New year honours: Recognition for independent living campaigner

A leading campaigner for independent living – and the importance of choice and control for disabled people – has spoken of her “embarrassment” at being recognised with a CBE in the new year honours.

Sue Bott, director of policy and development at Disability Rights UK and former director of the National Centre for Independent Living (NCIL) – who receives the award for services to disabled people and their families – said she was “shocked” when told of the CBE in November.

She said: “Obviously you think: ‘Why on earth me?’ I’m not a connoisseur of the honours system, so I literally had to look up what CBE meant.

“I think I will always retain a certain amount of embarrassment about having a CBE. I think I am quite a modest person really, and I never aspired to such a thing.”

She revealed that she had hesitated before accepting the honour, because of the current government’s policies on independent living, but decided that it would be “an empty gesture” to turn it down.

Bott said she hoped the CBE provided “more opportunities to spread my message”, but added: “I think I am going to be quite cautious about how I use it, because I want to be able to have maximum impact, so I want to save it to use at a time when I feel that bringing all influence to bear is absolutely essential.

“Obviously I am very concerned about what is happening in relation to independent living at the moment.

“I could go on about that every day, but I think if you want to maximise your influence you pick your time and your opportunity and influence when it really counts.”

She believes she was recognised mostly for her work as chair of the Think Local Act Personal partnership, which focuses on “driving forward work with personalisation”, as well as her other work in disability, some of which she believes has been “quite innovative”.

Most of her working life was spent in Shropshire, where she developed a new disabled people’s organisation, Shropshire Disability Consortium, which grew to employ 45 people.

Among other career highlights, she picked on the decision – after she moved to NCIL – to involve the organisation in the government’s individual budgets pilot programme, rather than continuing to focus exclusively on direct payments.

She said: “I was very much of the view that we should get involved because – imperfect though things have certainly turned out to be – I think they would have been a lot worse without NCIL being constantly there to remind people about what choice and control is really all about.”

She was also closely involved – over four years – in the discussions that led to NCIL’s eventual merger with Disability Alliance and RADAR to form Disability Rights UK in 2012.

Bott said she was pleased that DR UK had taken on NCIL’s philosophy to become a “genuine disabled people’s organisation”, as opposed to the “slightly different culture” of the other two organisations.

She said: “At the new organisation, if you look at the articles of association and the way we do things, it is much more like how we used to do things at NCIL, so I am very pleased with that.”

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Overcharging disabled taxi passengers ‘is widespread’

Overcharging of disabled passengers who use taxis and private hire vehicles is “rife”, according to an organisation that represents the industry.

A leading figure in the National Taxi Association (NTA) made the admission after it emerged that drivers of accessible taxis and private hire vehicles in Middlesbrough have been told to stop overcharging.

Members of Middlesbrough council’s licensing committee will hear next week how some drivers in the town are discriminating against wheelchair-users by charging them extra.

Some wheelchair-users are being charged up to twice the fare of non-disabled passengers “as a direct consequence of their disability”, according to a report to be considered by the committee.

Councillors on the committee will hear that the charges are being imposed by some drivers of private hire vehicles, as well as wheelchair-accessible taxis that have been sub-contracted by private hire companies.

Chris Chandler, vice-chair of the NTA and its regional director for Cumbria and the north-east, said that such overcharging was widespread across the country.

He said: “It’s not just disabled people, over-charging is rife throughout the trade, but it is probably easier to overcharge a disabled person because you are not going to get an argument out of them.

“Some little guy in a wheelchair who has just come back from a day centre and has just been charged £15 instead of £8 is not going to put up much of an argument, is he?

“It’s not just Teesside. It’s throughout the trade and throughout the country.”

Chandler also claimed that many drivers from Asian backgrounds – particularly those whose families originally came from Afghanistan and Pakistan – “do not particularly treat white women and disabled people well”, and that this was a particular problem on Teesside.

He advised disabled people who suspect they have been overcharged to ask for a receipt from their driver, and if that was not possible to take down the licence or registration number.

Chandler called for disability equality training to be introduced for all drivers, as it had been in Newcastle and Gateshead.

Middlesbrough council has so far failed to respond to Chandler’s comments.

But Alison Blackburn, chair of Newcastle Disability Forum, said that if cultural issues were causing problems in nearby Middlesbrough then compulsory disability equality training for all drivers was “the only way forward”.

She said: “It may be an education issue, depending on how many generations [their family has lived in the UK], how long they have been in the country.

“Generally, I find taxi drivers are good. I refer to taxi drivers as the fourth emergency service or a branch of social services. A lot of them will do simple errands and not charge people.”

The forum delivers disability equality training to most drivers across Newcastle, and Blackburn said that the city council frequently prosecutes drivers who breach discrimination laws, such as Muslim drivers who refuse to take assistance dogs.

She said: “I have got to say that I have never had any bother with Asian or any taxi drivers from anywhere, but if [Chris Chandler] has observed it, he has observed it.”

Middlesbrough council officers have now written to taxi and private hire businesses in the town, and say they will be testing “compliance” with the law over the next few months, with individual licences at risk if further problems are detected.

In a letter to owners of wheelchair-accessible taxis and the town’s Hackney Carriage Association, the council warned that charging higher fares to disabled passengers was a breach of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 and direct discrimination under the Equality Act 2010, and could lead to prosecution.

Private hire operators have been warned in similar letters that over-charging was a breach of the Equality Act.

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