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Public Transport Accessibility

Volume 493: debated on Tuesday 2 June 2009

We can now embark on the final debate of the morning. There will be a brief contribution, with the permission of the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) and the Minister, from the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper).

It is a great privilege, Mr. Taylor, for me to speak in this debate under your chairmanship. I start with an apology. I apologise to the groups that have written to me about whether I would raise individual issues for them: I am thinking particularly of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and Mencap. I asked for the debate specifically in relation to work that I have done with muscular dystrophy groups. For the past four years I have had the privilege of being the chairman of the all-party group on muscular dystrophy. It is a disease that has hit my family hard, so I was asked whether I would pick up that job quite soon after entering the House, and I was pleased to do so.

We have been conducting an inquiry in the group, in effect like a Select Committee inquiry, with witnesses, on a variety of issues relevant to muscular dystrophy, and in particular the fact that services around the country are very sporadic and differ a lot. As part of it, we had some discussion with young people who have come together, supported by the voluntary group V; that has provided them with a platform to put forward their views about life at the hard end, as young sufferers of muscular dystrophy.

On 5 May we had a lunch to mark a report entitled “End of the Line” by a group called Trailblazers. I am glad to see that the Minister has his copy. At the meeting there was cross-party support from Members of both Houses of Parliament. A notable person present was the director of the Association of Train Operating Companies. He was very supportive and was clear about the problems. The group asked him, “Why don’t you ask all your chief executives to spend a day in a wheelchair?” That would be a positive-negative experience, so that people could see the real-life experience for some people in today’s world. The people involved with the report are supportive of the changes that have been made by the Government since the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, but they are aware that things need to get better.

Since it was set up, working with V, Trailblazers has set its own goals to produce a variety of work about social inclusion under the title, “Inclusion Now”. The report it has delivered in the last few weeks is based specifically on the experiences of its members. They went undercover on buses, taxis and trains to see what life was really like. The report feeds back to people like me, the Minister and the wider public what the reality is. Four years after we passed the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, young people continue to be unable to use the services that should be available to them all by law. That is despite the real progress that has been made.

The Muscular Dystrophy Campaign’s network of 16 to 30-year-olds who are fighting for the rights of these people came forward with five key findings from the report, which I will list. Wheelchair users have less choice when using public transport. As a result, they are forced to pay more than their non-disabled peers. Young disabled passengers often feel like second-class citizens on public transport because of a combination of unreliable technology, poor disability awareness among staff and inaccessible stations. Young disabled passengers cannot always access the first bus, train or taxi that arrives at a station or stop. The assisted passenger registration service that insists on 24-hour advance booking for trains restricts the spontaneity and independence of disabled passengers. Even when it is accessed, it fails to provide a reliable service that passengers can have confidence in.

Non-wheelchair users with mobility difficulties also face serious problems when attempting to use buses and trains. Bus drivers often fail to park next to the kerb, meaning that there is a greater distance to cover to climb on to the bus. Drivers tend to pull away from stops too quickly before a passenger is seated and safe.

I will outline the action that Trailblazers is calling for. It wants the Government, local authorities and transport providers to ensure that accessibility on all modes of public transport, including air travel, is at the heart of all public transport planning, not merely a concept to which they pay lip service. Until all trains can be boarded and disembarked from independently, it wants the assisted passenger reservation service to be improved to guarantee that all disabled passengers receive a universally high level of service. It wants a major review into the accessibility of buses and coaches across the UK. It wants taxi subsidy cards for disabled passengers with a discount that reflects the dependence that many disabled people have on taxis.

I will now quote from the report. These are the words of people who have to live with these issues day in, day out. Judith Merry from Buckinghamshire stated:

“So many times I’ve been denied access on public transport because of my condition. Most people find it is easy to get around and be independent but when you have a disability simple tasks like this can be extremely difficult. Whether it’s buses, trains or tubes, there’s always some kind of problem. I know I’m not the only one who’s experienced this.”

Jennifer Gallacher from Middlesbrough stated:

“Wheelchair accessible buses do not run on every route everyday making the idea of hopping on a bus as a quick way of going on a journey unrealistic for a wheelchair user.”

Colin Rabbich from Morecambe said:

“It’s all well and good to hunt down the man with the ramp while on the platform, but once you’re on the train what goes on at the arriving end platform side is completely out of your hands—bad communication or forgetful staff result in you not getting off the train! I feel that these experiences make you feel a huge lack in confidence with this service.”

