Joint Memorandum submitted by the Joint Committee for the Mobility of Blind and Partially Sighted People, the Joint Committee for the Mobility of Disabled People, the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, RADAR, National Autistic Society, Disabled Parents Network, Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB), Arthritis Care, Mind, Restricted Growth Association; Parkinson's Disease Society, Community Transport Association and Spinal Injuries Association (CBT 01)

 

Introduction

 

The Government's Concessionary Bus Travel Bill will ensure that from April 2008 free travel will be extended to local off-peak bus travel across local authority boundaries providing the bus stops at least every 15 miles. We welcome these improvements but we believe that there is considerably more that the Government needs to do to ensure that the mobility needs of disabled people are addressed in concessionary travel. This could be achieved by introducing:

A requirement for free travel anytime

A requirement to provide free travel on other modes of transport

A requirement for concessions to apply to community transport services such as 'dial-a-ride'

A requirement to provide free travel for a companion where the person's impairment means that they cannot access transport on their own

A definition of disability which includes people with mental health difficulties.

 

We set out our reasons for these suggestions below.

 

Free travel at any time

 

The restriction of concessionary travel during morning peak periods has a severely detrimental effect on disabled people travelling to work or looking for work. Research by RNIB suggests that only 34% of blind and partially sighted people of working age are in employment and where people are employed they are more likely to be in lower paid jobs. Employment levels for many other impairment groups are similar if not worse; indeed The ninth annual report of indicators of poverty and social exclusion, Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion in the UK 2006, issued in December 2006 by the New Policy Institute (funded by Joseph Rowntree) pointed to the lack of access to paid work as the main reason for poverty amongst disabled people. It is widely believed that disabled people in employment are able to obtain assistance with the costs of travelling to and from work through the Department for Work and Pensions Access to Work Scheme. In fact, the Scheme is only available to those disabled people unable to use existing public transport that operates between their home and their place of work, who would therefore incur additional costs travel costs, for example, in using taxis. The Scheme takes no account of the cost of public transport.

 

We believe, therefore, that our proposal would help the Government achieve its desire to get more disabled people into work.

 

Restricting concessions to off-peak times also affects disabled people travelling to early medical, benefit and other appointments, or to education and leisure activities with an early start time. Many disabled people prefer to travel to shops and town centres early in the day when they are quieter and so more accessible.

 

We are very concerned that as the Government has improved the minimum concessionary fare scheme for older and disabled people, some local authorities have cut back on local schemes that previously offered more than the statutory minimum. For example, there has been pressure on a number of schemes that provided free morning peak travel to blind people but not to other older and disabled people. When this issue came up in London, the Association of London Government (ALG, now renamed London Councils) suggested levelling down but following a major campaign by disabled people free travel was extended to all disabled people in the morning peak hours. Our organisations would support the national adoption of the London approach that is, the introduction of free morning peak travel for all disabled people..

 

The Bill as it stands currently would also restrict free travel at the other end of the day by limiting it to travel up to 11:00pm. That limit is likely to effect the mobility of younger disabled people in particular who want to go out for the evening with their peers.

 

 

Postcode Lottery

 

While we are pleased that the Bill would not prevent local authorities from continuing to offer more generous concessions than the statutory minimum, we are concerned that exercise of this discretion would effectively create a postcode lottery for disabled people. Such lotteries are already evident. For example, to resolve a budget crisis Christchurch District Council has removed the right for blind people to travel for free in the morning peak despite the fact that the Dorset-wide County scheme offers free morning peak-time travel to blind people. Guide Dogs, RNIB and Warwickshire Association for the Blind worked without success to try to reverse a decision by Stratford-on-Avon District Council to remove free perk-time travel for visually impaired people in the morning peak hours following the introduction of free off-peak travel for all disabled people in April 2006.

 

 

There are no time restrictions on the schemes which have been introduced in Wales and Scotland. Similarly there are no time restrictions on using the Freedom pass in the morning peak hours in London on buses, Underground and the DLR and this has not caused difficulties despite the huge pressure on public transport in the morning peak hours and late in the evening in the capital city. However, if local authorities are to be able to go on providing more than the statutory minimum the Government must make sure that they are fully funded for the increases in the statutory minimum concessionary fare schemes that are proposed in the Bill.

