Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat transport minister, was being questioned by the Commons transport select committee on what action his department had taken to prepare for the replacement of working-age disability living allowance (DLA) with the new personal independence payment (PIP).
The government says that 428,000 fewer people will qualify by 2018 for the enhanced mobility rate of the new PIP – and therefore be eligible for the Motability scheme – than if the reforms had not taken place.
Motability itself has suggested that up to 100,000 existing customers could lose their eligibility in the three years to 2016.
But Baker, giving evidence as part of the committee’s inquiry into access to transport for disabled people, insisted that the PIP reforms – and everything concerned with Motability – were the responsibility of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
He said his department had “not been involved in any Motability discussions” with DWP, that the Motability issue was one that was “solely for the other department”, and that “we cannot deal with Motability issues within the Department for Transport (DfT)”.
But he added: “It would concern me if someone who has been able to get around is no longer able to get around.
“We can try to make sure there are alternatives available through public transport and that they are as accessible as possible.”
But his fellow Liberal Democrat MP Adrian Sanders told him: “In relation to transport for people with disabilities, you clearly have some responsibilities in that area.
“And if another department of government has decided that a disabled person will have to rearrange their living and transport arrangements in just a month… isn’t that something that your department ought to have an interest in and be lobbying on behalf of disabled people for?”
Baker said: “I will happily make sure that my officials refer the comments which have been raised here, because it is obviously a matter of concern to the committee. I will pass [them]on to the DWP and they can respond accordingly.
“It is generally the case that we do try to encourage cross-departmental working… I accept your point that it would have been perhaps more helpful if there had been perhaps more engagement than there has been on this issue.”
Baker said there had been discussions between his department and DWP over eligibility for blue parking badges and concessionary fares, in relation to the PIP reforms.
He also defended his decision to delay for five years new European regulations that would have ensured compulsory disability equality training for bus and coach drivers.
He told the committee there was a “difficult balance to be struck” between ensuring access improvements and not damaging the profitability of bus operators.
He said that introducing such a measure could mean bus companies withdrawing from less profitable routes, leaving some people “stranded”, but that he had “indicated to the bus industry that I expect them to make good progress voluntarily”, and that he would review the situation in a year.
But Baker admitted that he had been “lobbied” on the issue by the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK.
He added: “We don’t rule out taking action on a mandatory basis if I perceive they are not taking it seriously.”
In his evidence, Baker also highlighted the DfT’s accessibility action plan, published last December, and said that around three-quarters of rail journeys would be “at a fully step-free station” by the end of 2015, compared to half of journeys in 2005.
Baker told the committee that it was a “long, slow process” to make the whole transport system accessible, but that he was “confident we will get to a stage in the not-too-distant future where the vast majority of train journeys will be undertaken in a way that is fully accessible to people”.
Baker said his department would use new arrangements to ensure that companies bidding for rail franchises included access improvement plans in their tenders.
He said these would contribute to the decisions on which companies the franchises were awarded to, with the process “encouraging those companies to come forward with innovative ideas to improve access”.
Baker also said that the government had no plans to legislate to “evict” passengers such as those with buggies from wheelchair space on buses if they refused to move when a wheelchair-user boarded the bus.
He said: “So much can be done by people just being considerate to each other rather than by trying to pass laws to force people to be considerate.”
4 June 2013