NO one chooses to be born or to develop an impairment, and yet we know that disabled people are seriously economically and socially disadvantaged when it comes to public transport some 23 years after the Disability Discrimination Act was introduced.
Inclusivity across our transport system can, should and must break this cycle and enable disabled passengers to access the things that the rest of us can enjoy. Labour fully comprehends this, because it is written in our DNA that when you create barriers, whether economically, socially or physically, you not only discriminate but limit the opportunities of others.
We know how transport provides social connectivity to people who are isolated, can facilitate access to work or leisure, and can also enhance independence and opportunity. To get this wrong is to limit the lives and hope of others.
Progress and spend over the past eight years has been too slow and too little. The inefficiencies within the system have yet again meant that disabled people were pushed to the back of the queue – and, I have to say, without enough realisation from Government or remorse from the industry.
Tragically, governments and society have for too long built those barriers to disabled people, to exclude them and to remove the freedoms that so many of us take for granted.
I recall a woman in my constituency who is doubly incontinent, due to radiotherapy treatment for the disease she had – she did not choose to be so. She was denied Universal Credit owing to the complete failure of work capability assessments, which has left her in poverty, making it unaffordable for her to travel. Not having a toilet on a train, at a station or on a coach means that she cannot travel to see her mother. That is her goal. We must and should enable her to reach it.
I use that example to highlight the range of considerations that must be taken into account when we create an inclusive transport network. Disabled people are priced off our railways because they are far more economically disadvantaged than non-disabled people. Disabled people have to find an additional £570 a month in costs. Poverty is a major reason why people cannot travel, and because people cannot travel – for example, for work – they are economically disadvantaged.
If Labour is about anything, it is about breaking this cycle, which we know has got far worse since this Government came to power. Wages have stagnated, and the most in need are denied the very social security to support their access requirements, keeping people in poverty or pushing them further into poverty.
Labour will, as is our mission, end this shameful and disgraceful approach to disabled people. In the sixth richest country in the world, we will not tolerate marginalising the most vulnerable people in our society and robbing them of the most basic rights that anyone should be able to have.
Transport provides such an opportunity to turn people’s fortunes around. Whether someone faces a physical or sensory impairment, a mental health or neurodiversity challenge or a combination of those, whether they are injured, a parent with young children and buggies to navigate, old or frail, Labour will remove the barriers that stop them achieving their goals.
The Government’s Inclusive Transport Strategy makes a good start, but much is missing. More than £50m of the Access for All funding planned for the current period has been deferred, with half of all projects being postponed.
Network Rail is inviting nominations for eligible stations for the next round of funding, but it is also looking for cash-strapped local authorities to contribute to bids and work in partnership – money that they do not have. Commitment is demonstrated by money. That is where the Government have been left wanting.
Every time I ask this question, I think of a constituent of mine who is autistic. He absolutely loves trains and wants to work on the railway. He has done courses and training under Government schemes, but at 30 he has only had three months of work sticking labels on jam pots. We are impoverished because his ambition has been denied.
I set a challenge to the transport sector and Ministers. Having tried to draw out statistics to no avail on how many disabled people work across the sector, which speaks volumes, my challenge is this: what are you doing to radically change the diversity of the workforce? No excuses and no prejudices – what are you doing? If the workforce is inclusive, the industry and Government will not only grasp what they have to do to change, but people who have been disabled will be able to get out of their homes and travel, and economically, the sector will benefit.
Labour is committed to taking us on that journey, and we believe that the unions will be the facilitators of change. This is in Labour’s DNA. It is in our name. We are about transforming the world of work.
Rachael Maskell is the Shadow Rail Minister and Labour MP for York Central. She spoke in a House of Commmons debate on the Inclusive Transport Strategy – this is an edited version.