Friday, 10 June 2016
Barnet's Freedom Pass fiasco: a legal challenge is served ...
Jenny and Siobhan Fairclough
If you have followed the rather extraordinary story of the cancellation by Barnet Council - and its contractors Capita - of the vital travel passes held by many of this borough's vulnerable and disabled residents, (see below for links to previous posts) you are very likely to be pleased to hear that yesterday the authority was served with a Judicial Review 'letter before claim' letter, in regard to one of the residents whose pass was wrongfully removed.
This letter before action has been sent on behalf of Jenny Fairclough, the nineteen year old student whose mother Siobhan has shown great courage and determination in exposing the shameful treatment of her daughter, and countless other residents with learning or physical disabilities, who have been subjected to a pass 'renewal' process, run by Capita, on behalf of the Tory run authority.
Barnet's private partners began this scheme after asking for, and being granted, a contract variation by Barnet Council worth £100, 000, in order to undertake the administration of the passes.
It is unclear why the process of renewal was considered necessary, when the passes appear to be valid until 2020, but in the course of this enforced renewal scheme, Jenny and other residents found their Freedom Passes had been cancelled, some without any warning, apparently on the grounds of failing the eligibility criteria created by Barnet, that is to say local criteria, based on requirements that differ from, and are in addition to, the statutory definition.
The impact of this scheme has been immensely distressing in terms of the immediate impact on vulnerable residents suddenly finding themselves unable to board buses or the underground, and the longer term implications and financial loss incurred by the loss of their free passes.
A challenge has therefore been brought by the Fairclough family, with legal support from Giles Peaker, of Anthony Gold Solicitors - (Giles is also known for his 'Nearly Legal' blog ) - and the initial stage of a process which could lead to Judicial Review has begun.
This action is being brought on the basis of the following claims - amongst other grounds:
Failure to have regard to Department of Transport's statutory guidance on assessment of eligibility
Failure to publish or make known criteria for eligibility set by Barnet Council
Falsely and inaccurately describing the criteria being used to the resident in question
Acting beyond its powers in imposing additional, more restrictive criteria than in legislation
Failure to have regard to the council's Public Sector Equality Duty
Cancelling Jenny's Freedom Pass without warning, within a 30 day appeal period.
Barnet Council has been required to remove the unlawful additional criteria for eligibility for a Freedom Pass and to re-instate Jenny's Freedom Pass, and a response is due within 14 days.
After this iniquitous scheme was exposed by local bloggers, and through FOI requests, and questions to council committees, the council was obliged to announce it would address concerns through the work of a 'review' - which initially, apparently as part of an effort to shift the blame, it claimed was on behalf of London Councils. This 'review', we now understand, will be the work of an 'Improvement Group', and overseen by an officer with the typically absurd title of 'Strategic Lead for Effective Borough Travel'.
Mrs Angry, for one, always endeavours to travel throughout the borough in an effective way, and welcomes the extension of this aspiration to our friends at Capita. One can only hope that they will be able to find some new source of profit from this new approach, 'moving forward'.
The emphasis of this review, however, or as we were then informed, a process which would only be completed in November, while disabled residents carried on worrying about their temporary passes - would be on aligning Barnet's criteria with the 'ethos' of the Care Act, with reference to helping residents live more 'independent' lives.
Only latterly has the authority even begun to acknowledge that in fact it is the Transport Act which defines eligibility, and as Mrs Angry pointed out at the Policy and Resources meeting where the passes were discussed, we all know what 'independence' means, in Barnet: removing support on the pretext of 'more choice', just as they did recently when they cut meals on wheels to other vulnerable residents.
In other words, the intention might reasonably be assumed to be that the review should be a face saving exercise, and a useful interval, after which all the fuss, they hoped, would die down, and they could continue setting their own minimalist criteria.
Jenny Fairclough's legal action has now, however, with perfect timing, and adept direction, presented the ultimate challenge to yet another shameful policy exercised by Tory Barnet, through its outsourced contractors, and of course we look forward with great interest to the response from the authority, but it is also timely to ask ourselves a question.
If such an obviously ill conceived policy, and one that has had such a devastating impact on the lives of our most vulnerable residents, is only discovered by external scrutiny - and exposure, what other irregularities might there be lurking under the cover of commercial sensitivity, and contractual arrangements that have shrouded the outsourced administration of our local public services?
At the very least this shameful episode has proved that there is no effective oversight by our elected representatives of the Capita contracts they so happily approved, on the basis of so little examination of the finer details, wherein the devil, especially in the infernal world of privatisation, is so comfortably established. The only alternative conclusion would be that councillors knew, and were complicit in, this horrible process. That would be very hard to accept.
And something else to consider - as the catastrophic election day cockup has suggested - although a thought ignored by the dismally limited scope of the investigation by Southampton Council's Chief Operating Officer: has the outsourcing of legal services created a risk to standards of governance that has now moved past the tipping point, and delivered this authority into the last stages of failure in corporate competency?
Freedom's just another word: the disabled residents in Barnet, struggling to retain free travel passes issued by Capita
The price of Freedom: on the eve of elections, Barnet Tories panic as their Capita run disability pass 'renewal scheme' is exposed
Cry Freedom: at last - victory for disabled residents, wrongly deprived of their travel passes - 'sorry', say Barnet Council, and Capita ...
The Tailoring of Communication, and Mrs Angry, designed to Annoy: the Freedom Pass Scandal, a lot of questions, and not many answers
The Price of Freedom, still under negotiation: have thousands of disabled residents in Barnet lost their travel passes?