Last week, the Government rejected our Freedom of Information request, in which we asked to see their analysis of how ticket office closures would impact disabled people.
The reasons they gave for denying our request are tenuous, and we have today submitted an appeal against this decision.
One of the key reasons the government refused our initial request was the need for ministers to have a “safe space” in which to develop the policy “away from public scrutiny”. Our request was submitted during a public consultation, where public scrutiny of the policy in question was in fact tantamount. If policy decisions are made based on information inaccessible to the public and consultation responses, it calls into question the legitimacy of the entire process.
We believe that, in withholding these documents, the Department for Transport (DfT) have deprived the public of vital information that would have shaped their responses. Nearly 700,000 people replied to this consultation, and accessibility will have been a main concern. It is therefore overwhelmingly in the public interest for us to have a full account of what the accessibility implications of these plans are on a system wide level.
The Government also said that train operators need space to have a “free and frank” discussion with ministers regarding the policy proposals, and that releasing the Equality Impact Assessment would jeopardise this. We refute this argument: every train operator has released their own EQIAs, many of which are damning in themselves. It is only the Government who continue to try and evade scrutiny. We can only speculate what it is they might be trying to hide.
We are now awaiting a response from the DfT.
See below for the full text of our appeal:
I am writing to request an internal review of the decision to withhold the Equality Impact Assessment (EIA) completed by the Department for Transport from the public. This decision raises significant concerns and warrants a closer examination for the following reasons:
Factor 1: We strongly contest the assertion that ministers and officials require a “safe space away from public scrutiny” to develop this policy. This assessment was requested during the consultation period when the proposals were subject to public scrutiny. Given that the primary opposition to the proposals was accessibility for disabled passengers, it seems vital that an equality impact assessment be part of the materials considered by the public. The impact of the proposed closure of rail ticket offices is profound, particularly on individuals with protected characteristics. It is imperative that the public has access to the EIA to understand the potential consequences fully. The decision to withhold this critical information not only undermines transparency but also disregards the valuable input of the 680,000 people who responded to the public consultation. If policy decisions are made based on information inaccessible to the public and consultation responses, it calls into question the legitimacy of the entire process.
Furthermore, an EQIA is not a policy document and should certainly not contain personal opinions of Ministers or other officials and should not contain information about private discussions or minutes from meetings. The document contains no new information on how policy is developed and decided. Therefore, releasing the EQIA does not violate Miniters’ “safe space” needed to formulate policy.
Factor 2: The argument that train operating companies seek “free and frank discussion” while withholding essential information is untenable. It is crucial to point out that each train operating company has released their own Equality Impact Assessment. Therefore, this factor against sharing the Department for Transport’s assessment is unfounded. Train operating companies are being transparent in regard to their assessment of the impact the proposals will have on those with protected characteristics. Therefore, it is only the Government who are seeking to make decisions without transparency.
Individuals with protected characteristics need a comprehensive understanding of how the potential closure of ticket offices will affect them to provide informed responses to the consultation. Providing information that facilitates informed responses is a fundamental principle of any consultation process, as outlined in the Gunning Principles. The EIA completed by the Department for Transport is undeniably a pivotal piece of information required for making well-informed decisions.
Factor 3: We dispute the relevance of the argument that as the process is ongoing, that train operators may amend their proposals and therefore the “draft Equalities Impact Assessments may be updated”. EQIAs are, by their nature, living documents that are amended and added to as proposals develop, impacts are identified, and mitigations are put in place. To reiterate a previous point, this argument has not been used to prevent train operators from releasing their own EQIAs. Furthermore, if there are concerns that the proposals, which were subject to public consultations, might undergo significant amendments during discussions with passenger representative bodies, it is essential to establish a clear point at which these proposals will be reissued for public consultation. This process should be transparently communicated to the public to maintain trust in the decision-making process.
In light of these factors, I respectfully request that an internal review of the decision to withhold the EIA be conducted. Transparency, public participation, and the fair treatment of individuals with protected characteristics are essential principles in the development of public policy. Failing to provide access to this crucial information undermines these principles and the integrity of the entire consultation process.
I look forward to a prompt response to this request and trust that the internal review will lead to a reconsideration of the decision to withhold the Equality Impact Assessment.