Vcitory! Minister finally promises action over Norwich disabled assessment centre with no disabled access

St Mary's House, Duke Street Norwich. Photo: Steve Adams

St Mary's House, Duke Street Norwich. Photo: Steve Adams

MPs have claimed common sense has prevailed in the long-running saga of the Norwich disabled assessment centre with no disabled access.

MPs have claimed common sense has prevailed in the long-running saga of the Norwich disabled assessment centre with no disabled access.

Disability minister Mike Penning has bowed to pressure from disability campaigners, MPs and the Evening News, promising MPs that the Department for Work and Pensions will now look for an alternative building in Norwich, and put an end to the long journeys being endured to centres as far away as Ipswich, King's Lynn and even Nottingham.

Many people with debilitating illnesses and severe mobility problems applying for employment support allowance, 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.

DWP officials have spent years refusing to budge on the issue, claiming that the building was meeting its obligations.

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But tonight Minister of State for Disabled People Mike Penning did a u-turn and 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.'

Claimants with mobility problems who are due to have an assessment at St Mary's House have been and will continue to be offered either a home visit or an appointment at an alternative assessment centre until this is resolved.

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But Norwich MP Chloe Smith, who heard the news at a meeting at the DWP today, 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.'

South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon said common sense had prevailed.

'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.

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.'

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,' he said.

Norwich South MP Simon 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.'

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