More MS news articles for March 2001

Motability's secret trust fund

A CHARITY denying the disabled specially-adapted cars because it is too poor has a secret fortune of nearly £80 million.

Now more than 300 severely handicapped people are imprisoned in their own homes as the Motability organisation pleads poverty.

It has shut its waiting list and it could be three years before existing applicants get a vehicle with wheelchair access.

Despite that, Motability has a trust fund worth £79.7 million - capable of clearing the backlog many times over.

The charity - run by Tory toff and P&O shipping tycoon, Lord Sterling of Plaistow - is also getting £15 million Government aid over the next three years.

Last night Motability was under investigation by public spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, and facing possible shutdown with its work moved elsewhere.

Politicians and the disabled are angry and disgusted at Motability - dogged by controversy since being founded by the then Jeffrey Sterling in the 70s.

Lord Sterling admits funds from the charity have been invested in his own shipping firm.

European Parliament member Baroness Emma Nicholson, a campaigner for the disabled, told The Mirror: "To think that Motability has closed its waiting list on its dependants while sitting on £80 million is absolutely unbelievable.

"This charity should be shut down and the Government should open up a bidding process on an annual basis for any charitable organisation working for the disabled who cares to come forward.

"My question is why is this organisation a charity at all? It appears to run like a business."

Labour MP Helen Jackson said of the waiting list closure: "It is absolutely inexcusable."

Trudy Lapinskis, 39, who is 85 per cent handicapped with reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), is one of the disabled victims - told by Motability she must wait up to three years for a car.

Last year she left her three-bedroomed terraced house in Peterborough for just one day.

Trudy, learning of the £80 million in Motability coffers, said: "How can they do it to me? Don't they know how much I suffer? What they are doing to me is torture."

Lord Sterling and Motability's executive director Noel Muddiman strongly defended its conduct.

The peer said: "If you think that anything transpires other than that which is in the best interest of the disabled, you could not be more wrong."

Motability leases cars to the disabled. It gets £7,000 to adapt each vehicle from a government Mobility Equipment Fund

The disabled give Motability their weekly disability allowance in return for a car.

Motability says it is "subsidising" the Government on the overall deal. The controversy came to light in September when the charity wrote to new applicants, saying: "In a nutshell, Motability has been forced to close the waiting list to all new applicants until further monies are available."

Its letter added that the waiting list was now "35 months long". Motability said: "As ever, it is a question of available funding."

There are 272 men and women on the list and since the shutdown a further 63 have been turned down.

The Department of Social Security agreed to fork out another £1 million
a year, on top of money it already gives Motability.

In the next three financial years, the charity will now collect aid of £5.2 million, £5.6 million and £5.5 million.

The Mirror has calculated that only £2.5 million would be needed to clear the backlog. Baroness Nicholson, who has tried in the past to investigate Motability funding, said she was "profoundly relieved" The Mirror had stepped in.

She said: "These people appear to be unaccountable, sucking in vast swathes of government funding and not delivering the goods.

"This is a social cause, utterly just." She pledged to take the case to Health Secretary Alan Milburn and raise it in the Lords.

The Motability fund holding the £80 million is called the Tenth Anniversary Trust - set up in 1988 with £5 million of government funds.

The money was to be repaid only if the trust was wound up.

Motability added £5 million of its own and the total £10 million invested in stocks and shares.

It was earmarked as income for future grants, to secure a long-term future for the charity and to support research projects.

The fund grew steadily and made large gains in 1996 and 1998. Its most recent accounts show it is worth £79,709,000.

Confronted by The Mirror outside his P&O offices in London's Pall Mall, Lord Sterling - who gave nearly £500,000 to the Tories in the 80s - said the lack of funding was "not Motability's responsibility".

He added: "The government's MEF (Mobility Equipment Fund) is responsible for helping these people. The trust helps to subsidise the government every year."

Lord Sterling denied the National Audit Office was investigating Motability. It was "helping us re-organise".

Asked about trust investments in P&O, he said: "Any investment in P&O at any time did not exceed 0.08 per cent of the entire fund."

Executive director Mr Muddiman said the £80 million was needed for grants to make minor  adaptations to cars.

But only £3 million was used for that last year. And in the same period, nothing was spent on research and special projects.

The Imperial Cancer Research Fund says its reserves stand at £50 million.

Mr Muddiman said "eating into capital" would ruin future gains from the fund. Motability was helping 309,000 people.

He admitted the Commons Public Accounts Committee wanted the waiting list down to 12 months.

Meanwhile, disabled Trudy Lapinskis remains trapped in her own home.

She has power only in her left hand and her doctor has told her she endures twice the pain of a terminal cancer patient.

Motability continues to send her brochures of gleaming new adapted cars.

She said: "To think that I can't leave the house while they have that kind of money."

A DSS spokesman said: "Ministers will be monitoring very closely Motability's progress in reducing the waiting list."