when it was revealed that all nine of the candidates who were successful in the election were men, although they welcomed the election of the committee’s first panellist with learning difficulties, Robert Martin, from New Zealand, and its first sign language-user, Valery Nikitich Rukhledev, from Russia.

The UK representative on the committee, Diane Kingston, is believed to have fallen just three votes short of the number she needed to be re-elected.

From 2008 to 2010, there were five women out of 12 CRPD members, and in the following two years there were eight out of 18, but since then the proportion of women has gradually fallen.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities says (article 34, paragraph four) that countries who sign up to the treaty should elect committee members with consideration to factors including “balanced gender representation”.

Kingston declined to comment this week, but a spokeswoman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said: “The UN Human Rights Office has promoted gender balance in the election of treaty body members, but the elections are in the hands of the states parties.”

But she pointed to a speech made last week by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, who said that the “undermining and denial of women’s human rights is the most widespread form of discrimination around the world”.

He added: “We even see it in the Human Rights Council, where women speak considerably less than men, and at the highest level of virtually every decision-making body in the private and public sector – including the United Nations.

“We saw this only two days ago in New York, when out of nine people elected by member states to the committee on the rights of persons with disabilities, not one was a woman.

“This means next year the committee will have only one woman member.  How is this possible?”

Eleanor Lisney, a member of the steering group of the disabled women’s collective Sisters of Frida, said she and her colleagues were “concerned” at the election results.

She said: “Some disabled people have told me that there is no gender difference in disability and that disability discrimination is gender neutral. But that is not true.

“At Sisters of Frida, we work on the gaps for disabled women – on violence against women, on health and sexual provisions, in employment, and the intersecting factors. Article six [of the convention] is very clear on that.

“On the CRPD committee, it is imperative we have disabled women who would work on those issues.

“We hear from disabled women in the global south and those in the [black and minority ethnic] communities here (from Southall Black Sisters, for example) how those disabled women are left without voices because disabled people’s organisations are not in touch with those communities.

“We need to work with our disabled sisters globally so that come the next election the committee will be more gender balanced.

“And we can only do that by ramping up our own voices – to have the role models for young disabled women.”

Both the International Disability Alliance and the International Disability and Development Consortium have expressed concern at the “disquieting” drop in the number of women on the committee.

Maryanne Diamond, IDA’s chair, told Disability News Service: “In 2016 it is something that I was really shocked that we found ourselves with.”

She said it was vital that the interests of disabled women were “always at the forefront” of the committee’s work.

She added: “When you have a committee pretty much of all men it operates differently: the way conversations happen, the way dialogue happens; it’s a different dynamic.

“The next elections are two years away; we can’t wait to start thinking about how we ensure this doesn’t happen again in a year or 18 months; we need to start thinking about it now.

“We need to think about the women in all our countries who are suitable, appropriate, skilled, and then lobby governments to make sure governments think of women when they even put their candidates forward, because there were only three women in that list of 18.”

She said the responsibility lay with member states to ensure that more of them put forward women as candidates in two years’ time, and that they vote for women candidates in 2018.

She said: “I suspect that gender balance may not have been high on their list of priorities when determining who they were going to vote for.”

Diamond had said earlier in a statement that the new make-up of the committee “signals a serious disconnect between the convention’s principles of non-discrimination and gender equality within the nominations and elections procedures, as well as an objectionable disengagement on the part of states to ensure and promote gender parity”.

Munazza Gillani, country director for Pakistan for the UK-based disability charity Sightsavers, which works in developing countries, said the convention makes clear, in article 34, that “as they vote for committee members, governments must consider balanced gender representation as well as the inclusion of experts with disabilities”.

She said: “With only one female member in the newly elected committee, this measure has clearly fallen short.

“No-one can take inclusion for granted.

“We believe there should be processes in place to ensure gender balance on all UN bodies to better reflect the global vision we all share – one where the voices of women with disabilities are heard in top levels of governance, and one where no-one speaks on their behalf.”

