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You couldn’t make it up - deal to end scandal of Norwich disability centre with no access falls through

PUBLISHED: 09:31 17 February 2015 | UPDATED: 11:15 18 February 2015

Mick Hardy and Marion Fallon from DPAC Norfolk and Mark Harrison from Equal Lives protest about disability access at St May's House in Norwich.
Picture by SIMON FINLAY.

Mick Hardy and Marion Fallon from DPAC Norfolk and Mark Harrison from Equal Lives protest about disability access at St May's House in Norwich. Picture by SIMON FINLAY.

A deal to bring to an end the scandal of the Norwich disability centre, which cannot be accessed by people in wheelchairs, has fallen through eight months after the government promised action.

Timeline

March 2012 – A first protest is held at the Norwich office of Atos, which is paid £100m a year by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to conduct the tests, after it would not make appointments for wheelchair users as the centre is on the second floor.

February 2014 – Campaigners stage another protest outside the centre with people still being send hundreds of miles for appointments elsewhere.

June 2014 – Disabilities minister Mike Penning admits the situation is “wholly unacceptable”, and says he would be taking action to leave St Mary’s House in Duke Street as soon as possible.

December 2014 – DWP says it is in the process of securing two ground floor assessment rooms. It is hoped that the new rooms – in addition to the current assessment rooms – should be ready for use early in the new year.

January 2015 - Mark Harper, minister for disabled people, tells Norwich South MP Simon Wright that the medical assessment centre, used by private firm Atos, has taken on two extra rooms and that the DWP was drawing up final proposals and was working towards a “go-live” date at the end of January.

February 2015 - The DWP admits a deal for ground floor rooms cannot be reached.

Almost three years after the first protests highlighted the plight of disabled people, which at one point saw people with limited mobility sent a map and told to travel to Ipswich, the Department for Work and Pensions said a ground floor solution had still not been found.

Mark Harrison, a campaigner for the charity Equal Lives, said the government was putting the needs of a private company before the needs of disabled people. He said: “How can you have an assessment centre for disabled people that isn’t accessible for disabled people? In the 21st century, you can’t make this up, can you?” Mike Penning, the then minister for disabled people, finally admitted the situation was “wholly unacceptable” last June, and said he would be taking action to leave St Mary’s House in Duke Street as soon as possible.

His successor Mark Harper sent a letter to Norwich South MP Simon Wright in January saying he expected there would be ground floor premises available at the end of last month.

But a DWP spokesman has now said: “Unfortunately and due to circumstances outside our control the deal for our preferred ground floor location fell through.”

She said that the government was looking at a number of other options and would make a decision as soon as it could.

“People who are unable to access the second floor people will continue to be offered an assessment elsewhere or if necessary a home visit,” she added.

Marion Fallon, who had to travel to Ipswich for her assessment last July, said she feared she would have to be re-assessed again a year on and would have to travel to Ipswich for an assessment again.

The 53-year-old, who is in constant pain and can only walk slowly with a stick, was told to go by public transport to the Suffolk county town last year, because the second floor Norwich assessment centre cannot be used by people with walking difficulties.

She said: “It really was a lot of stress leading up to it. Even this year it has affected me. You build up to it and it has affected me now. It is a bit worrying if they do ask me to come in again and there is no place in Norwich. It is pretty disturbing all round,“ she added.

Last April a Freedom of Information request revealed that the DWP had 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 lease last year citing it as “commercially sensitive”.

But a spokesman said at the time: “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.”

Do you have a politics story? Email annabelle.dickson@archant.co.uk

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