Last year in the spending review, the government added an extra cut that wasn’t noticed among the big announcements. From October, disabled people and pensioners will no longer receive half-price concessionary coach fares, saving the government around £20m.
Coach company National Express had 3 million passengers using the scheme last year alone: the disabled and elderly who are unable to drive, or who cannot afford expensive train fares. These passengers benefit from concessionary fares for travelling long-distance routes to visit friends and family, and for some the affordability of the fares will be their only way to have holidays and days out within the UK. During the 2010 election campaign, Conservative MPs pledged they would not take away bus passes and travel concessions from disabled and old people, insisting that Labour was claiming this as a scare tactic; yet this is another pledge broken in the commitment to looking after the most vulnerable. The cut of concessionary coach fares will be a blow to those who are unable to travel by train or plane due to physical difficulty, as well as financial constraints.
I spoke to Dawn Foster, who has epilepsy and relies on coaches to visit family in Wales and Scotland from her home in London:
“Because of my disability, it’s unlikely I’ll ever be issued a driving licence, so I rely on public transport. Usually, I travel back home by coach relatively cheaply, as train fares are exorbitant, and I don’t feel disadvantaged by not being able to drive. When the concessionary fares are cut, any coach travel for me will change from a justifiable, occasional expense, to a sum that’s just unaffordable. I can’t see myself being able to visit family and friends as often, whereas I would be able to if I wasn’t stopped from driving. I recently went to a music festival, and the coach took me directly there, for roughly the same cost, through the concessionary rate, as the price of a tank of petrol.”
The removal of concessionary coach travel is yet another cut that is going to affect disabled people, many of whom will face hardship over the next year or two when changes to other benefits are put in place. Disability living allowance is changing to personal independence payment (PIP), and under the new assessment anyone who uses a wheelchair or stick will be seen as “mobile” even if they experience difficulty when moving indoors or outdoors. Pain is not going to be considered a hindrance to movement, so many will stop receiving the mobility component of the benefit because of using wheelchairs or sticks, even though such aids do not make you fully mobile. This tougher criteria is based on an assumption that there is better access to buildings and on pavements for disabled people, but this clearly is not true.
I have a genetic skin condition, epidermolysis bullosa, which causes painful sores and wounds and makes walking exhausting and painful. When I was younger, I could sometimes go out for a few hours with friends or family as long as I took regular rests. But after a spell of very poor health in 2008, I can only walk a little around my home as it is painful to stand, and I need to remain close to a chair to rest. I cannot venture outside unless accompanied by someone who can push me in a manual wheelchair. Yet under the new criteria for PIP, I would qualify as being “mobile” even though I am reliant on someone else all the time when outside. Remembering days when I was more independent and walked better, I have experienced both extremes of mobility, and using an aid is not equal to walking as everyone else. Pavements and buildings are not always accessible; to head out to a pub or cafe to meet friends and find huge steps you can’t ascend is like standing at the bottom of a mountain in slippers.
“The cut to subsidised coach travel may seem insignificant compared to cuts to benefits, services or the NHS but being able to access transport is a vital part of keeping older and disabled people included in society. This cut adds weight to the evidence that disabled people are being savagely targeted by the Coalition’s cuts and makes a mockery of David Cameron’s repeated promises to always protect the most vulnerable.”
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