The government’s own advisory committee is set to publish a string of controversial reports that have previously been kept secret, and which could expose years of ministerial failings on accessible transport.
The reports and other documents drawn up by the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) have never been published on the committee’s website, in breach of guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office.
But now, thanks to work by the Association of British Commuters (ABC), DPTAC has promised to review its approach to transparency “as a matter of priority” and produce a “clear publishing policy”.
ABC said this could lead to the publication of a series of “controversial” documents, which would be “sure to become vital campaigning tools for disabled people and organisations across all forms of transport”.
This should include DPTAC’s response to the government’s consultation on its National Disability Strategy, and a statement on driver-only operated trains and unstaffed stations.
Disability News Service (DNS) reported last month that publication of one key DPTAC report, Working Towards a Fully Accessible Railway, which called on ministers to invest billions of pounds in removing access barriers to the rail system, had been delayed by more than a year.
ABC has now confirmed that the report’s publication was in fact delayed even longer than that, with a first draft completed by DPTAC in May 2019, but not published on DPTAC’s website until February 2022.
ABC’s co-founder Emily Yates has spent four years securing vital DPTAC documents that had not been published and were highly critical of government policy on accessible transport.
The secret documents ABC has published have included evidence of DPTAC’s continuing concerns about the impact on disabled passengers of staffing levels on Britain’s railways, including – in one 2019 letter to Department for Transport (DfT) ministers – alarm at the “potentially toxic combination of driver-only operated trains and unstaffed stations”.
ABC also published DPTAC’s Working Towards a Fully Accessible Railway report in July 2019, after obtaining it through another freedom of information request.
Earlier this month, ABC accused DPTAC of failing to meet its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA), and of failing to follow guidance which requires public authorities to “publish information proactively” and “promptly”.
Information it should have been publishing includes minutes of meetings, contracts, reports, plans and policies, and ABC told DPTAC it had repeatedly failed to do this, and had failed to draw up its own publication scheme.
It wants such a scheme to include formal letters to the government, consultation responses and research reports.
DPTAC’s chair, Keith Richards, told DNS that the committee was now working on a publication scheme “as a priority”, and that this would set out DPTAC’s “high-level commitment to proactively publish information”.
But he said DPTAC had “always made information available quickly and easily” when asked for it under the Freedom of Information Act, and he said there had never been any pressure from government not to publish any documents.
He said: “There are a number of reasons why we do not and cannot publish everything we draft, often because it is for our own internal use, or because our advice is designed to inform early-stage policy thinking within the DfT, often in a very confidential environment and that is based on a relationship of trust established over many years which enables us to be privy to confidential information.
“If we lose that trust we lose the opportunity to perform our role through influencing the debates, and lose the opportunity to help improve access for disabled people and challenge the department robustly in key areas that you have highlighted in DNS over a number of years.
“Where we must be clearer and make sure our work is more transparent, is with the obvious documents such as minutes of meetings, responses to consultation documents, position statements, and formal correspondence.”
He added: “I admit that historically we have sometimes taken an overly cautious approach to publishing because of the highly confidential discussions we have with the department on a regular basis.
“And being too cautious may not have been helpful to our external stakeholder colleagues who would value and potentially benefit from knowing what advice DPTAC is providing on key transport accessibility issues.”
Doug Paulley, one of four disabled people who took a legal case against the government that led to the National Disability Strategy being declared unlawful, and a leading accessible transport campaigner, said he had always been “very impressed” with DPTAC’s advice to the government, which he said was “forthright and uncompromising but careful, detailed and irrefutable”.
He said he had also been “impressed at the very clear social model pressure” it had put on the government “on a consistent basis going back years”, and he said he wondered “what even worse excesses the government would have got away with if it wasn’t for DPTAC”.
He said he accepted that such a “small group with limited funding” did not have much of the resources and time needed to publish documents.
But he said he agreed with ABC’s concerns, and that DPTAC “could and perhaps should have done more proactively to put what they are saying out, for the benefit of other campaigners and groups.
“This could have amplified DPTAC’s voice and influence without undermining their independence; also, it could have facilitated campaigners to make more effective campaigns on issues that matter to disabled travellers (and to DPTAC).”
But he also said he was “very impressed that they have held their hands up and agreed that they could and should” take action, which showed “openness and accountability which I think eg the prime minister could do well to emulate”.
Picture by the Office of Rail and Road
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