Jagdeep Kaur Sehmbi from Birmingham stated:

“A couple of times there has been no one with the ramp to help me off the train at my destination platform, even though I had informed them at the other station and been assured that someone would have the ramps ready.”

Stephen Liney from Aylesbury said:

“Why should any disabled person have to wait around for assistance or have to ring 24 hours in advance to use a station? If money is being spent on new stations let’s make sure people abide by the law and spend some money on making old stations accessible too.”

Jessica Berry from Macclesfield stated:

“Some stations are great, particularly the smaller ones, but some never hurry themselves to come and get you off the train despite having booked the travel assistance at least 24 hours before. It’s so scary being left on a train with no way of getting off.”

Finally, Sulaiman Khan from London said:

“Taxis are prohibitively expensive, even with a Taxi discount card. I once had to pay £65 to go into central London, because I can’t use the tube or trust the buses, which made even the driver cringe. The average person pays about £5 to go into central London from where I live.”

The statistics in the report are damning. For buses, it found that on more than half of all journeys there was some problem with the accessible facilities at the station, the bus stop, or on the bus, or there was a poor service from members of staff. In a third of the Trailblazers journeys, the survey respondent was unable to board the first relevant bus to arrive at their stop because the access ramp or accessible space was unavailable or because the driver failed to stop at a location that was accessible to them. Was that the result of a lack of awareness or a lack of customer care? In one third of the journeys undertaken by Trailblazers the respondent said that the driver was not helpful.

For trains, the survey showed that in 50 per cent. of journeys the surveyor reported some form of disappointment with the disabled facilities at the station or on the train, or reported a poor service from staff. The survey found that, because few long-distance coach or bus companies provide wheelchair access, young disabled people who want to travel around the UK feel that they have no alternative to using train services, despite those problems. The survey also showed that in 25 per cent. of journeys, the passenger was unable to board the first train that they wanted to. The reasons given for that included: having to wait for staff availability; that the staff could not be contacted at the destination station; that there was only one member of staff and they were too busy to help; and that there was no disabled seating or space available.

For taxis, the survey found that two thirds of respondents were disappointed by a journey in some way, such as with the service provided or the cost incurred. Two out of five respondents felt that they paid more to use a wheelchair-accessible taxi than a non-wheelchair user would have paid.

The findings on the assisted passenger reservation service were that staff at stations were prepared for disabled travellers on only one in three journeys made using the service as it should be used. Of the passengers given an appointed meeting place, only 58 per cent. were met by staff. In 15 per cent. of all cases, no assistance whatever was provided to get passengers off the train.

Let me ask the Minister some questions, so that we can try to take this matter forward. I repeat the caveat in the report that people are very appreciative of the progress that has been made in recent years by our Government, but as my comments of the past 10 minutes show, there are ongoing issues. Will the Minister meet me and representatives from the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign network to discuss the evidence that the report has uncovered? Will he ensure that public transport contractors and local authorities place accessibility for disabled passengers at the heart of their development policies, and ensure that accessible facilities are as inclusive as possible? Will he ensure that the woefully unreliable and ineffectual assisted passenger reservation service that is employed by rail companies will be reviewed and invested in, so that all stations and trains are fully accessible?

In conclusion, I reflect on the fact that today is the 56th anniversary of the conquest of Everest. At the launch on 15 May, a young lad called Dave Gale, from Carlisle—a place I know quite well—spoke to us. He was not in a wheelchair, and he looked like a fit young guy, but he told us about his problems with walking over a railway bridge. He said, “By the time I get to the top of the railway bridge, I’m gasping for breath.” That is totally unacceptable; that is his Everest every day of the week.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) on securing the debate, and all the young people involved in the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign on their work. I am very aware that this issue affects disabled people right across the spectrum. For example, my mum became deaf when she was four, but my father was born deaf. I have seen up close the difficulties that they face in their daily lives just trying to get around using public transport. In fact, my dad was abandoned for hours because the track that a train was to pull in on was changed. We were all very worried about him.

