New campaign demands transparency from Department for Transport’s accessibility advisors

Today, we reveal years of transparency failures at the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC), statutory advisors on accessibility to the Department for Transport. Our evidence proves that many vital consultation responses remain unpublished; as well as formal letters warning about the illegality of unstaffed stations and driver-only operation.

In response, DPTAC has agreed that it needs to review its approach to transparency ‘as a matter of priority’ and is now working on its first ever ‘clear publishing policy.’ If they keep this promise, we can expect many controversial documents to shortly be released into the public domain. These are sure to become vital campaigning tools for disabled people and organisations across all forms of transport.

This report aims to ensure DPTAC’s publishing policy goes forward; and that their work is protected from political interference by the Department for Transport.

DPTAC reference frame: working towards a fully accessible railway

In April 2022, Disability News Service (DNS) reported that the late publication of a vital DPTAC report in February prevented disabled people and campaigners being able to use it for major government consultations such as the National Disability Strategy. The ‘DPTAC reference frame’ report includes a damning critique of railway structure and culture, calling for a ‘whole system’ approach that makes accessibility a ‘fundamental’ part of the railway. It also proposes new regulations and more than £6 billion investment to set a timeline for full station accessibility by 2060.

We can now reveal that DPTAC gave inaccurate information about the origin of the ‘reference frame’ report, dating it November 2020 in both their response to DNS and the official publication on their website. The report is actually DPTAC’s May 2019 submission to the Williams Rail Review, meaning that its official publication comes almost three years late.

DPTAC’s submission to the Williams Rail Review, May 2019

The ‘DPTAC reference frame’ report was formally submitted to the Williams Review, the DfT and the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) in May 2019. It was first published on this website in July 2019 as part of a batch of documents received through an FOI request to DPTAC.  Following its public endorsement from the ORR, who recommended that DPTAC be put in charge of ‘developing criteria to support a whole-system approach to accessibility’, we published a dedicated blog post on the report in September 2019; explaining that it had just become ‘the most important document on accessibility in the entire Williams Review.’

The ‘reference frame’ report has since had a significant presence in the ‘Great British Railways’ project, with some of its lower-cost proposals already being taken forward. In March 2022, it was revealed in a Transport Select Committee hearing that DPTAC is now playing a key role in the new ‘National Rail Accessibility Strategy’ and a nationwide station audit – one of the report’s urgent recommendations.

Despite the obvious significance of the report’s origin, it has been published on the gov.uk website with the date of November 2020. This version of the ‘DPTAC reference frame report’ is exactly the same as their May 2019 Williams Review submission; edited for timeline purposes alone.

The Chair of DPTAC, Keith Richards, commented: “Whenever we have revisited the rail paper with the view to using it in subsequent meetings and discussions internally with DfT (often with new teams of officials) we have reviewed it and changed the date as necessary (whether there were any substantive changes to the text or not) simply to show that it reflected our current thinking (despite the passing of time since the original drafting in May 2019).”

In regard to the inaccurate claim that the report had been released to us under FOI in November 2020, Keith Richards said: “when corresponding with DNS and yourself recently I had forgotten that your earlier FOI had resulted in the release of the paper back in July 2019. That’s my mistake and was certainly not from any attempt to mislead anyone.

He did not respond on whether DPTAC would be changing the date of November 2020 on their official publication.

Railway staffing and driver-only operation

DPTAC’s transparency problem goes back much further, regarding one of the most controversial issues in the history of the railway: driver-only operation (DOO). Their May 2019 ‘reference frame report’ was dispatched to the DfT as an attachment to a formal warning letter about the illegality of DOO and unstaffed stations. Following the letter, DPTAC met with ministers to urge them to seek legal advice and adopt an ‘explicit policy’ on DOO; guaranteeing that a guard or member of station staff would be available at all times to provide unbooked assistance.

The letter to ministers followed years of warnings going back to April 2016, when DPTAC wrote to the DfT’s Peter Wilkinson, the DfT civil servant widely believed to be the architect of the industrial dispute over DOO. They warned: ‘The toxic combination of driver-only operated trains and unstaffed stations fails to deliver a service that meets the needs of many disabled passengers. As a result DPTAC is seeking a guarantee that such policies cannot undermine the fundamental principle of accessibility – which would in any event be illegal.’

The letter to Peter Wilkinson was first revealed on this website in July 2018, but, six years after writing, it has still not been officially published by DPTAC. We now host the only publicly-available archive of these documents.

