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Public Transport (Disabled Access)

Volume 499: debated on Tuesday 10 November 2009

It is a pleasure to be here today. I believe this is the first time that I have spoken in this Chamber with you in the Chair, Mr. Williams. I take the opportunity to thank Mr. Speaker for granting me this Adjournment debate.

Part of the London borough of Hillingdon is in my constituency. Every three months or so, the three Hillingdon Members of Parliament—my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and I—have a joint meeting with Disablement Association Hillingdon, known locally as DASH. We meet various people who have disabilities and also those who have issues around it. A subject that has been common to various meetings is the problems that are still encountered by many disabled people in accessing public transport.

First, I should acknowledge that there has been some advance in accessibility for disabled people on public transport—I believe we all recognise that—and certainly things have improved with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, but it is obvious that there are still significant problems. It is not particularly easy to bring accessibility to transport quickly, but the situation is frustrating for disabled people. Mr. Simon Harris, who is in charge of DASH, and one of the other people who often raises this point, Mr. Allen Bergson, are appropriately forthright in trying to champion the cause of improving accessibility for the disabled.

I also acknowledge that in London, where my constituency is, we have Transport for London, and the Mayor and the Greater London authority have input. Although some of my comments will be about the UK generally, many of them will be directed by the experience in Hillingdon. However, they are relevant to many other areas.

I shall not spend a great deal of time on the tube or the Overground, because it is evident to anyone who has any form of disability, particularly those who require a wheelchair, that the underground system is difficult to access.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing an extremely important debate, and I am grateful to him for giving way. One of my constituents who has a disability and uses a wheelchair lives on a bus route served by four different drivers. She said that three of them are excellent, but that the other one has told her more than once that she is a pest. Would the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a strong case for making disability awareness known to as many people as possible? I would not for one second disregard the importance of so many people in public life who are committed to a fair deal for disabled people, but perhaps we have to be a bit more robust in presenting a policy of awareness.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that. I shall dwell on that theme later. It is one thing to pass laws and to talk about disability in this place and elsewhere, but we have to get through to the general public on a wider scale than we are doing at present.

In my own case, having a disabled mother and, before he passed away, a disabled father, I suddenly became much more aware of the problems. Without drifting too much, too often one goes to a place and asks, “Do you have accessibility for wheelchairs?” and what we hear is, “Yes, there are only three or four steps.” There is still a mentality among many people, unless they have had to get a wheelchair in and out, that things are not as difficult as they actually are. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that access and fair treatment on any form of transport are important. He mentioned buses, which I shall discuss.

I do not want to be entirely negative. One positive thing that I have noticed over the years, going up and down on the underground and buses—again, I am quoting from experience in London—are the audiovisual announcements, particularly on the buses. Previously, it was sometimes difficult for a person to know where they were, even if they were fully sighted and able—the bus could be crowded, or the windows could be misted up—so they are an improvement for all passengers. But for those who have problems, they are vital.

I believe that the Transport Committee recently produced a report on transport for the Olympics, and that it recommended that all transport should have such announcements. It is obvious that not just disabled people would benefit from them: they would be of benefit to locals and certainly will be important to the huge number of tourists who will come in. I would like that system to be extended to all buses throughout the country.

A problem with buses that I believe is probably common around the country is that many now have disabled space—in effect, space for a wheelchair—but it is limited, and those wheelchair spaces are sometimes taken up by other passengers, most obviously those with children’s buggies or prams. I got a copy of a letter from TfL, which says that it encourages its drivers to ask people to move, but that they do not have powers to insist that people move. It is a matter of asking and trying to make people aware. Sometimes, the great British public are not as understanding as we would like them to be. Many people may have experienced this. People may be under pressure themselves—it is not easy taking a buggy around with a lot of shopping, a kid screaming away and all the rest—but we should try to ensure that space is available.

If the place on the bus is taken and a wheelchair cannot get in because there is no space—this assumes that the ramp is working and so on—the person has to wait for the next bus, and the next one if that one has no space. Interestingly, I noticed that a local person recently had an out-of-court settlement from a bus operating company—I believe they got £1,000—because they could not access four consecutive buses.

