AN ONGOING dispute over a “gagging clause” between a charity and West Berkshire Council (WBC) has reduced an important bus service for elderly and disabled people in Newbury to just two days a week.

Readibus provides elderly and disabled people with transport across the county, including in Reading and Woodley, but says it has been forced to greatly reduce its bus services in West Berkshire due to a lack of funding from the council.

The charity stopped providing five-day-a-week dial-a-ride bus service in Newbury and other parts of West Berkshire on April 16 after six months without WBC funding and being asked to sign a “gagging clause”.

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The clause in the proposed grant agreement – that Readibus refuses to sign – reads: ‘The Charity shall not, and shall take reasonable steps to ensure that staff shall not, make any press announcement or publicise the Agreement or any part of the Agreement in any way, except with the prior written consent of the Council, which will not be unreasonably withheld’.

Professor Sophie Bowlby, chair of the ReadiBus board, said this means the charity must obtain the prior written consent of the council before making any press announcement, which “enshrines the right of censorship by the council” in law and is a “non-reciprocal gagging order”.

The charity’s trustees told the council they are happy to sign the agreement with this clause removed but the council has rejected the request.

WBC says the clause is not a ‘gagging clause’ but “merely ensures that the service provider notifies the council before any information concerning the agreement is put in the public domain”.

It says this is a “standard clauses on confidentiality that the council would expect from its service providers”.

However, the clause states the written consent of the council is needed rather than simply asking for notification.

WBC says it has been clear in discussions with Readibus and other community transport operators that any grant funding in excess of £5,000 from April 2020 onwards would be subject to a service level agreement (SLA).

Readibus in Woodley

Readibus in Woodley

It says all its other community transport operators have agreed to the SLA apart from Readibus.

WBC has withheld half of the budgeted grant to ReadiBus for 2020/21 due to the charity not signing the contract, totalling £6,566.93.

It comes after ReadiBus provided an uninterrupted service throughout the pandemic and covered the extra costs associated with running the service such as cleaning and PPE.

This means Readibus has not received any funding from WBC since September 2020.

Professor  Bowlby said it costs more than £50,000 a year to provide Readibus services in West Berkshire.

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For now, it is only able to provide services two days a week in Newbury and to existing customers only in the eastern parts of West Berkshire – such as Calcot and Purley – after receiving £1,500 in public donations.

But the charity needs to raise another £4,000 to continue offering a two-day-a-week service in Newbury for the whole of 2021/22.

Readibus’ funding was already reduced by 68 per cent in 2019/20 without public consultation, going from £45,761 in 2018/19 to £14,580 in 2019/20.

WBC says it has not reduced overall community transport funding since 2019/20, with Readibus’ share of the grant going down because they are delivering less passenger journeys compared to other providers.

Readibus in Reading

Readibus in Reading

However, the funding is based on journey numbers from two years prior and so funding was cut by 68 per cent for 2019/20 but journey numbers had only fallen by 12 per cent.

A spokesman for WBC added: “We are very keen to work with Readibus to understand the impact on its client base and we are grateful to Readibus for the service provided.

“Whilst this is regrettable for passengers who use ReadiBus services in Newbury and Thatcham, we wanted to ensure that those passengers are aware that there are other community transport groups providing services for local residents who are unable to use public transport and need to attend medical appointments or make shopping trips.”

Detail on all community transport schemes operating in West Berkshire can be found here.