Wednesday, 27 April 2016
Freedom's just another word: the disabled residents in Barnet, struggling to retain free travel passes issued by Capita
Vanishing Point: or the end of the line, for some residents' Freedom Passes
*Updated Tuesday: see below
A couple of weeks ago, Mrs Angry was on a local bus, travelling home, minding her own business, staring out of the window, when she became distracted from her own preoccupations by what appeared to be a delay at a bus stop, caused by a disagreement between the driver, and someone who was trying to use their travel pass, and move on into the bus. In fact there were two people in front of the driver: a man with a learning disability, and his carer, and it was the carer who was trying to use the pass of the man he was looking after. The pass seemed not to work, and the carer could not understand why that was.
Eventually the driver stopped arguing, and let the pair sit down. Clearly it was upsetting and confusing for the disabled passenger, and it was puzzling to see a bus driver arguing with someone who pretty obviously was entitled to a free pass anyway.
This incident made sense at last when Mrs Angry read about problems related to the renewal of Freedom Passes, in the Barnet Eye blog, which has recently featured the plight of two disabled residents who have reportedly had their passes cancelled by the London Borough of Barnet, without any warning - a young man, and a young woman, and Mrs Angry has also heard from other sources deeply worrying tales of similar experiences.
It is a sign of the times we live in that some of these people are too frightened of the consequences if they are identified in any way for speaking out about this matter.
The young man quoted in the Barnet Eye blog, whom we shall therefore call 'Mr X', had held a pass for 18 years - he stated:
I asked the ticket inspector what is wrong with my faulty freedom pass card, he said to me, "Have you received the letter from the council?" I replied "Yes". He said to me the freedom pass is stopped, cancelled & it will no be longer used in the Tube lines, buses, Tram, overground & national rail trains so I told him the reason I hold the freedom pass because I have learning difficulties/disabilities. He understood & he said there is nothing he can do because of the stupid selfish Tory government treating the disabled people like garbage by implementing ridiculous policies that affects them like bedroom tax & ruining the welfare system.
Since then, I told my mum about it & she called London councils who issued freedom pass cards for disabled & older people, she told them that why my freedom pass is deactivated & blocked. They said to her on the phone it wasn't them (London Councils) who blocked me from using my freedom pass. It was the Barnet council who did it. the expiry of my freedom pass is 31st March 2020.
... I received the letter from Barnet council, what it said on the letter is that I need to have photo taken which I did recently. On the letter, it said "Are you diagnosed with learning disabilities & SEN (which includes autism which I am high functioning). I ticked "yes" so I posted the letter in the postbox & I received no response from the Barnet council at all. It did not say on the letter that my freedom pass will be stopped working or will soon to expire, it did say not on the letter ...
The young woman featured yesterday, 'Ms Y', has also had a pass for many years, as her parent explains:
My disabled daughter received a letter informing her that she now does now does not fit the criteria for a Freedom Pass. She has had it since the age of 10 she is now 19. The letter stated that she had 30 days to appeal. 10 days since receiving the letter, she boards a bus to come home and is informed that her Freedom Pass has been cancelled. Leaving her to panic and have a meltdown. Thankfully I was able to be contacted to collect her and return her home.
Barnet gave her no notice that the pass had been cancelled and the letter did not state that the pass would be cancelled.
Surely under Safeguarding the vulnerable Barnet Council have failed. Do Barnet not have a duty of care to their vulnerable people. Are they not picking on the ones with the least understanding and ability to fight their corner, all to save money.
How do Barnet Council sleep at night.
Of course you can probably guess who now issues these passes, can you? Go on. Have a try.
Yes: Barnet Council's private contractors, Capita.
Well, then. After reading all these reports, and checking with a few other sources, Mrs Angry thought she would brave the council call centre (another 'service' provided by Crapita) and attempt to run the gauntlet of options, designed so as to deter as many callers as possible from reaching any department, and speaking in person to any employee.