For most of us, that situation rarely occurs, although sometimes a bus is too full and it speeds past, but for a disabled person sitting in a wheelchair and trying to get on a bus, it must be problematic. Again, I am speaking about London, where the bus services are quite regular. I would imagine that elsewhere this could be a real problem if the next bus is not for half an hour or so. These are problems for disabled people.

As I said in response to the intervention by the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), the public are sometimes surprisingly unsympathetic to the needs of disabled people. As Members of this House, we are very much aware of them because people come to us with their concerns. There are awareness campaigns and courses for bus drivers, and most drivers are helpful, but unfortunately, as with most things, there will be one or two who are not.

Something that never occurred to me until it was pointed out, when it became obvious, is the problem at request stops for those who are visually impaired. We take things for granted—we see a bus coming along, we see the number on it and we stick our hand out to stop it—but that is a problem for someone who has problems with their sight. I do not think that we appreciate quite how difficult that is.

The Government’s statutory advisory committee, the disabled persons transport advisory committee, has found that although disabled people travel a third less often than non-disabled people, they have a greater reliance on the bus services. That committee produced figures showing that, within the disability community, blind and partially sighted people use buses significantly more than other disabled people, with 50 per cent. taking the bus at least once a month compared with 43 per cent. of other disabled people. That is why request stops and announcements are so important.

We forget that the black cabs are a form of public transport. Disabled people can find them useful in getting from A to B, but one obvious problem is the expense. Mr. Allen Bergson, whom I mentioned earlier, told me about the real problems and how, in many cases, it is cheaper to fly to Spain and back than to get a black cab. For example, Mr. Bergson lives in Hillingdon and it cost him £80.11 one way to go to the National hospital in Holborn for some drug trials. Without being too intelligent I can work out what the return trip would cost. Booking fees and credit card charges lead to a black cab costing more for disabled people than for able-bodied people because one with wheelchair facilities has to be booked. Although sometimes they can flag one down, the chances are that the first one that comes along may not be accessible. So the cost of what we might think is a relatively easy journey becomes hugely problematic.

In providing accessibility for people with disabilities, we want to try to enable them to lead as normal a life as possible, getting out and enjoying things and getting on with work. Work is another big problem, because transport is not that easy for disabled people to use.

At our DASH meetings we have endless discussions about Dial-a-ride, which provides a useful service but also leads to many complaints. It is a patchy service. People from Dial-a-ride come along to the meetings to try to explain what is going on. There is so much frustration. For example, people can book an outward trip but are unable to book the return journey, which makes the whole thing pointless.

Having mentioned some of the obvious problems, I should like to mention that, having been granted this debate, I was approached by the British Lung Foundation, which wanted me to raise the problem of charges for oxygen on airlines. Although I told them that this debate was about public transport, that is still a problem. It may be something for another day, but I should just like to flag it for the Minister and say that that is just another problem that people face. There are other examples in respect of airlines, including some not always being as sympathetic to wheelchair users as others. We should be concentrating on such things to try to let our constituents with disabilities enjoy as full a life as possible on as equal terms with ourselves as possible.

I should like to bring to right hon. Members’ attention the report on the findings of Trailblazers, which I am sure the Minister has seen, which involved 1,000 young people from the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, who became, as I would say from my retail experience, mystery shoppers, trying to see how easy it was to do things on the transport systems. Those findings are all pretty obvious, but perhaps we should highlight the fact that disabled passengers often feel like second-class citizens and that they cannot, as I have mentioned already, always access the first bus, train or taxi. The assisted passenger registration service on the trains needs 24-hour advance booking, making the possibilities for more flexible travel—suddenly wanting to go somewhere on a train, for example—much more difficult.

These are all problems that people face. As I said at the beginning, I acknowledge that things are and have been improving. Goodness knows that any of us could, and probably will, suddenly find ourselves with some disability. Although we can say that advances are being made, there is a need for urgency in respect of provision for disabled people, because their quality of life could be improved by improving disability facilities on public transport, and that would make a huge difference to them. As we come up to the Olympics and, more importantly, the Paralympics, we have a wonderful opportunity, all round the country, to ensure that we have some of the best public transport accessible to disabled people.

