Campaigners have warned the government of the vital importance of choosing a disabled person to head its influential committee of advisers on accessible transport.
The warning comes as the committee is set to assume an important new role as part of the government’s major rail reform programme.
Tomorrow (Friday) is the deadline for applications for the eight-days-a-month role of chair of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC).
But the role has assumed even greater importance after the Department for Transport published a new consultation on the major changes in legislation needed to deliver its rail reforms, which include setting up Great British Railways (GBR) as a new over-arching body to run the rail system.
Among those changes, ministers intend to expand DPTAC’s role so that it also has a statutory role as an adviser to GBR.
Caroline Eglinton, a disabled accessibility expert who has worked in the rail industry for 16 years and is the government’s disability and access ambassador for rail travel, said the role of the chair will be even more important with DPTAC’s new responsibilities as access adviser to GBR.
She said: “I do think it’s really important that the new DPTAC chair is a disabled person – it’s one very straightforward way to value and amplify the voices of disabled people.
“With all the talented and experienced disabled people out there, I would find it difficult to understand how a non-disabled person could be a better fit for the role.
“I’d go as far as saying that I would be very disappointed if the new chair didn’t have personal lived experience of disability.”
Eglinton, who will not be applying for the role herself, said it was important not only to have a disabled chair of DPTAC but also to have a chair who was comfortable with talking about their own experience of disability and public transport.
She said: “I think it also helps to break down stereotypes people may have about disabled people. That’s why I’m always open about being disabled myself.”
In recent years, DPTAC has called on the government to invest billions more pounds in removing the “deeply-rooted barriers” disabled people face across the rail system.
Tony Jennings, co-chair of a rail accessibility panel and a disability rights campaigner and member of the Campaign for Level Boarding, said he also believed the appointment of the DPTAC chair was crucial and that it should be “an influential disabled person with authority and not a ‘yes person’ ticking boxes”.
The new consultation also says that the new role of passenger champion for rail users, which will be given to Transport Focus, the independent watchdog for transport users – although it is sponsored by the Department for Transport – will include “championing accessibility across all stages of the passenger journey”.
Jennings said that inclusion and accessibility must sit “at the heart of GBR strategy”, with disabled people with expertise and lived experience of accessible transport part of the decision-making process at GBR board level.
He would like to see a new accessibility panel at the top level of GBR, feeding into the organisation’s board “as a voice for disabled people”.
But he said the major change needed in a reasonable timescale would not come without “significant investment” and efforts to join up work on accessibility across the industry.
He said the current structure of the industry – including the influence of the industry body, the Rail Delivery Group – was “broken” and now needed to be far more “transparent and accountable”.
He also raised concerns about the impact assessments published alongside the consultation, which reveal the government’s “preferred” option for establishing a new accessibility duty for Great British Railways.
The document says ministers want to include this duty in GBR’s licence, rather than making it a statutory duty, because this retains “flexibility” if “policy objectives change”.
There will be a reference to the duty in primary legislation, but it will only state that the GBR licence must include a duty on accessibility.
Jennings said he was concerned that this was the government’s current preference.
He said: “Legislation is enforceable, flexibility isn’t.”
He said that past government pledges on accessibility had shown why such a promise needed to be clearly laid out in legislation, without allowing for exemptions or relaxations in certain circumstances.
He said: “Without a legislative timescale for all stations to be accessible and to enable level boarding, the duty will be pointless and in reality will be virtually impossible to enforce.”
Transport for All (TfA), the disabled-led group that campaigns on accessible transport, said it hoped the creation of GBR would “increase accountability and consistency”, and strongly supported it having an accessibility duty.
A TfA spokesperson said: “As ever, the key will be in the implementation and monitoring.
“The new structure must be sufficiently resourced to deliver, and work on accessibility must be effectively monitored and driven by the priorities that matter to disabled people.”
Alan Benson, TfA’s chair, added: “In all our work TfA is committed to ‘nothing about us without us’.
“We actively promote the value of lived experience and have been pioneers in ensuring that both professional consultants and volunteers are properly compensated for their contribution.
“We are very keen that whoever is appointed has lived experience as a disabled person.”
Picture by ORR
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