This privatised phone system is a soul destroying labyrinth of dead ends, cut offs, an endless and perplexing choice of options, often ending in recorded messages, and then ... a dead line. Even if you demand of the automated response to speak to an operator, you can never be sure where you are going to end up.
And unlike the original labyrinth, to reach the Minotaur itself, the monstrous beast of outsourced power skulking in the lair of Capita, there is no ball of string to find your way back: only darkness, and eternal despair.
First attempt: a recorded message informing those who might want to apply for a new Freedom Pass that they should do so online. Ah.
Not so useful if you have a disability, and perhaps have trouble using a pc, and need help, or maybe are not able to afford access to a pc.
But never mind, Mrs Angry! Capita have thought of that!
A very helpful suggestion next, from the recorded voice.
Why not visit your local library, if you need help!
Yes! Those libraries that your Tory councillors, who so happily signed up for these fecking Capita contracts, now have decided to hollow out of library staff, by half, and turn them for much of the time into robot, DIY libraries, unstaffed!
And don't worry about using an unstaffed library, if you have a learning disability. We are told this will be addressed by leaving a few leaflets for you, with easy to understand instructions, on, you know, how to use a library when there is no one there to help you.
The message, unfortuntately, abruptly ended with a cheery ... Goodbye!
Back to square one.
Second attempt, then. This time to the renewal option.
This time answered by a human being, who gave his name, duly recorded, and confirmed that he worked for Capita. That was about all he could confirm, as it turned out. But what he did not know, he passed on anyway.
If I had to renew the Freedom Pass of a family member with a disability, was that because of any particular reason? He told Mrs Angry that last year, that is to say up to March 2016, passes were automatically renewed, but for the current year, the criteria for eligibility had changed.
Oh. Really? In what way?
It seemed the assessment for eligibility was a lot more vigorous.
Disability had to have been recognised for more than two years, and the resident had to be known to a certain service. And seen 'regularly' by them.
How regularly? Every month, apparently.
Goodness me: something of a challenge, you might think.
How would someone with a learning disability, for example, be properly informed about all this?
Well, letters had been sent out from the beginning of the year, from January. Yes, but what if the person had a disability, say, such as autism: how would they cope with a demand for renewal like this?
Autism? What was that?
Mrs Angry asked this employee, who confirmed that his job is to deal with the renewal of Freedom Passes, to residents with disabilities , if he did not know what autism was.
He did not.
Ok. Why had the criteria changed, then?
That one was easy. It wasn't Barnet's fault, or Capita, it seems. No, no, no. It was London Councils.
Are you sure? He was.
Mrs Angry, however, wasn't at all sure.
So she phoned London Councils.
A very helpful assistant there was at a loss to understand why anyone would say they had changed the criteria.
He read out the statutory definition of eligibility:
People who are blind or partially sighted
People who are profoundly or severely deaf
People without speech
People who have a disability, or have suffered an injury, which has left them with a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to walk
People who do not have arms or have a long-term loss of the use of both arms
People who have a learning disability that is defined as 'a state of arrested or incomplete development of mind which includes significant impairment of intelligence and social functioning'
People who, if they applied for the grant of a licence to drive a motor vehicle under Part III of the Road Traffic Act 1988, would have their application refused pursuant to section 92 of the Act (physical fitness) otherwise than on the ground of persistent misuse of drugs or alcohol.
Let us repeat this: these people, as described by these definitions, have a statutory right, a right in law, to a Freedom Pass. Councils must obey the law and give passes to those residents in need, and may also grant them on the grounds of other qualifications. And let us make this quite clear, as Mrs Angry was told, quite categorically:
London Councils have NOT changed the criteria of eligibility.
So what on earth is going on?
Why are disabled residents finding out that their passes no longer work in circumstances that to anyone would be embarrassing, and upsetting, but particularly to any vulnerable person, who could potentially be left stranded without access to public transport, alone and confused, and unable to get home?