It is a pleasure for me, too, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams. It is also my maiden voyage with you in the Chair and I hope that I do as good a job as the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall). I congratulate him on securing this debate on an important matter: access to transport by disabled people.

On a personal note, I say to the hon. Gentleman that our previous interventions had been as one Whip to another, and I really enjoyed listening to his speech based on his personal experience working with DASH and others in the disabled community.

The Department for Transport is committed to ensuring that we have an increasingly accessible transport system that works for everyone. Indeed, one of the Department’s five goals is to promote greater equality of opportunity for all citizens to achieve a fairer society. This morning I addressed a disability conference at Sadler’s Wells, where we discussed many of the issues that the hon. Gentleman touched on. The conference is going on as we speak.

The hon. Gentleman was correct to draw attention to the fact that many of us may be disabled one day. He mentioned his mum and his father. There are more than 10 million disabled people in the country and, with an increasingly ageing population, transport has a key role to play in delivering on many of the Government’s social policies. For example, transport helps enable people to access employment and services and to meet their friends and family; in other words, it helps them to lead independent lives. Nowhere is this more important than in the lives of disabled people.

We will of course continue to meet the requirements of existing and planned legislation. The Equality Bill, which is currently passing through the House and will shortly reach Report stage, will streamline and bring together in one place much of our equality legislation. Existing provisions in the 1995 legislation covering the transport needs of disabled people will be included in the Bill. Not only will the Bill include the existing provisions; there is a plan for it to include new ones aimed at making taxis more accessible. I know that the House divided on the Bill on Second Reading, but I hope that colleagues will reflect and will support its passage when it returns to our House.

All new buses and trains have to be accessible, including to wheelchair passengers, and we have set end dates by which all buses and trains have to meet our accessibility standards. We have made good progress in recent years. So far, 46 per cent. of rail vehicles and 62 per cent. of the national bus fleet comply with the regulations. In fact, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that, as a consequence of the leadership shown since 2000, in London 100 per cent. of our buses are accessible. That shows what leadership can do.

Of course, we acknowledge that that is a wonderful achievement. However, as I said earlier, one problem is that it is not just about vehicles being accessible; it is about ensuring that they are truly accessible in the sense that people can get on them, and about awareness.

The hon. Gentleman is right. Getting to the bus stop or the platform is often the biggest challenge, and I recognise that there is still some way to go on this. It is not just about making buses and trains accessible. There is no point in having a new, accessible bus if people cannot get to the bus stop or board the bus. The end-to-end journey is what matters, and if there is a weak link the individual will not make the journey by public transport or, worse, will not make it at all.

I welcomed the intervention from my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke). He knows from his own experience of moving private Member’s Bills and his long time in Parliament the huge impact that small decisions by bus drivers or bus operating companies may have on the quality of life of people throughout the country. That is why we decided to invest in the access for all programme in 2006, with £370 million ring-fenced until 2015 to make stations accessible for those with reduced mobility or who are disabled. Work has been completed at 30 stations, and a £6 million small schemes fund is available each year for innovative and locally focused solutions to deal with access problems at stations. More than 1,000 stations have benefited from those innovations.

Although we understand that disabled people want improvements immediately, we must strike a balance between their needs and the operating constraints of the transport industries. Our largely Victorian railway system poses a challenge in providing 100 per cent. accessibility, so we must identify where we can achieve the most benefits from our investment, not just for disabled people but for all passengers, including older people and parents with babies.

The hon. Gentleman touched on an important point about finite places, and tension between mums and dads with buggies and people whose only form of moving about is in a wheelchair. He will be aware that legislation is in place to ensure that bus drivers and others understand the priorities if, for example, those with buggies do not understand, appreciate, empathise with or give space to those in wheelchairs.

In his excellent speech, the hon. Gentleman touched on the role of taxis, which are an important link in the transport chain. We have recently consulted on accessible taxis, driver duties to disabled people, and training. I announced recently that the Department intends to make regulations to impose a duty on drivers of accessible taxis, as well as private hire vehicles, to assist disabled passengers into and out of the vehicle, and to transport them in safety and comfort.

