Once again Suffolk County Council’s Cabinet has been forced to re-examine at their decision to provide only the statutory minimum of free travel for the elderly and disabled (09.30-23.00 weekdays, all day weekends and bank holidays), after I ‘called in’ their decision to Scrutiny on behalf of Suffolk’s Liberal Democrat Group last Thursday.
An element of deja vu
here – I originally raised the issue back in July 2011
, when I persuaded the entire Council to put aside party political differences and ask Cabinet to reconsider, and provide 24/7 travel for those eligible due to disability and allow those elderly pass holders to travel from 09.00. It took Cabinet an entire year to get around to looking at this decision – only then to justify their combination of delay and cheeseparing public transport funding by saying (on the one hand) that the delay was because they needed to wait and look at the decision after a year to see how it was working – and (on the other hand) t0 justify the fact that SCC came in nearly a million pounds under an £8.6 m budget
because a year wasn’t long enough to see how it was working.
Toto, we’ve left Kansas for Topsy Turveyland!
I (as proposer) and Cllr David Wood (as seconder) presented the case that Cabinet’s decision had failed to take account of a number of extraordinarily important principles, most particularly a lack of consultation of those affected, the negative impact the decision had on many peoples’ lives, the openness of the decision-making, and the insufficient evidence provided to justify the decision.
The impact that Cabinet’s decision has had on the lives of many (generally disabled) groups could be seen by the number of public speakers (especially those from a range of disability groups) at the meeting and the written submissions (from other groups) that arrived on my inbox the week before the meeting, which highlighted Suffolk’s lack of consultation. Cabinet looked only at one submission about impact when they made their decision – and that was because that user group had heard about the meeting and asked specifically to contribute.
(In passing, I need to point out that Cllr MaGregor, the Cabinet member for Transport repeatedly said he had consulted with Colin Noble, the Cabinet member for Adult Services who assured him that these cuts had no impact. I suggest both of my colleagues might like to look again at the lengthy submission the Suffolk Consortium of UserLed Organisations and Individual Disabled People made to Cabinet, as well as considering Appendix 2 below – possibly in terms of Psalm 58: 4-5 )
The Committee voted by seven votes to three to send this decision back to the Cabinet to be re-considered.
Watch this space
Appendix 1: My argument in full
We called in this Cabinet decision in because we think it’s a mistaken decision, one based on insufficient evidence, and most profoundly, a wrong decision.
We called it in on the grounds of proportionality: the action is not proportionate to the outcome. Suffolk needs to save money – but not the amount of money that this action saved. Last year allocation for Concessionary fares was £8.6 m, we spent £7.8m The additional cost of these enhancements in the council’s worst proposed case, would still leave us comfortably in the black.
We called it in on the grounds of due consultation. In reconsidering the scheme the Council didn’t consult the groups affected. There was a submission from the Consortium of UserLed Organisations, only because they specifically asked to contribute. No other groups were given the chance to comment on the impact, although the impact has been on many different groups.
We called it in on the grounds of respect for human rights. Original changes to the scheme did impact negatively on elderly and disabled people in terms of travel, ability to work, association with others, and access to health and education. Maintaining this decision continues that impact.
We called it in on grounds of a presumption in favour of openness. The lack of consultation with relevant user groups was not only because the Council had elected not to consult them, it was also because it elected not to alert them to the need for consultation.
Finally, we called it in because the decision was made with insufficient evidence as to the costs of scheme enhancements – particularly with regard to other authorities with more than a year’s experience of running these. This additional information could – and should – have informed Cabinet’s decision
What does the council say in response?
As regards proportionality? it says the issue ‘should be seen in the context of the inherent uncertainty in predicting outturn costs based on only one year of operation.’
Yet uncertainty is a two-way ticket. Surely ‘Inherent uncertainty’ should recognise the cost of these enhancements might be balanced by consequent benefits. And in the very worst case scenario – proposed without supporting evidence – which said that elderly people will convert their passes to disabled passes en masse –all proposed enhancements could be added and still be £100,000 within budget.