23 June 2016

 

 

PIP figures fuel concerns over cuts, while activists plan day of action

Only about seven in 10 disabled people who were previously claiming disability living allowance (DLA) are being found eligible for the government’s new disability benefit, official figures have revealed.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures show that just 71 per cent of DLA recipients who applied for the new personal independence payment (PIP) were successful with their claim in April 2016, once withdrawn claims were excluded.

This is a substantial fall since the government began to roll out the new benefit to existing DLA claimants in early 2014, when 80 per cent of DLA claimants were successful.

The figures were released as disabled activists announced a National Day of Action Against PIP next month, to draw attention to what they say is a system that is “rotten to the core”.

The figures for new PIP claimants also show a sharp fall in the last two years, with just 43 per cent of claimants – excluding those who are terminally-ill – found eligible for PIP in April 2016, compared with 45 per cent in April 2015 and 65 per cent in April 2014.

These numbers are likely to rise slightly once the impact of successful appeals is taken into account.

But the DWP publication suggests that the success rate is also likely to fall further, as the document says that “a problem with the PIP computer system” between February and April this year meant the award rates for new claimants were higher than they would otherwise have been.

It is just the latest in a series of problems with the PIP computer system, which has repeatedly crashed since its introduction.

In the two months before the computer problems emerged, the PIP success rates for new claimants were as low as 36 per cent, in December 2015, and 38 per cent, in January 2016.

This compares with about 42 per cent of new DLA claimants who were successful in 2009-10, although those figures included under-16s.

Although it is not possible to draw clear conclusions from the latest release, the figures do suggest that the government could be on track to fulfil its threat to cut the number of working-age claimants of DLA/PIP by at least 20 per cent, a pledge first made by the coalition in the summer of 2010.

The national day of action – organised by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), the Mental Health Resistance Network and the disabled women’s organisation WinVisible – will take place on Wednesday 13 July.

A central London event will take place outside the offices of Capita, one of the two outsourcing giants that carries out PIP assessments (the other is former “fitness for work” contractor Atos).

Other actions are already planned for Ipswich, Leicester, Glasgow, Sheffield, Manchester, and Vauxhall, south-east London, although the organisers hope further actions will take place at other PIP assessment centres across the country.

Paula Peters, from DPAC, said the day of action would highlight the “appalling sham assessments” that are carried out by Atos and Capita, which are making “vast amounts of money” from their contracts, and the “horrendous degradation that disabled people are being put through”.

She said that DPAC and other grassroots groups were hearing from a “great number of disabled people” who have said that the health professionals who assessed them for their PIP eligibility produced “an absolute load of lies” in their assessment reports.

She said that both new PIP claimants and former DLA claimants being reassessed for PIP were being caused “huge anxiety, stress and concern”, with “horrendous” numbers of people having to hand back their Motability vehicles after being reassessed, because they no longer qualified for the upper, or enhanced, mobility rate.

She said: “We want to tell the government we are incredibly concerned about this. This has been long overdue.

“It is a devastating amount of people who will lose their entitlement to care and mobility [support].

“It is massively important for disabled people if they can to attend the day of action [there will also be online actions for those not able to attend in person] and just say enough is enough.”

Despite welcoming the government’s U-turn on further cuts to PIP, after the resignation of work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith in March, Peters said she and others believed that those cuts would be re-introduced by ministers.

She said DPAC wanted Atos and Capita to lose their contracts, with assessments instead being carried out in-house by DWP, and for the government to restore DLA in place of PIP.

Peters said that she and other disabled activists were “shattered” after “six long years of just continuous fighting against this government on every single service and every single benefit we need”.

She said: “If we don’t highlight what’s going on and how disabled people are affected by this, who else will do it? We don’t have anybody else standing up for us.”

She appealed for disabled people to come forward with their experiences of PIP, employment and support allowance and cuts to social care, and pass them to DPAC through its website.

