Council seeks to clarify pool’s disabled rates

May 25, 2015

As confusion continues regarding disability concession cards for Newry Leisure Centre (NLC), a spokesperson for Newry, Mourne and Down Council has sought to clarify the council’s position on eligibility for disabled rates.

In a statement sent to The Examiner on Friday, the Council seemed to confirm that, contrary to reports that only those on High Rate Disability Living Allowance were now eligible for concession rates at the new swimming pool, everyone on Low, Medium and High Rate DLA are all accepted for concession rates OR anyone who can produce a doctor’s letter confirming disability.

“The scheme in legacy NMDC Council accepted middle/high rate DLA OR a doctor’s letter confirming disability. The scheme for the new Council still has the same criteria (middle/high rate DLA OR a doctor’s letter confirming disability but has also been enhanced with the addition of the buddy scheme whereby a less abled customer can bring a buddy for free,” confirmed the Council spokesperson.

“Where people have presented with low rate DLA, a Doctor’s letter confirming disability was accepted in the legacy Newry and Mourne District Council and that still remains to be the case.  This has been confirmed by our Disability Liaison Officer,” the statement added.

It would appear however that there has been some difficulty in implementing these regulations  among front line staff.  When contacted directly by The Examiner on Friday to clarify disabled concession rates, an NLC staff member advised that only those on High rate DLA were eligible for disabled concession rates.  When pressed to double check that information, she confirmed once again that this was the case.

According to a local member of the pool who contacted The Examiner, he was also advised by an NLC employee on Thursday that he no longer qualified for the disabled rate membership as he was not on the higher rate of DLA.  The man told us he was informed by the female staff member that he would have to pay the full membership fee of £264 as he was on low rate DLA and was given a NLC brochure which cited high rate DLA as the new criteria for disabled concessions.

Voicing his concerns at the apparent changes, the man also questioned why the council would deny the new criteria exists when it appears in the brochure “in black and white.”

Martin McKeown, Community Co-ordinator for Unite in the Community, has accused council officials of lying about the criteria changes and said Unite had exposed a potential “cull on disabled swimmers” with the introduction of the changes in eligibility.  Hitting back at last week’s response from the Council that Unite’s claims  of criteria changes were “factually incorrect,” Mr McKeown said local council officials “have been playing a game of smoke and mirrors with the public and our elected representatives on this issue.”

“The facts are that high ranking council officials had directed their staff to no longer recognise low-middle rate DLA as part of the scheme and in doing so effectively culled hundreds of disabled people who had previously been in receipt of disability cards,” said Mr Keown.

He revealed that Unite had been contacted by a number of disabled people last week, including amputees, COPD sufferers and those with mental health issues – all of whom were told by the Council’s own Disability Officer that the criteria had changed and that they were no longer eligible, as they were in receipt of low or middle rate DLA.

“Twenty-five people to be exact, were told that they would have to pay the full rates to swim in Newry pool.  This is factually correct!” said the Unite spokesman.

Mr McKeown also disclosed that a disabled Unite community activist who had previously been a holder of a disability concessions card, was told by a front desk employee on Wednesday that he no longer fitted the criteria as he was in receipt of low rate DLA.  The activist, who was accompanied by an elected representative and a member of local media, was refused the information in writing before NLC Manager, Kieran Gordon, intervened claiming there had been no changes to the scheme and advising him to contact the Council’s Disability Officer to receive his concession card.

When asked why the same disability officer had previously told twenty-five people that the criteria had in fact changed, Mr Gordon is said to have stated that he had “no knowledge of anyone who was on DLA being refused.”

Mr McKeown has questioned Mr Gordon’s denial, claiming that one of the people previously told they no longer fitted the criteria was contacted by the Council’s Disability Officer earlier that day to be told they could receive their concession card as she had been advised by Mr Gordon that all twenty five people previously denied their disabled concession rate could now attain a card.

The Unite Co-ordinator urged all elected representatives to “do their jobs and keep a close eye on the pen pushers who work under them.”

Speaking to The Examiner about the debacle, Independent Councillor Kevin McAteer said questions needed to be answered and added,

“I think it is a disgrace that the disabled have been treated in this way! We need to find a solution to the problem as quickly as possible. However, what concerns me the most is that it seems that no councillors were aware of this situation, which begs the question……who is making these decisions?”