As to both due consultation and a presumption in favour of openness, the council admits that a significant number of people would benefit by enhancements to current entitlement, but says that ‘expenditure on public transport’ is seen as ‘one of the higher priorities to reduce budgets’ and so ‘further consultation on the specific issue would not have materially helped cabinet in balancing the issues’. We are told here that this decision has been made on the basis that the very notion of enhancements – even if they come within budget – will not be considered because without them, Suffolk can bank still more money.
This says nothing for the issue of consultation. Worse, what does it say for a presumption of openness?
As to respect for human rights, we are told that the initial decision was covered by a equality impact screening concluding that an EIA was not required. Yet this screening wasn’t specific to concessionary pass enhancements, but for the Councils annual budget – how could the interests of concessionary pass holders be fairly considered here? A further EIA screening for Cabinet’s July decision considered the needs of Blind and Partially Sighted people only.
The report also says that overcrowding on buses is limited by a legal limit on seated/standing persons. It is. But this legal limit is based on the needs of an average cross-section of the population – on the first bus after 9.30 this is no longer the case. Buses can only provide for a certain number of wheelchairs. People with mobility problems may find it hard to stand.
The council’s suggestion that breaching a 9.30 threshold will cause problems for those in work and education (though why these people should not also be disabled or elderly, I do not know) remains incomprehensible. Both workers and students need to be at their desks by 9.00.
Finally, we have the issue of cost. The council says the company that estimated the costs they are not relying on is a more reliable source than direct evidence from the counties operating enhanced schemes. This argument seems – frankly –ludicrous.
For these reasons I am calling on Scrutiny to reassess Cabinet’s decision.
Appendix 2 : Some of the written submissions of impact I received in the week leading up to the scrutiny
1) I would particularly like to bring to your attention children with bus passes. I have a relative with special needs who has a bus pass but is unable to use it to get to his special school. He is unable to walk the distance to school so goes with his mum on the bus every day, she has to pay for him on the journey to school, although she is able to use the pass for the journey home in the afternoon.
Also, disabled people who are able to work are often on low salaries and really should be able to use their pass to get to work.
I myself have an elderly persons bus pass and am quite happy with the present arrangements and If I need to use the pass before 9.30am don’t mind paying. Perhaps if the council won’t agree to this they could consider anyone with a pass travelling for half price before 9.30am. But I really feel the disabled should be able to use their passes at any time.
2) …I struggle with this argument [that there is no evidence that the restrictions on concessionary fares has had any impact on people with disabilities] and ask whether employees of the council who are disabled are now in a position where the employer supports them starting later with no effect on their wages or salary? Certainly with the drive nationally for more disabled people to get into work and the reductions in disability benefits, public transport plays a very significant role.
I consider myself to be lucky enough to still drive to work. As a person with secondary progressive MS diagnosed more that 20 years ago, myself and fellow MS workers make up only 4% of the MS community who work. Many more want to but cannot drive, live in the non suburban areas ofSuffolkand would rely on assisted public transport if it was available, but it appears ‘there is no evidence that it is needed’. I say come and listen to organisations such as the MS Society inSuffolk. There are more than 1000 of us inSuffolkalone. Members in my area of responsibility –East Anglia (Norfolk,Suffolk, Cambridgeshire andPeterborough) are very clear as to the barriers to their participation as employees, volunteers or people who participate in the community, it is access to transport and access to transport that recognises their contribution to society is not between the hours of 9.30am and usually 3pm.
Please please continue to support the needs of disabled people inSuffolk. They want to work and they want to volunteer, the bus pass pre 9.30 am makes a huge difference. East AngliaRepresentative –EnglandNational Council MS SocietyUK
3) I’m partially sighted so receive a life to the bus stop and then catch the 07:00 bus intoI pswich. Like many disabled people I have no choice but to catch the bus when it is quieter and less crowded; come 09:30 the buses are overcrowded and whilst it is extremely difficult for me, it would be impossible for anyone in a wheelchair to find sufficient space.