Peters said: “We really do need those stories. People’s personal testimonies are the most important thing that anyone can give.”

Claire Glasman, from WinVisible, said PIP had been designed as a “massive cut in benefits”, and the way it had been introduced was “really, really brutal”.

She said: “It is impoverishing people, trapping people in their homes, making their lives a misery.

“We have no confidence that people’s situations are being properly assessed.

“There were problems with DLA as well but that was a lot more responsive to people’s situation.”

Glasman said campaigners believed that Atos and Capita had a financial incentive to force people to undertake face-to-face assessments.

She said: “We think people are very, very angry and concerned and will want to have their say. We can make a difference if we get together. This is a chance to make a splash.”

Glasman described the PIP assessment problems faced by one woman, a rape survivor, who was currently being supported by WinVisible.

She said: “She was very, very anxious about having a home visit. We got the home visit cancelled and asked for her case to be looked at on paper.

“But because the home visit had been cancelled, they stopped her claim and cut off her DLA payments because her PIP claim had been stopped.

“They also suspended her employment and support allowance (ESA).

“With our help and encouragement, she was able to get the ESA back, but we are still battling on the DLA, and have finally got Atos to do a paper assessment.”

23 June 2016

 

 

Relief after doctors maintain strong opposition to assisted suicide

Disabled activists have welcomed the decision of doctors to vote strongly against relaxing their union’s position on physician-assisted suicide.

The British Medical Association (BMA) voted by 63 per cent to 37 per cent this week at its annual representative meeting (ARM) in Belfast to maintain its current position of being opposed to physician-assisted suicide.

Some doctors had wanted the BMA to move to a neutral stance on the issue.

Last September, the latest parliamentary attempt to weaken the law, through a private members’ bill put forward by Labour MP Rob Marris, was defeated by 330 votes to 118.

But there were concerns after his bill was thrown out that pro-assisted suicide campaigners were already plotting their next move to try to force through legalisation, either through the courts or parliament.

A move to a neutral position by the BMA would have given euthanasia supporters a significant boost in their continuing quest to change the law.

Minutes before the debate, delegates had decided by a margin of only three votes to allow the meeting to debate the issue of whether the BMA “should adopt a neutral stance on assisted dying”.

Dr Andrew Mowat told delegates that BMA had debated the issue in seven of the last 10 ARMs.

He pointed out that MPs voted by nearly three to one against changing the law to legalise assisted suicide last year, while the Scottish parliament had thrown out a similar bill months earlier.

He said: “The public expect their doctors to lead on ethical issues. The thought of doctors killing patients creates public mistrust of us.”

He said that evidence from other countries showed that when doctors’ organisations moved to a position of neutrality it was soon followed by legalisation of assisted suicide.

Baroness Finlay, a crossbench peer and consultant in palliative medicine, and a leading opponent of legalisation, said: “With our hard-pressed healthcare system, doctors have enough to juggle without being saddled with assessing whose life is worth working hard to improve, and who should be given lethal drugs.”

But Professor Clare Gerada, former chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners and a leading supporter of legalisation, said it was the BMA’s responsibility to debate the issue “year in, year out”.

The disabled people’s campaign network Not Dead Yet UK (NDY UK), which opposes assisted suicide, welcomed the BMA vote, tweeting: “Thankyou to @BMA for continuing to oppose #assistedsuicide & listening to disabled people. Our lives are worth living,” and, “Disabled people will sleep safer tonight knowing @BMA doctors support us.”

Baroness [Jane] Campbell, NDY UK’s founder, added on Twitter: “Great news! Not Dead UK thanks you from the bottom of our heart.”

Dr Ian Wilson, chair of the BMA’s representative body, said: “Doctors appreciate the strongly-held views both across society and their profession on both sides of this complex and sensitive issue.

“The issue of assisted dying has been regularly debated by the BMA at its annual policy-forming conference, with delegates voting this year to remain opposed to assisted dying.

