Disabled people forced to make 88-mile trip because Norwich assessment centre is on second floor
Taxpayers are footing the bill to ferry disabled people on an 88-mile round trip to Ipswich or King's Lynn by taxi to decide if they are fit to work because the Norwich centre has no wheelchair access.
In an uncompromising letter, welfare minister Mike Penning has told MPs there are no plans to introduce a new assessment centre in Norwich and the inadequate St Mary's House, on Duke Street, will continue to be used for the work capability assessments. It comes as Norwich MP Simon Wright highlighted the case of a constituent who had been sent to Ipswich by taxi, with other MPs also citing similar stories.
One Norwich woman who is unable to use stairs easily, who did not want to be named, was sent by taxi to King's Lynn weeks after her appointment was cancelled because of the fire risk.
She said it had made an already stressful situation even more difficult.
South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon, who has been campaigning with Norwich North MP Chloe Smith and Mr Wright and said he had constituents who had to travel to Ipswich, said: 'It defies belief and taxpayers have the right to be extremely angry. I'm extremely angry and I think most of my Norfolk colleagues are.'
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The longstanding member of the government spending watchdog Commons committee said: 'I am absolutely convinced after 12 or 13 years looking at this, the public sector is awash with money, we are just really intergalactically stupid with how we spend it. This is just yet another example of it.'
The centre is on the second floor and the work capability assessments to determine whether someone is 'fit for work' are held by private company Atos on behalf of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).
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People in wheelchairs or who have restricted mobility are advised they must be able to walk downstairs in the event of an emergency, as the lift would be out of use. They are offered appointments at home or at assessment centres in areas including King's Lynn, Cambridge and Ipswich as an alternative.
It has emerged under a Freedom of Information request that the DWP has no direct control over the lease on St Mary's House.
It is managed by the private firm Telereal Trillium as part of a 20 year private finance initiative contract, which ends in March 2018.
Telereal Trillium would not provide details of the terms of its leave citing it as 'commercially sensitive'.
But said: 'We are obligated to continue to provide DWP's existing accommodation for as long as it is required, or until March 2018. We are also responsible for ensuring that DWP buildings meet statutory obligations, and can confirm that St Mary's House complies with relevant legislation.'
A DWP spokesman said that not everyone assessed at the centre required the use of a wheelchair, and it believed the arrangements were reasonable for those who did.
He said there were no plans for the situation to change.
MPs have been calling for a meeting with the DWP, but the department has failed to meet with the Norfolk representatives.
Mr Wright said: 'We have continued to raise our concerns about the current situation. I have been dealing with case work and one case I can think of was a constituent who was unable to make the second floor assessment centre. He was then given a home visit, it didn't happen because the assessor was ill and it ended up being a visit arranged to the Ipswich assessment with a taxi.'
Mr Wright said: 'It does seem absurd that taxis are being paid for to take people to Ipswich because of the failure to identify an adequate centre in Norwich.
'The responses we have received do not as of yet suggest there is going to a great shift in the situation. We have asked for meetings, but as of yet, as far as I'm aware, no dates have been forthcoming for this.
He said that he 'It does concern me if we have to wait to 2018 and this is why I think a meeting would be helpful so we can get to the bottom of some of these issues. I would hope more progress could be made. This isn't simply a case of shelving to 2018.'
'The FOI has raised some serious questions about those arrangements and I will be writing to the DWP to find out what options there are in light of current arrangements,' he added.
The DWP has confirmed that it may reimburse travel costs if people have to travel to an alternative assessment centre.
Norwich North MP Chloe Smith said she would continue to hold the minister to account over the issue for her 'vulnerable' constituents who needed better treatment.
Mark Harrison, chief executive of the charity Equal Lives, said: 'How can this coalition government lease buildings that are not fit for purpose and have no control over the access requirements for disabled customers?'
He said the centre was yet another example of the government putting the needs of private sector companies and their profits before the welfare of its disabled citizens.