 

The Government said in House of Lords Grand Committee that they were unable to support amendments to this effect because it would cost 100 million. We appreciate the resources that the Government is already committing to implementing the Bill. However, we also note that when the ALG (now London Councils) first began to consider the cost of allowing travel in the morning peak for disabled people they also said that "It was so expensive as to not be worth quantifying." However, after further investigation and discussion with TfL the cost turned out to be a lot less than originally thought and free travel has been available in London 24 hours a day since April 2003. The Government might also find that the cost of this particular extension to the scheme would be less than they originally thought.

 

We are sending a separate briefing directly to MPs who are sitting on the Public Bill Committee but we believe that this issue cold be addressed by an amendment to Clause 1, (2) (b) outside London and Clause (6) 5 in the case of London.

 

Applying the concessions to other modes of transport

 

In some areas concessionary fare passes can be used in taxis, on community transport and other door-to-door transport. This is particularly important in rural areas where bus services may be infrequent or absent. Disabled people will not benefit from having the concession if they have few or no bus services on which to use it. In Scotland many ferry journeys are also covered by the concessionary fares scheme in recognition of the local transport services that ferries provide between the Scottish Islands and the mainland. We would encourage the same approach to be adopted for other services throughout the UK.

 

In urban areas concessions are also often available to be used on local rail and light rail services. This is particularly important where train and tram services are used as an alternative to the bus for local journeys.

 

Certain groups of disabled people would also benefit greatly from the application of the concessions to a wider range of transport modes. People with autism, for example, prefer to use door-to-door services because they often have difficulty in judging road safety and can experience anxiety on scheduled public transport services, especially where routes and timetables frequently change. The restrictions on the eligibility for the higher mobility rate of Disability Living Allowance means that for some disabled people door to door transport is currently not an option for them because of the additional costs associated with its use.

 

Our organisations would encourage the extension of the statutory minimum concessionary fare scheme to provide for its application to a wider range of transport services.

 

Our organisations appreciate that the Government are sympathetic to the sentiment of our proposed amendment in this area but are unable to accept it because they believe that it would cost 300 million. We are, however, encouraging the Government to consider the cost-benefits of these changes in terms of giving disabled people greater independence and allowing more disabled people to work. Once these benefits are taken into account to we believe that the economic case is much stronger.

We believe that this could be achieved by amendments to Clause 1 (2) outside London and Clause 6 (4) inside London.

 

Use on door-to-door transport for those unable to access mainstream public transport:

An increasing number of services are operated by accessible buses but it will be some time before all buses are fully accessible. Having a concession for a service that you cannot use is of no benefit to disabled people in areas where fully accessible services are not yet available. Even where more accessible vehicles are in use, they will never be a viable option for some disabled people, even with assistance. Others may need door-to-door transport to get to the nearest bus stop because of the distances involved or the inaccessibility of the pedestrian environment. For these reasons we believe that concessionary fares should be made available on community transport and door-to-door services.

 

Local authorities have discretion as to whether to reimburse those providing community transport for accepting concessions but a survey by the Community Transport Association found that only a minority did so and of those that did, most only reimbursed half, rather than the full fare. We believe that this discriminates against disabled people who rely on such services and is potentially challengeable under the Disability Discrimination Act or the Human Rights Act.

 

As with the more generous schemes, reimbursement for community transport schemes is a postcode lottery. In Wiltshire, for example, the County Council, West Wiltshire District Council and Kennet District Council reimburse community minibus groups for taking free passes on the eligible services they operate but North Wiltshire District Council and Salisbury District Council do not. Swindon Borough Council only provide disabled people with 60 of free journeys per annum on community minibuses before they have to pay for using the services.

 

Salisbury District Council have informed the Community Transport Association that their concessionary fares settlement from central government was insufficient to meet the costs of reimbursing registered bus operators let alone community transport operators. This affects two Salisbury-based community minibus groups in particular that currently run services for isolated people in Salisbury mainly to help them access local shops, and both have to charge their concessionary pass holding passengers for journeys which they would otherwise get for free if there were a registered bus route which served them.

 

At Lords Grand Committee Stage cost was cited by the Government as the reason for rejecting an amendment to extend the scheme to community transport. The Government also pointed out that local authorities would continue to have the discretion to provide concessionary fares on door to door transport and that the legislation would allow for an extension in this area at a latter date by Regulations.

