Annabelle Dickson and Kim Briscoe, Political Editor
Thursday, June 12, 2014
A spectacular u-turn which will see a Norwich disability assessment centre with no disabled access finally moved after a two-and-a-half-year campaign has been hailed a victory for common sense.
Disabilities minister Mike Penning has finally admitted the situation is “wholly unacceptable”, and said he would be taking action to leave St Mary’s House in Duke Street as soon as possible.
It marks a complete turn in the uncompromising rhetoric with officials dismissing concerns, claiming that it was meeting its obligations.
The move should put an end to the long journeys being endured by people with debilitating illnesses and severe mobility problems to centres as far afield as Ipswich, King’s Lynn and even Nottingham.
Many people have been forced to travel by taxpayer-funded taxis, or in some cases told to find their own way on public transport, for assessments many miles away.
Minister of State for Disabled People Mike Penning said: “It is wholly unacceptable to be turning claimants away for assessments which is why I’m taking action to exit St Mary’s House as soon as we possibly can. I will be working with my fellow MPs in Norfolk to find an alternative centre that fits our requirements.”
Marion Fallon, who spoke out after she was sent a map and told to find her own way 45 miles to Ipswich despite being in constant pain and only able to walk with a stick, said that she had mixed feelings about the promise.
She said that she was angry that it had taken so long for ministers to listen, but also vindicated.
But she is likely to still have to go to Ipswich as her appointment is later this month.
Until a new building is found claimants with mobility problems will continue to be offered either a home visit or an appointment at an alternative assessment centre.
Mark Harrison, chief executive of Norfolk’s Equal Lives disability campaigning group, said: “It shows that disabled people have won a victory, but it’s just a victory for common sense and why has it taken two-and-a-half years?
“The bigger question that needs to addressed is the failing minister Iain Duncan Smith and the failing DWP.
“The Work Capability Assessments are cruel and degrading and ATOS are still assessing people as fit to work who are dying before they are able to get their benefits.”
Norwich MP Chloe Smith, who met the minister along with fellow Norwich MP Simon Wright and South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon, said: “We explained that this was totally unacceptable for some of our most vulnerable constituents, and it needed to be addressed. It seemed perfectly obvious that sending people to Ipswich by taxi or other means is not sensible.”
Mr Bacon said: “Mike is very sensible and he took one look at it and realised that it was unacceptable and decided that it had to be fixed.”
Today campaigners welcomed the news, but questioned why it had taken the DWP so long to agree to find another venue.
The DWP is tied into a 20-year private finance initiative which is behind all the accommodation used for assessments around the country.
Mr Bacon said that he hoped it would not cost the department too much to find a new building.
But said: “Whoever allowed this to happen should not be involved in government anymore.”
Mr Wright also welcomed the news, adding: “The minister was extremely supportive. Having reviewed the evidence presented to him by the MPs he came to the conclusion that the current arragements were not fit for purpose.”