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Disability groups warn of legal threat to cuts for bus grants; LABOUR URGED TO CONSIDER IMPACT ON EQUALITY NEEDS.

Byline: RHODRI CLARK

THE Welsh Government's plans to cut bus subsidies could be open to a legal challenge on equalities grounds, say campaigners.

Their warning comes after the Equalities and Human Rights Commission criticised the UK Government for deciding to cut Bus Service Operators' Grant (BSOG) by 20% in England without first assessing the potential impact on disabled people.

Many Welsh bus services have been axed or thinned out this spring in response to the Welsh Government's unexpected decision in January to cut by BSOG 25%. Fares increases of up to 55% hit low-income households in particular.

More cuts will take effect in South Wales next month, having been arranged before the Welsh Government announced in late March that it would defer the grant cut by six months while it reviewed bus funding.

The Western Mail revealed in March that the Welsh Government had not consulted its two transport advisory bodies before announcing the cuts in January - and now disability groups are urging the Labour administration to use the six-month delay period to find out just how bus cuts can affect people who rely on buses.

Last week the EHRC issued its analysis of the UK Government's 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review, which included England's 20% BSOG reduction.

The EHRC said: "The potential impact on people with disabilities was not included in the advice provided to HM Treasury ministers."

Its report adds: "The Commission was therefore unable to establish whether or not this decision was in full accord with the requirements of the Disability Equality Duty."

It says Treasury ministers were given information about "key negative impacts" on people in low-income households, those with mobility issues, women and ethnic minorities - but were told bus cuts would not impact on disabled people.

The EHRC wants the UK Government to monitor the situation and report back after a year, with particular reference to how the BSOG cut affects protected groups' access to employment and ability to participate in public life. Last year the Campaign for Better Transport helped a Cambridgeshire resident to start legal action against her county council's plan to end all bus subsidies.

The CBT argued that councils must provide marginal bus services to show due regard to the equality needs of protected groups.

Cambridgeshire council scrapped its plan to end subsidies.

The Welsh Government carried out an Equality Impact Assessment before it decided to cut both BSOG and Local Transport Services Grant for councils to maintain unprofitable bus services.

But Stephen Joseph, CBT's director, said Welsh groups should ask whether that EIA had fully evaluated the potential impact on protected groups.

"If not, there's good material around - from the EHRC and from the Cambridgeshire situation - that suggests the Welsh Government would have a case to answer," he said.

A Welsh Government spokesperson said: "An Equality Impact Assessment was carried out to help inform the funding decision on BSOG and LTSG for 2012-13. This will be refreshed to take account of the outcome of the bus funding review."

Umbrella organisation Disability Wales urged the Welsh Government to consult with disabled people and groups before coming to a final decision on bus funding.

Rhyan Berrigan, policy officer for access and transport, said the decision would be difficult because the financial environment was insecure. "But they're going to have to be careful and think about how it affects disabled people," she said.

"The fact that the cut has been delayed by six months is very good, but they need to be consulting with disabled people.

"Disabled people need buses in order to live independently and get around the areas where they live.

"If there are going to be cuts, the service could become less reliable."

She said reduced bus funding could also deter operators from investing in expensive low-floor buses.

PRICE HIKES AND SERVICE CUTS Swansea-based First Cymru chose not to raise fares in April, three months after the last increase.

Instead it reduced services on many routes - potentially affecting disabled people who travel free on buses.

First Cymru had anticipated the Welsh Government would copy England's 20% reduction in Bus Service Operators' Grant.

After the Welsh Government announced a 25% reduction, First Cymru identified another round of service cuts.

These will take effect in Swansea on June 3 and in Llanelli and Bridgend on June 6. Many routes will lose one or two morning or afternoon services.

Buses will operate less frequently on several others.

All buses on route 44 will be withdrawn between Pontypridd and Talbot Green.

Buses linking Parc Gwernfadog to Morriston will vanish, as will the services on weekdays between Swansea city centre and the Tesco superstore at Fforestfach.

Arriva Buses Wales drew up large fares increases after the Welsh Government announced the 25% BSOG cut.

In one of Wales' most deprived areas, a return bus ride for a mother and one child between Abergele and Rhyl, just five miles apart, would now cost pounds 10.60 - a 39% increase since March.

Newport Bus raised fares last month to avoid cutting services.

"The Welsh Government recently announced that it is cutting the support it provides to bus operators to help keep fares down," said the company.

"This has meant that many of the bus services that people rely upon are being stopped because bus operators cannot afford to run them. We don't want to stop any of the services that are important to you."
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 21, 2012
Words:895
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