In making this brief intervention, I would like to alert the Minister to a situation in my constituency. Victoria Young, an 18-year-old wheelchair user from Skelmersdale, has met serious problems because of the inaccessibility of local transport. Arriva upgraded its West Lancashire fleet by bringing in 14-year-old double-decker buses cast off from the Wirral area. None of the buses has low-floor access. In a recent newspaper article, Victoria’s father told how she was stranded in Wigan for three hours simply because there were no low-floor buses to bring her home. That cost her and her family £17 in taxi fares.

It does not take a genius to realise that Victoria and other people in West Lancashire with similar problems will be dramatically affected. The situation will affect their life, their social mobility and their interaction with friends who can go off to Southport or to Wigan while they cannot. That is not acceptable.

The Government’s free concessionary travel pass shows commitment to enabling disabled people access to public transport, but it is rendered useless if private bus companies neglect their duty to provide accessible transport. I would like to ask my hon. Friend the Minister to agree that, in the 21st century, with our technological ability and the political will that has been demonstrated and included in the disability discrimination legislation, no disabled person the length and breadth of this country should have to accept not being able to use public transport.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) on securing this debate on what undoubtedly is an important matter for all concerned. I recognise and thank him for his comments about what we have achieved to date and the fact that there is still substantial work to be done. They were echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper).

Let me put on the record the Government’s thanks for the work undertaken by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon on several disability areas, particularly his work as chairman for the past four years of the all-party group on muscular dystrophy. Equally, I want to put on the record thanks to the young people who undertook the work to compile information for an important report by the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign called “End of the Line”. It helps all of us to understand some of the issues better.

The matter is important to young disabled people, but it should be important to all of us who have a commitment to ensuring that there are opportunities for all to be able to get to work, to leisure facilities, to Southport. Everyone should have equal opportunities.

I thank Trailblazers for its report and for the hard work that has been undertaken by the young people. The report affirms the important role that transport has to play in all our lives, but particularly the lives of young people, in enabling independence. It also highlights the importance of ensuring that young disabled people are involved in the decision-making process about travel provision in this country.

Unfortunately, the comments that my hon. Friend highlighted—from Jennifer, Colin, Jessica, Stephen and many others—show that the hurdles that people face when using public transport are still too much of a reality. Let me reassure hon. Members, however, that the Department for Transport remains committed to ensuring that we increase the accessibility of the transport system for all people in our society.

Let me confirm that point by saying that one of the Department’s key strategic objectives is to ensure that we have greater equality of opportunity for all citizens, including those who are disabled and in wheelchairs, those who have sight or hearing difficulties and many others. Those people should be able to utilise the public transport system so that we have a fairer society.

We have made substantial progress in meeting some requirements, but there is still a substantial way to go to ensure that vehicles and infrastructure across the board are more accessible. All rail vehicles must meet our accessibility standards by 1 January 2020, and all buses on local scheduled services will have to do so by 1 January 2017.

I noted the contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire, who talked about Victoria Young being stranded for three hours in Wigan. Of course that it is totally unacceptable. We need to ensure that we have a proper regime that recognises people’s needs, their life scale and the equipment involved, and that we make steady progress towards achieving accessibility. Indeed, more than one third of all rail vehicles and more than half the buses in the current fleet are now accessible.

I recognise, however, that there will be substantial difficulties where a bus fleet is not accessible. A concessionary bus pass or a disabled person’s bus pass will not help if there is no access to the facility in the first place. That is why the work that we have been doing with critical operators, including the railway companies and the Association of Train Operating Companies, is intended to move us sensibly towards making accessibility a reality. Of course, we all want that to happen sooner, but the time scale is sensible in terms of meeting requirements and phasing in new vehicles.

In that respect, the rail vehicle accessibility regulations also apply to London Underground. One of the first lines to have totally step-free accessibility will be the Victoria line, with the exception of Pimlico station, purely because there is no physical way of achieving step-free access down to it.

It is little help having accessible vehicles when there is no accessibility from platform to platform in stations and people cannot get from one platform to another to catch a train or to get out of the station. The Access for All programme is providing £370 million, which is ring-fenced over the next 10 years, to transform 140-odd stations that have already been identified. The aim is to ensure that there is proper access and accessibility to and between platforms.

Some £6 million is also being used for small schemes to find locally focused solutions and to make improvements for customers and passengers, including to information systems, which can benefit all, but which are particularly relevant to many of those who took part in the survey.

