Disabled people launch a legal challenge against the Tories’ ticket office closures

A ticket office on the UK train network
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The government is allowing train operators to close the majority of ticket offices on the rail network. There has been widespread outrage over the decision – not least the impact on chronically ill and disabled people. However, now the government and the four publicly-owned train operators are facing a legal challenge over the consultation process.

Ticket office closures: the thin end of the wedge for disabled people

As the Canary has been documenting, the Tories began planning to allow train operators to close ticket offices in 2022. However, in recent weeks transport secretary Mark Harper has pressed ‘go’ on the scheme. We only knew this originally thanks to rail passenger group the Association of British Commuters (ABC).

The government had to sign the plan off, as there are regulations governing ticket offices. Of course, the arguments from the Tories and the companies include that only 12% of people buy tickets at offices. They have also launched a public consultation, where people can have their say.

But trade unions, politicians, and chronically ill and disabled people are furious about the plans – and it’s clear why people are angry. As the Canary previously reported, 23% of disabled people are internet non-users. Ticket vending machines are often inaccessible. Plus, wheelchair users can only get their 50% discount on tickets from an office. Overall, the rail network is generally still not fully accessible as well. All this makes for a perfect storm for chronically ill and disabled people.

Meanwhile, train operators are claiming that ticket office closures won’t affect accessibility – as they’ll redeploy staff across stations. However, this is literally not true.

As the ABC has now revealed, two train operators are going to make 94 stations unstaffed under the plans. This would mean that West Midlands Trains would have a total of 137 unstaffed stations (94% of its network), and East Midlands Railway would have 90 (87% of its network). It is currently unclear what the situation is across the rest of the country.

Yet despite this, the government is only doing a 21-day consultation – which closes to the public on Wednesday 26 July.

Read on...

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So, with all this in mind two disabled people are taking legal action against the government and the four publicly-owned train operators.

Breaching equality and accessibility laws?

Sarah Leadbetter is registered blind, and Doug Paulley is a wheelchair user. Law firm Leigh Day is representing them. Essentially the two say that the consultation is inaccessible, and so discriminates against disabled people – and, in turn, is unlawful. They say this is because:

  • It should have been carried out when the proposals are still at formative stage. However, the decision to close ticket offices appears to have already been taken given statutory redundancy notices have already been issued to staff.
  • There are multiple, serious flaws with the consultation related to accessibility which mean disabled people will not be able to understand the impact of the proposals or provide a meaningful response.
  • The time period of 21 days falls far short of what is required to properly consider and respond to these complex and far-reaching proposals; even more so for disabled people given the accessibility issues described above.
  • The… [government and train operators] have failed to take any steps to avoid or reduce this disadvantage such as extending the consultation period, providing readily accessible alternative formats and proactively consulting with organisations representing disabled people.
  • Proposals have been on the table for a significant period of time: there is no reason why the short consultation period could not be extended, and the process adjusted in the manner set out above to ensure it is accessible to all members of the public.
  • The consultation process does not eliminate discrimination or advance equality of opportunity for disabled people for the reasons set out above.

On the point of accessibility of the consultation, the ABC has clearly laid out the flaws. It noted:

There are no paper copies available at stations (in standard, large-print or easy-read format), and most operators have failed to offer audio, Braille or British Sign Language versions of the consultation.

Operators have made no attempt to reach out to non-internet users, or current non-users of rail. They have also ignored the need to reach out to rail users outside their local area (for whom stations would be a destination, not a point of origin). The short 21-day time period is a key accessibility issue, while the lack of a quantified national overview implies that any Equality Impact Assessments produced by train operators are likely to breach the public sector equality duty held by the DfT [Department for Transport].

Leigh Day has sent the government and four train operators a Letter Before Action. However, Paulley and Leadbetter are not the only ones taking legal action.

Mayors making moves

As the Guardian reported:

Five metro mayors, led by Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham, said the “rushed” public consultation on the changes was not following due process and that the closures would affect thousands of jobs and “erode trust” in the railway.

Like Paulley and Leadbetter, Burnham and his colleagues are arguing the government is carrying out the consultation unlawfully. He said:

Section 29 of the Railways Act 2005 sets out a very clear and detailed process which must be followed if a train operating company proposes to close a station or any part of a station. That process has simply not been followed in this instance. It requires a 12-week consultation.

A “fait accompli”

Paulley said in a statement:

The presence of dependable rail staff is incredibly important for disabled people, including me, who use our often inaccessible railways. The cuts are a fait accompli being pushed through the motions of this sham consultation, with its disingenuous claims and failure to give disabled people the information we need to respond properly. It is appalling that such an important topic is being handled in this manner and the process must be stopped.

Leadbetter said:

People like me, with visual impairments, rely on ticket offices and their staff to help us when we’re travelling and their closure will be a huge blow. To hold a consultation that fails to properly hear the views of those who need assistance the most is woefully inadequate. The government should scrap this unfair process and come up one that gives rail passengers with disabilities an equal say.

Meanwhile, the independent rail regulator the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) has also intervened. It has told train operators that they have until Friday 21 July to prove they are compliant with accessibility regulations:

Ticket office closures: an “outrageous” situation

Overall, as the ABC summed up to the Canary:

Doug Paulley and Sarah Leadbetter are doing millions of people a great public service, and it is outrageous that disabled activists have had to undertake this case while stakeholders and regulators stay silent. We are very glad to see that this latest legal action aims directly at the government, who everyone knows are the ones really pulling the strings.

The government has clearly allowed the train operators to rush through the proposals – with chronically ill and disabled people either being the usual afterthought – or they simply don’t care. Either way, it appears that the ticket office closure plans may already be running out of track before they’ve even begun.

Featured image via El Pollock – Wikimedia, resized to 770×403 pixels under licence CC BY-SA 2.0

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