 

At Report Stage a further argument was offered that such an amendment would effectively provide for buses to be replaced by community transport in rural areas. We do not believe that this would be the effect. The purpose is to ensure that those disabled people who because of their impairment could not access local bus services, or who live in areas that are not served by bus services, would be able to enjoy free travel on community transport services in their area. As a safeguard the Secretary of State could be required to issue guidance which could also address the Government's concerns about the definition of community transport for the purposes of concessionary fares legislation. In order to bring this about we have suggested amendments to Clause 1 (2) to cover England outside London and Clause 6 (4) (8b) for London.

 

Travelling with a companion

 

Some disabled people need a companion to travel with them on public transport. We would argue that concessions should be available to allow a companion to travel free of charge, where this is necessary to enable the disabled people to access the service. This provision already applies under both the Welsh scheme and the Dorset scheme.

 

Whilst we appreciate the Government's estimate that this extension would cost 10 million we would point out that as the proposed additional concession would only apply to those who cannot access public transport without the support of a companion, the number of people that would be brought into the scheme is likely to be relatively small. The Government has also pointed out that the term "companion" could be open to abuse but we would be happy for an alternative term to be used such as "personal assistant."

 

In order to bring this about we support the amendment to Clause 1, page 2, line 11 already down in the name of Paul Rowan MP and John Leech MP outside London and have suggested an amendment to Clause 7 (3) page 6, line 16 inside London.

Adding people with mental health difficulties to those eligible for concessionary fares:

 

The issue of the eligibility of people with mental health difficulties remains a problem. Currently, people with mental health issues who qualify for concessionary fares do so by virtue of the fact that they would, if they applied, be refused a driving licence under Part 3 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 pursuant to section 92 of the Act. Section 92 of the 1988 Act refers to five categories of people who would be refused a driving licence. The second of these are people with a "severe mental disorder".

 

Eligibility for concessionary fares is one of the major factors in determining an individual's chance of recovery and re-integration into society. Severe mental ill health often leads to social and physical isolation, discrimination and an inability to play a full part in economic and community life. Access to community centres, drop-in therapeutic communities, counselling or self-help groups can be essential to recovery. To access those services many people rely on public transport. Research in the Report Focus on Mental Health, An Uphill Struggle: Poverty and Mental Health (London, Mental Health Foundation 2001) suggests that some people have not been able to get help from mental health services because of their inability to pay for transport. Even where they still hold a driving licence, poverty and a fluctuating health condition may make driving impossible. The ability to travel to education centres, to take up job opportunities and to access community health and social care facilities is vital. The inability to access these can lead to serious consequences for the individual.

 

These quotes from experiences reported to Mind show the difficulties:

 

A service user writes from the Midlands: "Initially I came up against a lot of aggravation when I applied for concessionary fares. Now I hold a bus pass and come up against hostility with a few bus drivers questioning my right to hold a pass".

 

One city Patient Council representative from the West of England writes that "even where there is no current problem in claiming in the city there are constant problem(s) on buses of drivers' prejudice, e.g. "Why have you got a pass, you don't look ill?"

 

 

The evidence suggests that the definition is causing a problem and for that reason we believe the Government should act now to introduce a new definition to cover explicitly people with mental health issues. Our suggested definition is based on the definition used for the Scottish Concessionary fares scheme.

 

In addition, a new definition could cover people with a social and communication disability - such as those with Asperger syndrome. Since most people with Asperger syndrome do not have a learning disability, they may be excluded by a strict interpretation of the definition in the Transport Act 2000. While people with Asperger syndrome are not generally refused a driving licence, they must notify DVLA of their condition and cases are assessed on an individual basis; this may make car insurance unaffordable, especially for young people.  The difficulties experienced by some people with Asperger syndrome in anticipating the actions of other road users mean that some individuals choose not to drive.

 

Our organisations have welcomed the Government's commitment to look at this issue and consult with its Concessionary Fares Stakeholder Group. We believe that the consultation could also usefully cover the issues of stigma faced by people with mental health problems receiving concessionary fares (e.g. being questioned because they do not "look disabled") and how to maximise take up of concessionary fares amongst those people with mental health difficulties who are entitled to them. The recommendation of the Social Exclusion Unit's Report, Mental Health and Social Exclusion was to consider the case for revisions to the statutory guidance on giving concessionary fares to people with mental health difficulties by the end of 2004. How has the 2004 recommendation been taken forward? We look forward to the early completion of the new review which the Government have announced. We also support the amendments which have been tabled by Paul Rowen MP and John Leech MP, Clause 1, Page 2, line one for outside London and Clause 4, page 4, line 11 for London.

 

May 2007