I noted the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon made about asking the chief executives of the railway companies to spend a day in wheelchairs, for example. We are working with ATOC to put online a new journey planning website that will list very clearly the accessibility criteria of all stations within the network, which, again, will help with planning. I will come back to the assisted passenger reservation scheme in a moment, because I recognise some of the points that were made in the report and by my hon. Friend.

Equally, taxis can often be one of the only ways for people to have mobility, particularly in areas that do not necessarily have commercially supported bus services and which may not have a railway station within the community. I recognise some of the comments that were made on costs but, equally, there are accessibility problems with some of the vehicles that are used in the taxi industry, which is exactly why, earlier this year, I launched a consultation document on the principles that might underline accessibility to taxis. The consultation has just closed and we are currently assessing the responses, but the Government are well aware of the issue.

We are also involved in negotiations on the European Commission proposals that were published at the tail end of last year, in December, on regulations that include rights for disabled passengers and passengers with reduced mobility on maritime transport and international bus and coach services. We continue to monitor compliance with the European regulation that came into force in July 2008 on the rights of disabled people and those with reduced mobility who are travelling by air.

While there are issues about the physical appropriateness of our transport systems, including access to stations, getting on to buses using low floor levels, and the ability and capability to get on to those buses in the right places and without additional hassle, staff support and assistance is also an issue, as is clearly outlined in the Trailblazers report. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members would agree that excellent examples of that abound, but we need to do more. The attitude towards people with disabilities does not meet the criteria and levels that we would want.

Although the Public Service Vehicles (Conduct of Drivers, Inspectors, Conductors and Passengers) (Amendment) Regulations 2002, which make it unlawful for transport operator staff to disregard the needs of disabled people, including those with wheelchairs, play an important and helpful role, equally disability awareness training is an integral part of the GoSkills national vocational qualification for drivers.

However, further work needs to be done. My hon. Friend talked about getting the directors of train operating companies in wheelchairs, but we urge transport operators to involve people with disabilities in training programmes so that they get first-hand knowledge. That would bring the report to life for those who are operating the systems and provisions that are required day in, day out by individuals.

We are also developing training travel skills so that people who have disabilities know what to expect and where to access information and so on. That is also something that can be done by working with organisations that represent groups such as people with muscular dystrophy. The Department for Transport has sponsored the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee to develop its Door to Door website, which brings together as a portal a range of information about access to the transport system and provision for disabled people.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire referred to the concessionary travel scheme that we have introduced. The headlines seem always to be about people aged 60 and over, but of course the scheme is also for many categories of people with disabilities. That is another way of ensuring that there is better inclusion for all concerned, and better access. However, I take on board what was said about the limitations created by not having the right bus.

I want to draw attention to what is being done in local authorities throughout the country as part of work on transport accessibility planning. It is particularly a question of seeing that joined-up provisions exist for people in vulnerable groups, so that they can get access to jobs and key services. Those considerations are now treated far more as mainstream parts of local transport planning. Not long ago I visited Worksop to see the Nottinghamshire scheme and find out what had been done there as part of the accessibility planning programme. I also saw the work that had been done in Liverpool and Merseyside.

The Local Transport Act 2008 was another opportunity to reinforce and improve transport provision for all concerned, by improving the facilities of the community transport sector. For example, drivers covered by section 22 permits are now allowed to be paid, so that where it is not possible for schemes to run commercially through companies such as Arriva or Stagecoach, or where there is not a demand for a big, heavily subsidised scheme, the community transport sector can help and can provide a facility, making inclusion possible for many people, including disabled people.

We are well on the road to meeting the goals that we set out for 2025 in “Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People”. We have gone a long way towards improving those life chances and the facilities to allow people to lead more independent lives. However, we have further to go. I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon, together with representatives from Trailblazers, to listen first-hand and to consider the information that has been presented.

I said that I would return to the assisted passenger reservation scheme. I recognise some of the comments that have been made in the report, and by my hon. Friend. The scheme is owned by the train operating companies and the Association of Train Operating Companies, but the Department is working with them to see that there is better and more joined-up provision for delivering that service. Perhaps part of the discussion that we have should be to enable us to learn from some of the users of the services about where the weaknesses are in the scheme.

It has been useful to debate a piece of work that is clearly very important. It took commitment from the many young people and others involved to produce something that can be useful to our work in the Department for Transport, and is also important as a guide for transport operators in the further work that is needed.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.