Many thanks to a source who late last night emailed me the link (see above) to the BBC Spotlight film on Alex Maskey’s use of a Motability car.
I have a dog in this fight. I have to say this at the outset of this piece. For many years, when I lived in Belfast, I was a grateful recipient of cars provided by a British government scheme for disabled drivers called Motability. So I am a fan of this scheme and I wish it well.
If you were sufficiently disabled – and with polio in both legs I qualified – you could either get a weekly Motability grant to pay for taxis and the like or you could opt for a car fitted with hand controls that you could drive to work or to shop. Every three years or so, you could swap the car for a new vehicle.
The scheme, which was a brainchild of the Labour government back in the 1970’s, transformed life for thousands of disabled people, not least in Northern Ireland. It enabled them to get around, to get to work, to shop, to have holidays with their families and so on.
Needless to say, the Tories hated Motability. When Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in 1979 one of her first targets was that scheme, but when she tried to scrap it there was an uproar and she had to relent.
But the Tories bided their time. Eventually under the predecessors of the current regime in Downing Street the opportunity arose, not least because disabled people were getting it in the neck thanks to the austerity regime introduced by the Cameron government. The Disabled Living Allowance, which could be exchanged for a Motability car, has since come under sustained assault with the result that the scheme itself is endangered.
But the slow and lingering death of Motability has been made all the easier when it became clear that in some places fraud was rampant. One of the worst offenders was West Belfast where Motability cars, allegedly rented by disabled people, were instead being driven by perfectly healthy people, some of whom used the cars for taxi services, many of which were under the control of paramilitary groups, not least the Provisional IRA.
I can remember, before I left Belfast in 2001, discovering that a senior Sinn Fein official in the Markets area was driving a Motability car which he was not entitled to use. The Motability tax disc was prominently displayed on his car’s windscreen.
He was not the only malefactor.
Eventually, in 2004, the BBC in Belfast decided to investigate the fraud and lo and behold who did the Beeb film driving a Motability car into the Stormont car park but Alex Maskey, who this weekend has been elevated to the Speakership of the new, revived Assembly. That job is well paid, is not exactly onerous and brings a generous pension.
Here is a report of that incident by Jim Cusack in The Sunday Independent in an article dated February 11th, 2007:
I think the BBC should dig up that clip and the interview with Maskey that accompanied it and screen it again, while those who voted him into the Speaker’s chair this weekend might care to reflect on the implications of what they have done. A lot of disabled people in Northern Ireland are now deprived of the ability to be mobile thanks to the Motability fraud.