The Chair of DPTAC, Keith Richards, responded: “…the need for DPTAC to have a new publishing policy is clear. There are a number of reasons why we do not and cannot publish everything we may draft for our own internal use and which we use as tools to inform early-stage policy thinking within the DfT,  but I suspect that we have sometimes taken an overly cautious approach and that may not be helpful to our external stakeholders who would value and potentially benefit from knowing what advice DPTAC is providing on key transport accessibility issues across all modes of transport and the built environment.  

So, you are absolutely right that we need to review our approach to publication and I have put that in place already and as a matter of priority I will be working on a clear policy with the members of DPTAC who chair our working groups. Going forward, DPTAC will live up to our responsibility to proactively ensure transparency. This will avoid placing an unfair burden on our stakeholders to seek information through the FOI process, which has regrettably been the case at times in recent years.”

Political pressure from the Department for Transport?

Though we welcome DPTAC’s commitment to creating a ‘clear publishing policy’, there may still be an obstacle in their path. Our evidence suggests that DPTAC has been subject to political pressure from the DfT, and that the DfT may have interfered in their publishing decisions.

In July 2019, we published a viral blog post about DPTAC’s letter to ministers, exposing the existence of ‘wholly inadequate‘ guidance on DOO, developed by the Rail Delivery Group. An email from the DfT to DPTAC in August 2019 suggests they ran significant crisis management on the story: ‘Activity around the Association of British Commuters FOI has unfortunately taken up the resource and time we had set aside to make progress on [getting legal advice on DOO] over the summer.’

Meeting minutes from September 2019 show that three members of DPTAC were then required to sign non-disclosure agreements in regard to their engagement with the Williams Review; restricting what they could share with the rest of the Committee from that point onward.

In an October 2019 discussion about whether to adopt a social media strategy, one member commented ‘DPTAC are monitored by DfT’s Press Office in terms of what can be communicated and when’, and another member suggested ‘DPTAC can work with DfT to plan the material and timing of publications.’ The Chair noted that ‘DPTAC’s social media presence is an early step to explore a soft approach to DPTAC’s outward facing profile, which aims to build trust in DfT’s Press Office.’  To date, DPTAC has not launched the social media strategy.

The Department for Transport commented: ‘A small secretariat in DfT provides administrative support to DPTAC and its members, all of whom work part-time. This includes administrative support in relation to publication of DPTAC documents which are hosted on gov.uk and ensuring documents for publication meet broader gov.uk accessibility standards. As an independent expert committee advising the Secretary of State for Transport, DPTAC are independent of Government and make their own decisions about which documents to publish.’

The Department for Transport did not comment on why it had required members of DPTAC to sign non-disclosure agreements for their work with the Williams Review, the rail reform program still underway under the banner of ‘Great British Railways’.

The urgent need for transparency at DPTAC

Our evidence suggests that DPTAC has failed to fulfil its obligations under Section 19 of the Freedom of Information Act, which requires public authorities to proactively publish documents and ensure the prompt availability of newly-created information. Guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) requires DPTAC to adopt a ‘model publication scheme’, making their reports, policy positions and meeting minutes ‘routinely available’ to the public.

DPTAC must adopt the ICO’s guidance as part of a clear publishing policy that provides transparency to disabled people and the general public. It is vital that the new policy is protected from political interference and ensures DPTAC’s autonomy going forward – as required by their status as an independent statutory body under the 1985 Transport Act.

Upcoming DPTAC publications

We now anticipate the publication of multiple DPTAC consultation responses, including their submission to the Pay As You Go rail consultation (2019), the Future of transport regulatory review (2020), the Law Commission’s consultation on autonomous vehicles (2021) and the National Disability Strategy (2021). There may also be DPTAC research reports available on the Disabled Persons Railcard and the Passenger Assist app.

We have challenged DPTAC to ensure that accuracy is a key part of their new approach, by changing the publication date of their ‘reference frame’ report to May 2019, and including the context that it was in fact DPTAC’s formal submission to the Williams Rail Review. This will be a vital sign of their approach to transparency going forward, and intention to accurately represent the historical record.

Currently, our website hosts the only publicly available archive of DPTAC’s objections to driver-only operation. We demand the official publication of these documents as well as an up-to-date ‘DPTAC position statement’ explaining their concerns about DOO and railway staffing.

For more information: contact@abcommuters.com

[This article was edited on 06.05.2022. to better characterise the fact that the Williams Review rail reform program now continues under the banner of ‘Great British Railways.’]

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