The charity that oversees the Motability car scheme for disabled people is facing possible legal action over new rules that appear to discriminate against drivers with high support needs.
Last week, Disability News Service (DNS) told how the rules – introduced secretly by Motability in June – mean that only disabled people who spend more than 12 hours-a-week in education, work, volunteering or caring now qualify for the grants from the Specialised Vehicles Fund (SVF) that will enable them to lease a drive-from-wheelchair (DFW) vehicle.
The campaign group Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) has now sought legal advice to see whether these changes are unlawful under the Equality Act*.
Anne Novis, a pioneering campaigner on disability hate crime, who has been forced to extend her own five-year DFW lease by two years because of the new rules, said last week that only disabled people judged “worthy” of government support would now be able to qualify for a grant.
She said she knew many wheelchair-users who would not meet the new criteria and would not be able to use public transport and so would “become so restricted in their lives they will feel worthless and despair”.
But Declan O’Mahony, director of Motability, has defended the rule changes.
He told DNS today (Thursday): “The question has to be, if you have a finite amount of money, how do you focus your resources on which cases?”
He said that some customers might be able to extend their lease by a second two-year period in some circumstances, and he insisted that Motability would “make every reasonable effort not to leave a customer high-and-dry”.
But Motability expects to make about 300 grants this year for drive-from-wheelchair vehicles (a fall of around 50 on last year), while the number of grants for less expensive wheelchair-accessible vehicles will rise by around 500 to about 3,500.
The fall in DFW grants is partly because the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) grant to the fund has been frozen at £17 million per year since 2012-13, in effect a real-terms cut.
When asked whether he was happy that DWP had frozen the grant for two successive years, O’Mahony said: “Whether they have frozen it, or kept it at any particular level, the challenge for us is to get the best value we can out of it.
“We are pleased that DWP continues to put £17 million into the fund and we are working hard to support as many disabled people as possible with the available funding.”
But when asked whether he had asked DWP for an increase in the grant, he declined to comment.
O’Mahony said the new policy would finally be placed on the Motability website “in the next couple of weeks”.
Motability also claimed this week that it had no idea how many customers of DFW vehicles would be left without a car they could drive after their two-year lease extension period finished.
The charity also admitted that it had carried out no public consultation on the new SVF rules, and conducted no formal equality impact assessment of the changes.
Campaigners believe these failures could mean a breach of its Equality Act duties, as it runs the SVF on behalf of the government.
O’Mahony said: “When we consider our policies in relation to SVF, we take account of the effect that any change will have on disabled people and, in particular, seek to maximize the number of disabled people we can help to have improved access to goods and services through improved mobility.”
A Motability spokesman said this week that the charity would only consider applications from those who do not meet the new criteria in “exceptional cases”, for example if a disabled person would otherwise face “near-total isolation”.
And it insisted that the new criteria “allow us to approach applications in a consistent manner but we also aim to consider each individual application based on the individual circumstances”.
It added: “Although this is a difficult part of what we do, the complexity and cost of the DFW vehicles makes it inevitable that some criteria will be applied to prioritise applications for support.”
The number of DFW grants has increased from 67 in 2006-07 to about 300 per year now, and there are increasing numbers of customers looking for a replacement vehicle after their five-year lease expires.
But Novis said she believed the charity was being “evasive” and that “they definitely know how many customers have extended their contracts by two years to avoid losing their car”.
She said she had not been assessed appropriately when she was told about the new policy by Motability over the telephone, with no questions about where she lived or her ability to cope with public transport, which she cannot use due to extensive spinal pain.
She was also told “clearly” that she could not count the extensive volunteering she did at home or even locally towards the 12-hours-a-week minimum.
*DPAC wants to hear from any current or potential Motability customer who could be affected by these changes, would qualify for legal aid, and is willing to consider legal action. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org
4 December 2014