The government’s accessible transport advisers have been told by a regulator that they have been behaving unlawfully for years by failing to publish controversial reports, minutes of key meetings and letters they have exchanged with ministers.
Campaigners believe the Department for Transport (DfT) is behind the failure of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) to meet its legal freedom of information duties.
They believe DfT has prevented DPTAC releasing key documents that would show what action ministers are taking to improve accessible transport, and the advice the committee is giving the government over its repeated and serious failings.
The Association of British Commuters (ABC) had complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) about DPTAC’s “flagrant” unlawful actions, which were probably a result of government pressure.
ABC lodged the complaint after DPTAC failed to implement the pledge made in May 2022 by its previous chair, Keith Richards, to improve the committee’s transparency, a decision that was supported by the committee.
Richards resigned from the role soon after making the pledge.
But DPTAC’s new chair, Matthew Campbell-Hill, has questioned whether it is right to release research that exposes the discrimination faced by disabled passengers.
In an interview with Disability News Service soon after his appointment, he also said that deciding whether DPTAC would do more to release its research reports and letters to ministers was not high on his list of priorities.
ABC also highlighted the urgency of the issue because of the expansion of DPTAC’s role.
It told ICO that this role had “greatly expanded” in the last five years and that it now provided advice to DfT ministers; DfT civil servants; the regulator, the Office of Rail and Road; and Great British Railways, the new over-arching body that will run the rail system.
DPTAC also liaises with the transport industry, charities, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).
ABC found that DPTAC has published just 17 documents online in the last 12 years.
This contrasted with DPTAC’s equivalent body in Scotland, the Mobility and Access Committee for Scotland, which regularly publishes consultation responses, minutes, reports, strategic plans and formal letters.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, public bodies like DPTAC must introduce a wide-ranging publication scheme, which describes the information they will publish “proactively”.
But DTAC has no such scheme, and it has kept key documents secret for years, including letters and reports in which it has criticised the Department for Transport’s access failings.
Much of that information has only become known after it was released in response to freedom of information requests from ABC.
In the complaint to ICO, ABC’s co-founder, Emily Yates, pointed the regulator towards a string of controversial documents she secured through such requests, including letters to ministers, DPTAC responses to government consultations, and the committee’s own reports.
Among those documents was DPTAC’s draft Rail Workforce Reform report, which found that staffing levels on a section of the rail network were “completely inadequate to deliver an accessible railway”.
Another was DPTAC’s response to a consultation on the government’s plans for the railways over the next three decades, which the committee said displayed a “poverty of ambition” on accessibility.
ABC also secured an April 2019 DPTAC letter which showed the committee had told ministers they were falling “a very long way short” with their plans to ease the “toxic” impact on disabled people of running driver-only trains through unstaffed stations.
In the complaint to ICO, Yates said DfT’s legal department had been overseeing DPTAC’s freedom of information practices since late 2018, and there was “strong evidence to suggest DPTAC is denied control over publishing decisions”.
ABC provided the regulator with evidence showing selected members of DPTAC involved in rail reform had been told to sign non-disclosure agreements, which meant it had not been able to discuss rail accessibility properly as a committee since 2019, in breach of its legal duties.
Yates said in her complaint: “After five years lobbying the DfT and DPTAC for transparency on accessibility issues, we have exhausted every avenue for change.
“Yet the stakes have never been higher, in the context of rail reform, budget cuts, and pending legislative change under Great British Railways.”
Now ICO has accepted ABC’s concerns and has told DPTAC it needs to “proactively implement an appropriate publication scheme, made easily available to the public”.
Yates told Disability News Service yesterday (Wednesday): “The DPTAC publications featured in our ICO report are the most important documents on transport accessibility in the UK today, leading to multiple EHRC and parliamentary interventions over the last five years.
“Yet these documents – and even the committee itself – do not officially ‘exist’ to the public.
“DPTAC’s breach of its transparency duties is now so severe that it can only be seen as the exclusion of disabled people and their issues from political and cultural life.”
Asked to confirm that it will ensure DPTAC now produces a publication scheme, and if it would apologise and confirm that it was responsible for DPTAC’s failings in this area, a DfT spokesperson said: “The department and DPTAC remain committed to supporting the transport needs of disabled people.
“We have received correspondence from the Information Commissioner’s Office and will respond in due course.”
Picture by Office of Rail and Road
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