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|TX: 07.08.08 - Motability
PRESENTER: LIZ BARCLAY
|Downloaded from www.bbc.co.uk/radio4
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For people with a disability the 1970s was a highly significant decade. It was then that in the UK it began to be accepted that disability, regardless of how you acquired it, cost money and that freedom to get around was essential if you were going to participate fully in your community. And that led to something called the Motability scheme. It celebrates its 30th anniversary this year and Peter has been tracking down its history and its ups and downs. His report begins with a news bulletin from 1978.
Over a 100,000 persons can benefit from the new scheme. Motability provides cars for drivers and passengers alike, whether adults or children. The cars, which are replaced every four years, are paid for by the mobility allowance.
At the start of the 1970s the only disabled people who got benefits were either those who acquired their disability as a result of military service or because of compensation claims. But times were changing and the decade saw the development of a raft of benefits including the mobility allowance. It was designed to help people with severe mobility restrictions with the cost of getting around. The original idea was that it would help with the cost of things like taxis. But the Motability scheme broke the mould. The concept was that you would hand over your mobility allowance - then under a tenner - and you'd be able to lease and insure your car with the necessary adaptations you needed for a three year period. Don Brereton, Motability's current director, believes the scheme was way ahead of his time.
Though people often talk today about private/public partnerships 30 years ago to have the banks, the manufacturers, government, the voluntary sector joining together was a pretty unusual event, particularly to run a very business-like enterprise like this.
Another element in the scheme was that the major high street banks advanced the money, safe in the knowledge that it was secured by a government benefit. Rosemary Pawson was one of the very first of Motability's customers. She had developed Multiple Sclerosis and had additional spinal problems. She well remembers that for many disabled people at the time it was the first chance they'd had to access proper mainstream cars.
Oh yes we had the - we used to as kids called the plastic pigs which were the little balloon. Remember in the '50s and early '60s they were a little blue three wheeler which were dreadfully insecure and you couldn't take your child or a family with them, they were just the one person could use them.
So what was your first car - your first Motability car?
My very first car was an automatic mini, a 960 PBT, it was bright yellow and it was wonderful and it was just as if it had wings on it, it was an absolute gift from the gods, it really was.
Many people felt as Rosemary did and the scheme was an instant success. From a few thousand cars the take up grew to hundreds of thousands. But as anyone connected with disability schemes knows things rarely go without a hitch for long and by the 1990s serious questions were being asked about Motability. First there were doubts whether disabled people were getting the best possible deal for their money and also there was a growing feeling that the particular needs of the disabled clientele for adapted cars were coming a poor second to the requirements of the insurance companies. Douglas Campbell, chief executive of the Disabled Drivers Association at the time, remembers the atmosphere well.
I think it was something like warfare and I can remember sitting in meetings where everybody was totally negative about their experience with Motability and there were frightening things going on. Mileage charges were substantial, you didn't have to do an awful lot of mileage to incur very substantial penalty charges and if those weren't paid Motability thought nothing of going and repossessing the vehicle and taking it away and saw that as a success. Their view was we're a finance company, if you don't pay we repossess the goods. Today I think - I doubt if Motability's repossessed a vehicle in years now.
As the rumblings of discontent grew public bodies like the National Audit Office and parliament's Public Accounts Committee got involved, after all this was public money. This exchange between Robert Sheldon, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, and Motability's Noel Muddiman was typical based on the perception that Motability was sitting on money which could be used to cut disabled people's costs.
Exchange between Robert Sheldon and Noel Muddiman
You've got £26.9 million, you're not distributing it, which you could do, you're not using it for any other purpose, it's a reserve against a contingency, as I understand it. Now what is the contingency for which you require so large an amount of money?
We don't have a requirement for that money.
Well then what are you doing with it?
That money is going back to leaseholders at the moment on the scheme in reduced rentals. It was started last year and it's going back at a tune of £80 per year per lease.
The industrialist Lord Sterling has been involved with Motobility since it started, he was indeed its co-founder, and frequently had to field questions about the way it was run and its relationship with the banks. He was then, and remains now, implacable in its defence.
The organisation did not go through a rocky period itself. I have to tell you we went through one or two stages where the quality of the service wasn't what it ought to be and that had to be stamped on very heavily but as management I mean that one was able to put right. There was a campaign - and I know how it started - up against the banks on the basis of the accusations that the banks were making too much money out of disabled people. Anyway one finished off having a full investigation done by the National Audit Office which came out completely vindicating that it was a whole load of nonsense. Nobody gets everything totally right in a service organisation but you learn something and it's quite useful in management terms in order to have the occasional shake up.
But it wasn't just a few troublemakers, as you imply, was it, the charity came under the scrutiny from the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee, a number of reports, not to mention the journalists - I mean there was a lot of concern amongst MPs.
No, no but that's how the system works. We were more than happy - in actual fact there should be a full audit done. And in practice, as I said, what in actual fact the organisation had been accused of - not the organisation but the costs as far as the banks were concerned, that's really what it was about - turned out to be totally incorrect.
But current director - Don Brereton - with less of its history on his back acknowledges that big change was needed.
We're still working to give the best possible deal for the more severely disabled of our customers. Though there have been great improvements there one of the things that I was surprised about, in a way, about the scheme was that it seemed to work best if you weren't too disabled and given what we were here for that seemed the wrong way round. So although we've made a lot of improvements and you can have a lot of adaptations like hand controls within the normal lease price, without any extra expenditure involved on the car, for more complex situations we still need to work with the manufacturers to make it cheaper and easier to do.
But he now believes that Motability has ironed out a lot of its problems and that it's own research on customer satisfaction bears that out.
If you look at particularly the last six years there are really some remarkable records of customer service. If you look at three questions which most sectors would like to do well in: Would you recommend this service to a friend? At the moment 97% of our customers say yes. Do you think it's good value for money? Ninety seven percent of our customers say yes. Will you renew your lease at the end of the lease and get another car? Ninety seven percent of our customers say yes.
But for Rosemary Pawson, proudly showing off her latest car to me, such political considerations pall into insignificance compared with the impact her cars and their adaptations have had on her social life and her ability to work.
Right, this is my Ford Fusion which we're all getting into now.
Talk me through the car adaptation.
Well the car really - it's a case of getting - turn the key and because it's an automatic gearbox I have a choice, I just literally put it into drive and then it does it all on its own but I do have a choice if I'm going up steep hills or if I'm in - oooh - tight corners like we are now because there's somebody coming the other way.
And it's starting to rain.
And it's starting to rain. It's like having Pandora's Box opened and the one thing that was left in Pandora's Box was hope, wasn't it, and she's done that and that's what it gave us back, all of us.
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