I also work with autistic people desperately seeking employment, their condition means they are simply unable to travel later in the day when there’s so much more noise and environmental challenges. I have a survey live at the moment collecting information withinSuffolkfrom people with autism and their cares, travel is second only to education in things they worry most about.
Therefore disabled people, the most vulnerable in society, have little choice but to pay the full bus fare. We don’t really have a voice anymore, are vilified as “scroungers” and are a soft target for cuts. As you’ll be aware many disabled people are on low incomes and the least able to afford what can be quite an expense. I also wonder what that says about us as a society inSuffolk?
4) I have a disabled bus pass and work for Babergh District Council but I am unable to use it to get to work as buses will not accept it until after 9.30 am. This rule is penalising the disabled. Everyone who has a bus pass is not elderly and the current rules make it difficult for those who can work doing so.
5) Re-examination of the cabinet decision:
(b) due consultation and the taking of professional advice from officers: Within our own current consultation with people with autism and their carers, over 30% have identified issues with public transport causing significant difficulties (30 out of 100 responses received so far). There are approximately 6000 people inSuffolksuffering from autism and significantly greater numbers of carers. Issues cover anything from inability to travel before 09:30 because of cost to frequency of buses. SCC publicly proclaims it puts service users at the heart of all decisions (“Big Society”) and hence are key stakeholders in all services that affect individual lives i.e. personalisation.
Therefore why weren’t Suffolk family Carers, Suffolk Autism, Papworth Trust, the Shaw Trust, allSuffolkcommunity and voluntary groups consulted? It is standard practice within SCC to engage all stakeholders before reshaping services i.e. co-production. Why wasn’t this done?
(c) respect for human rights (have these been considered?); There is evidenced negative impact on people with autism in unpaid volunteering roles or those on very low wages who suffer significant financial harm – because of their condition, they have to travel when buses are not crowded and hence now have to pay. Their work patterns (and regimental nature of their condition) prohibit waiting until 09:30 for “free transport” as does the overcrowding. How canSuffolkcounty council initiate and encourage employers to recruit more disabled people when the council is penalising service users themselves?
SCC contributes significant funding to employment providers to identify employment opportunities for disabled people. For disabled groups they frequently have to undertake unpaid work “tasters” – again service users are penalised and it results in less effective SCC spend.
There are also significant risks to those partially sighted and blind when travelling on overcrowded buses after 09:30: trying to negotiate round other passengers is horrendous.
It can be argued the fact that disabled people and their representative organisations (and family carers) are denied any opportunity to express views amounts to direct discrimination under the Equalities Act 2010 given they are unfairly denied equal access to services on the grounds of disability i.e. people partially sighted/blind, those with autism, those confined to a wheelchair, requiring carers or with learning difficulties or mental health issues simply cannot travel (especially in rural areas) when travelling during busy times (as evidenced via public consultation via the autism surveys and shortly to be repeated for LD).
It will directly impact on the human rights of a person with autism, learning difficulties and suffering from mental health issues (complete lack of confidence, speech difficulties etc.) that they often have to suffer extreme embarrassment and ridicule at busy times simply because they cannot afford to travel when environmental factors are reduced (i.e. quieter before 09:30); there is countless evidence to support the extreme ordeal that these groups of vulnerable people have to suffer (I personally fallen on the Beeston’s 91 service because I couldn’t negotiate my way to a free seat – witnessed by the driver and many other passengers). Are we satisfied as a statutory body to increase public humiliation?
(d) a presumption in favour of openness; SCC directorates have built robust and trusted community networks and consult extensively on all proposals and any changes to service delivery. It would be an extremely easy process to replicate this for disabled people being denied free travel before 09:30. Why was there no consultation? People with autism have voted for the opportunity to comment further on public transport and the issue of concessionary bus fares will not do away.