Harrow Council has revealed plans to cut new free travel passes for residents suffering with severe mental health issues.
Since 1973, the Freedom Pass has provided Londoners with a disability or above the state pension age with free travel on public transport.
Some councils also issue discretionary passes to disabled people who do not meet the statutory criteria, and Harrow Council has issued them to people with acute mental health issues for more than ten years.
But while it will not withdraw existing passes, the council is looking to cease offering new passes to “ensure a diligent and balanced budget”.
Mental health charities and one MP say it removes an ‘indispensable lifeline’ to some of the most vulnerable people.
Harrow West MP Gareth Thomas called the decision “shocking” on Twitter, whilst Mind in Harrow, a charity supporting residents with mental health issues, has expressed “deep concerns”, warning of “severe and life threatening consequences” for the most vulnerable.
A statement from the charity says: “We consider the freedom pass to be more than just a means of transportation. It is an indispensable lifeline for people with mental health conditions, who are already facing the challenges of the current cost of living crisis.
“The importance of maintaining connections and community engagement for those living with mental health conditions is well recognised […] the potential removal of the Freedom Passes could exacerbate this isolation.”
It adds: “Furthermore, it’s important to note that those living with mental health conditions often have additional travel needs to access essential health services, including medical appointments and therapeutic sessions.”
The charity is urging the council to scrap the plan, suggesting the savings are “marginal” compared to the potential future costs of more intensive care and support.
Following the conclusion of the public consultation on the scheme earlier this month (September 3), Finley Harnett, a parliamentary assistant for a Labour MP, highlighted the issue at a recent Harrow Council cabinet meeting (September 14).
Mr Harnett claims residents in Pinner had contacted him with concerns that their feedback “will be ignored” and the council will press ahead with the plan regardless.
He called on the council’s portfolio holder for finance and human resources, Cllr David Ashton, to publish the full criteria by which a final decision will be made.
Cllr Ashton pointed out that Harrow is “the only London authority to have such a discretionary pass” and all discretionary spending would need to be reviewed due to “insufficient grants and rising costs” in order to keep providing essential services.
He said: “We have had a steady core of around 200 beneficiaries of this pass for many years. As such, we decided that the consultation would only concentrate on obtaining views regarding stopping applications for new passes. It was never the intention, and is not, to withdraw existing passes, which we accept are supporting the most vulnerable of our residents with mental health issues.”
He added: “However, in the current financial position where many councils are declaring themselves bankrupt due to insufficient grants and rising costs due to high inflation that we’re all experiencing, Harrow must look at all discretionary services and spending. Also, to ensure we do not end up in the same position and have sufficient monies to deliver our mandatory services.”
Mr Harnett asked when a final decision would be made, which Cllr Ashton responded to by saying he was “not certain” but advised that the report will be released at an upcoming cabinet meeting. In a tweet, Mr Harnett wrote that Cllr Ashton’s answer suggested he had “already made his mind up”.