“By engaging with doctors and members of the public in an 18-month long project, we have compiled a comprehensive body of qualitative research to look at the wider context of the issue and enable members to have informed discussions at this year’s conference.

“This work will still continue and we will also be holding a special open discussion this week during which doctors will be able to share their views on some of the more complex and practical issues doctors would face if assisted dying were permitted in the UK.”

23 June 2016

 

 

Rise in disabled train passenger numbers sparks call for ‘turn up and go’ system

New government figures show that the number of disabled people travelling by train has increased sharply in the last year.

The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) statistics show that disabled people were assisted to use a train 1,146,000 times in 2015-16, an increase of 7.7 per cent on the previous year and a rise of 21 per cent in just three years.

The number of bookings made through the national passenger assistance booking system rose by 7.6 per cent to more than 341,000 (each booking usually involves several requests for assistance).

Neither of these figures includes assistance provided by Network Rail or train companies when a disabled passenger has asked for help without making a booking.

Other figures published by ORR show that the number of people with a disabled persons railcard rose by 9.6 per cent to more than 192,000 in 2015-16, an increase of more than 47,000 (nearly a third) in just three years.

The railcard allows disabled passengers to receive a discount of a third off adult rail fares on the national rail network.

The figures on assistance and railcards will add weight to calls by campaigners for the government to continue investing in improving the accessibility of the rail transport system.

Faryal Velmi, director of the user-led charity Transport for All, said: “It is really positive that there seems to be an increasing amount of disabled people who are travelling on trains.”

She said the true number of disabled people travelling on the rail network was likely to be far higher, because of the number of people who “turn up and go” without booking assistance in advance.

And she said disabled people needed to push the Association of Train Operating Companies to scrap the national passenger assistance booking system and instead enforce a genuine “turn up and go” system, so that wheelchair-users and other disabled people do not have to book in advance if they need assistance to travel by rail.

She said: “If we are seeing more disabled people use the railways, it makes an even stronger case that we need to treat disabled people as equal citizens with a ‘right to ride’, and get rid of this unfair policy.”

Last month, seven organisations, headed by Transport for All, criticised Sir Peter Hendy, the chair of Network Rail, for recommending in a spending review that nearly £50 million allocated to Access for All – a scheme introduced by the Labour government in 2006 to fund access improvements at rail stations – should be delayed until 2019 at the earliest.

Sir Peter had recommended that Access for All funding for 2014-19 should be cut from £102 million to £55 million, with the rest carried over to the next spending period, 2019-24.

The Department for Transport (DfT) is due to respond to Sir Peter’s report – which contains his detailed recommendations for “replanning” Network Rail’s investment programme for 2014-19 across England and Wales – later this year.

Velmi said the ORR figures added weight to their call for DfT to ignore Hendy’s recommendation to cut the Access for All funding.

TfA and the other six organisations said in their letter to transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin that most stations still do not have lifts, tactile paving, audio-visual information, induction loops and other equipment that enables disabled people to use them, and so “great swathes of the UK rail network are no go areas for disabled people, particularly those with mobility impairments”.

They said the Access for All fund had delivered “much needed ring fenced funding” to improve this situation.

A DfT spokeswoman said*: “It is great news that more passengers than ever are taking advantage of the disabled persons railcard, giving access to discounts across our railways.

“It is also encouraging to see that more customers are benefiting from improved passenger assistance at stations.

“We are determined to make rail journeys better for all passengers, and we’ve made significant progress since 2010 in improving accessibility across the entire transport network.

“Our Access for All programme has delivered improvements such as accessible toilets, tactile paving or induction loops to more than 1,200 stations across the country.”

And she said that “89 per cent of buses are now fully accessible, compared to 59 per cent in 2010, and we have committed over £500 million since 2006 for accessibility improvements at stations across the UK.”

*She was not asked to respond to concerns about Hendy’s Access for All recommendation

23 June 2016

 

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com