The Department will also invite bids from local authorities to participate in demonstration schemes or pilots to assess disabled people’s needs and how to match the taxi fleet to those needs. He also touched on the Trailblazers report. I had the benefit of meeting the group recently and receiving its report, and as a result of the impression that it made on me, I have actioned a number of points. I will write to the hon. Gentleman to let him know exactly what I have done, because I know that he has a huge interest not only in DASH but in other such organisations.

We must think not only about local journeys. Disabled people should be able to travel further afield just like the rest of us, and to enjoy holidays wherever they want. We continue to monitor compliance with the European regulation that came into force in July 2008 on the rights of disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility when travelling by air. We are also involved in negotiations on the European Commission’s proposals, which were published in December 2008, for new regulations, including rights for disabled people and passengers with reduced mobility using maritime transport and international bus and coach services.

The issue is not just about physical access. We know from our research and as highlighted by Trailblazers and other groups for disabled people that other barriers prevent people from taking advantage of the improvements that have been made to the transport system, not least the attitude of operating staff. Since 2002, we have had regulations in place that make it unlawful for transport operating staff to disregard the needs of disabled passengers, including wheelchair users. For many operators, disability awareness training is now an integral part of staff training, but we must do more, and we are working with GoSkills on how awareness training can be incorporated into the certificate of professional competence for bus drivers.

The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that not only does Trailblazers have a mystery customer remit, but Passenger Focus will extend its empire from rail to bus. I have had a mystery tour around the country using buses, and he is right in saying that bus drivers can do simple things, such as parking the vehicle next to the pavement, using their mirrors to ensure that older or disabled people have sat down before moving off, braking gently, and other things to improve the quality of life for disabled commuters when getting on and off buses.

We recommend that both front-line and management staff are trained and that their skills are regularly updated. Last year, the Department’s advisory body, DPTAC—the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee—published a training framework for use by those preparing and running courses. The Olympics—this will please the hon. Gentleman, as a London MP—will provide the opportunity to demonstrate the benefits of that training when many disabled people come to London for the games. Crossrail will also ensure that all the facilities that it provides will be accessible to disabled people. Security and fear of crime are also barriers for many people, including disabled people. We remain committed to reducing crime, fear of crime and antisocial behaviour wherever it occurs on the transport system. The Department’s secure stations programme is contributing to that.

Another point raised by the hon. Gentleman was the need to know and to access information before making a journey. Later this year, the Association of Train Operating Companies will launch a new station journey planning website, and my Department has contributed £500,000 towards that. The site will include access information for every station in the country. is the Department’s website and offers free information for door-to-door, multi-modal travel around Britain. We are considering how to include more information on accessibility, and how real-time information can be provided direct to disabled passengers. In Reading, such information can be sent to a mobile phone; that will improve the quality of life for many people about whom the hon. Gentleman and I care passionately.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the cost of transport. Last year we extended the concessionary fares scheme to allow disabled people to travel free on off-peak buses anywhere in England. In addition, half fare discounts are available on coaches, and the disabled person’s railcard offers one third off many rail tickets. To illustrate the scale, the £1 billion for the concessionary bus fares scheme enables 11 million people in England to have access to free buses after 9.30 am and before 11 pm.

For those who cannot use public transport or do not have access to a car, community transport remains an important means of mobility, so we are encouraging collaboration with third-sector organisations, particularly in community transport solutions. Those organisations and local authorities have a critical role in targeting resources at local authorities’ needs. The Local Transport Act 2008 removes some of the restrictions on vehicles used for community transport, and allows drivers with section 22 permits to be paid.

Delivering improved accessibility does not rest only with the Department for Transport. I accept that we must work in partnership with operators, manufacturers, delivery agents such as local authorities, and disabled people. Many accessibility barriers need local solutions, which is why we have introduced accessibility planning into the local transport planning process to allow a clearer and more systematic approach to ensuring that the needs of vulnerable groups in accessing jobs and key services are considered. We must not forget, for example, how important the pedestrian environment is for getting about. We are evaluating the accessibility planning process to see how that is working in practice.

I again congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge on his speech, and on bringing this important matter to the Department’s attention. I re-emphasise that accessibility remains high on our agenda. We have achieved a great deal, but there is still a long way to go if we are to achieve our 2025 goal in the Government’s strategy for improving the life chances of disabled people to ensure that they live more independent lives.