The people who can't use Crossrail

London's major new transport project is inaccessible to thousands for a saving of just 0.2 per cent of its budget.

Crossrail – the new, £14.5bn rail line due to open in 2019 – has come under fire today for not being fully open to women. Seven of the stations, including four in London, have been designed with a sensor that means it will be physically impossible for anyone without a Y chromosome to cross the platform. Mechanisms to address the censors are available but bosses have no plans to implement them, leaving women without full access. 

Women’s groups are understandably outraged. 

“It’s simple discrimination,” said a spokesperson for Transport for All, the group set up to address the continual exclusion of women from the use of public transport. “It’s offensive that in this day and age a woman can’t gain full access to public transport. And all because of a characteristic a person can’t help that their body has. It just doesn’t make sense. How did the many people behind Crossrail think it was okay to plan a new, major public transport link that excluded a section of the public?”

There are rumours that several other stations will only be accessible to people with light skin due to further sensor problems on the platforms, but, other than platitudes during interviews, the Mayor’s office has failed to provide any concrete commitment to make the necessary changes.

Only joking! None of that’s happening at all, of course. Or rather, it’s only happening to disabled people. Seven of the stations for Crossrail will not have step-free access to platforms, meaning wheelchair users and other disabled people won’t be able to use them. So that’s fine, then. 

It’s not like anyone involved in Crossrail could predict that disabled people might need to get around or that, you know, they even existed. They’re often shut in their house and it’s easy to forget them. 

It’s not like there was a global sporting event that specifically highlighted the inclusion of disabled people, held exactly a year ago in the same city. Or that the accessibility of public transport was actually featured in the bid for that event.

Plus, it’s not as if Crossrail is a long-term or expensive project where these sort of issues had a chance to come up. Massive infrastructure improvements that cost almost £15bn worth of public money are typically designed and approved in one afternoon on the back of a Tube map. And no matter what the PC brigade say, you can definitely put a price on equality and a human being’s right to be part of society. Sure, when it comes to making Crossrail fully accessible that price is only 0.2 per cent of the total cost, but when it comes to public money, you have to be careful not to waste it. Other than building a vast, expensive new piece of public transport that isn’t suitable for some of the public, obviously. 

As Tanni Grey-Thompson told me for the New Statesman last week, no disabled person expects existing public transport to be perfect. But what’s Crossrail’s excuse? At this point, it’s just those in power actively excluding certain people from the transport everyone else uses, and as a consequence, mainstream society. But it’s only disabled people, right? They really should be used to it by now. 

Coinciding with a week of action by Disabled People Against Cuts, on Thursday 29th August Transport for All are leading a protest against the inaccessibility of Crossrail. You can lend your support here.

The Crossrail tunnel. Photograph: Getty Images

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle