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Harrow Council decides against cutting free travel passes for residents with mental health issues

Harrow Council has decided not to progress with potential cuts to new free travel passes for residents suffering with severe mental health issues.

The scrapping of the transport scheme was criticised as it would remove an ‘indispensable lifeline’ to some of the most vulnerable people.

Since 1973, there has been a scheme that provides Londoners either with a disability or above the state pension age with free travel on public transport – called a Freedom Pass. Some councils also issue discretionary passes to disabled people who do not meet the statutory criteria, with Harrow Council having provided them to people with acute mental health issues for more than ten years.

Mind in Harrow, a charity that supports residents in the borough dealing with mental health issues, had expressed “deep concerns” with the plan to stop them. It claimed it could have “severe and life-threatening consequences” for the most vulnerable.

However, the council tabled plans to cease offering the passes to new applicants in a bid to “ensure a diligent and balanced budget”. It was initially proposed to reduce adult social care costs so it could continue to provide “safe, efficient, high-quality core services”.

But in what has been dubbed a victory for campaigners, mental health charities and residents, the proposal, which would have saved just £18,000 over three years, has been scrapped. The council concluded that “the expected saving is surpassed by the strength of feeling and therefore the scheme should remain open to new applicants”.

Finley Harnett, who works as a parliamentary assistant for a Labour MP, highlighted the issue at a Harrow Council cabinet meeting last year (September 1). Following the decision, he said: “I’m delighted my campaign to save Discretionary Freedom Passes has been successful.”

He added: “This is a huge victory for residents who opposed, and for local charities and organisations who raised concerns, including Mind In Harrow and Voluntary Action Harrow. Most of all, though, this is a victory for the vulnerable residents in Harrow who rely on these passes.”

There are currently 206 recipients of the discretionary pass in the borough. If it had gone ahead, the plan would not withdraw existing passes but rather make them unavailable to new applicants. Local MP Gareth Thomas had called the plan “shocking” and said the decision not to go ahead with it will be a “relief for many vulnerable residents”.

Mr Harnett said: “The cuts shouldn’t have been on the table in the first place, the decision took far too long, but I’m glad Harrow Council has finally bowed to pressure.”

A question was asked by former Labour Leader Cllr Graham Henson about this at the December Harrow Council Cabinet meeting where Cllr David Ashton, Portfolio Holder for Finance & Resources, gave the following response:

“Discretionary Freedom Passes are for people experiencing mental health issues. Harrow is the only London local authority offering a scheme specifically for residents suffering mental health issues. Some London Boroughs, like Labour-run Camden and Barking & Dagenham do not offer discretionary freedom passes at all.

“There are currently 206 recipients of Discretionary Freedom Passes. The proposal was not to stop the concession for the existing pass holders, but rather to make it unavailable to new applicants. Historically we know this would impact on a maximum of 4 to 8 new applicants a year.

“However, given the feedback following the consultation, I have decided not to proceed with the proposal, which would have affected new applicants and not existing Pass holders who would have continued to benefit from their concessions.”

Cllr Paul Osborn, Leader of the Council, said, “Similar reviews of the discretionary freedom pass were also carried out under Harrow Council’s Labour administration in 2011 and 2012. It is worth noting former Labour Leader Cllr Graham Henson and current Labour Group Leader Cllr David Perry were on the Council Cabinet at the time and voted for those reviews.”

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