Why is the wrong information being given to residents as to the reason for an need for renewal?
Why have such residents been deprived of a pass, and on what grounds?
How many residents have suffered distress, and the loss of their passes, when they are entitled to those passes?
Why are changes being made in the way such residents' eligibility is being assessed in Barnet, and in the monitoring and documentation of their disabilities?
Who authorised these changes, and when?
Were they approved by councillors, or imposed by Capita? Are they lawful? Do they discriminate, or is the process by which the passes are being 'renewed' itself discriminatory?
Was any assessment of the risk of such potential discrimination made by the authority, and if so when?
Oh: and why is renewal considered necessary in the first place, when the passes are meant to be valid until 2020?
Does Capita think that there is a possibility that someone may have 'recovered' from autism, or Downs Syndrome, has stopped being reliant on the support of the council, and present the outsourced service thereby with the possibility of more contractual savings, and - kerrching - maybe even gainshare payments on those savings?
Will our Tory councillors take any notice of what appears to be another Capita disaster waiting to unfold, and hold their contractors to account?
There is an irony inherent, of course, in the very nature of this new enterprise, whatever it is: associated as it is with the extension, or withdrawal, of a 'Freedom Pass', to allow residents to travel at ease, without charge, throughout the borough, and beyond.
In Broken Barnet, as in any totalitarian state, travel and freedom of movement must be controlled, and monitored, and free passes allowed only to those that can prove they are deserving of such benevolence. And the need for control, and subversion, of corporate language means that any scheme with the word 'freedom' in the title is by its very nature, a challenge to the authority of our overseers.
Only the deserving poor, not 'scroungers', those who must be experiencing the worst degree of disability and hardship so as to qualify for a strictly limited indulgence, may have any escape from the rule of profit which underlies every service now handed over to Capita, on behalf of our Tory councillors.
Has there been a change of policy, in regard to Freedom Passes, in this borough, debated and approved by our Tory administration?
Or is the problem simply another result of Crapitalism in the London Borough of Broken Barnet, decided upon and enacted by officers and contractors?
Let's see what we can find out, shall we?
And in the meanwhile, consider your choice of candidate in next month's elections very carefully: both candidates are promising to protect the Freedom Pass, but Mrs Angry thinks it highly unlikely a hugely privileged old Etonian like Zac Goldsmith really understands, or cares about, the vital role it plays in the lives of ordinary Londoners, and we all know what happened to Boris Johnson's transport pledges, once he was Mayor.
Mrs Angry has written to Tory Cllr Sachin Rajput, Chair of the Adults and Safeguarding Board in Barnet, to ask him what he thought about this scandalous matter. Also copied to Labour leader Cllr Barry Rawlings.
Other families affected by the pass 'renewal' have contacted Mrs Angry to say they have been waiting weeks for their relative's pass to be processed: we must ask again - what exactly is going on, and why is this necessary in the first place?
New - *Updated Saturday:
Cllr Rajput has replied to Mrs Angry's email to say that the matter has been raised with officers. We shall await the outcome of his enquiry with great interest.
Cllr Rawlings has claimed on twitter that the issue was 'investigated' six weeks ago, and he was told the policy had been 'suspended'.
The two experiences reported by disabled residents in the Barnet Eye blog, and the information given to Mrs Angry this week by a Capita officer dealing with pass 'renewals', however, suggest that this is unfortunately not the case, and one must now also question why the opposition leader was apparently given such an assurance, as well as the reason this scandalous policy was approved - and by whom - in the first place.
And the most important question of all: are there in fact any 'renewals' being issued - even on spurious grounds - or is the whole process simply a way of removing passes from disabled residents, thereby making 'savings' for which Capita will gain some reward?
Mrs Angry has now written to the Monitoring Officer of Barnet Council to ask her to confirm that the 'renewal' process being undertaken by Capita on behalf of the authority is in fact lawful, and not discriminatory. She has replied that she is now looking into the matter.