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On 8 January 2021, we wrote to Andy Byford, Commissioner of Transport for Transport for London (TfL). As a charity which monitors and advocates for economic and social rights in the UK, we asked TfL to review the £20 minimum automatic top up amount for Oyster cards using Pay As You Go.

The minimum top up amount raises issues of unaffordability, inaccessibility and exclusion. It is not clear how the decision to set the minimum at this amount is in line with human rights standards, including equality and non-discrimination.

With the reduction in the ability to pay by cash at many London Underground stations, passengers on lower incomes are needing to use other ways of topping up their Oyster cards. According to London TravelWatch, high numbers of lower income Londoners rely on the bus for travel, and the current automatic top up amount is over 13 times higher than the £1.50 it costs to make a bus journey. From figures supplied to London TravelWatch by TfL, the average top up per transaction at Oyster ticket stops is £6.97, compared to £10.41 at London Underground stations, £9.16 at London Overground/TfL Rail stations and £9.53 at National Rail stations over the eight accounting periods of 2020. These figures suggest that the automatic top up amounts are set too high for people on low incomes to budget for their travel.

Research by Just Fair finds that socio-economic inequalities are being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Reduced income and/or the resulting economic downturn is affecting people already on low incomes or with less accumulated wealth. In a time of economic uncertainty, barriers such as the minimum automatic top up amount pose a real risk of limiting access to economic and social rights by those with lower incomes or limited budgets.

For many transport users, £20 may simply be too high an amount to be taken from their accounts at one time. Keeping public transport affordable, not only fares but also potential charges for transactions, is important for passengers. With increasing levels of unemployment in and around London, and general restrictions on household budgets it is important that it is easy for passengers to be able to spend within their means and are not forced to take on overdrafts or loans which might incur bank charges.

We ask that TfL makes decisions which are in line with international human rights standards and not to take regressive measures that prevent or reduce the enjoyment of economic and social rights, for example the right to access health, work, and an adequate standard of living. Unless decisions which impact access to public transport are fully informed by human rights, equality and non-discrimination considerations, inequalities will worsen in the long-term.

We ask for evidence showing how the decision to set the minimum automatic top up amount is in line with the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) under the Equality Act 2010, which requires all public authorities carrying out public functions to take active steps to consider equality when exercising their functions. We ask that TfL takes specific positive measures to ensure the protection and equal enjoyment of rights by groups of people who are particularly affected by barriers to accessibility in public transport. We ask that TfL provides in the public domain an evaluation of the impacts the decision to set the minimum automatic top up at this amount has on specific groups of people, so that no one is disproportionately impacted.

The Equality Act 2010 protects people from discrimination on the basis of nine protected characteristics (age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation). Note also that the grounds of discrimination prohibited under international human rights law are broader than under the Equality Act 2010, and include socio-economic status.

We support London TravelWatch, and also ask that TfL considers revising the automatic top up minimum level to a lower amount which better reflects the average top up amounts, for example £5.

It is essential that all public transport is safe, accessible and inclusive, and all people can access their economic and social rights.

For more information about transport and economic and social rights, contact our Campaigns and Advocacy Lead, Misha Nayak-Oliver.

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