Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Bill Wiggin.)
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise important issues relating to the estimated 4 million adults in the country who have some form of mobility impairment. Given that figure, it is not surprising that there are some 300,000 mobility scooters in use here, and that the number is growing by up to 25,000 each year. They obviously provide an invaluable aid for those who are elderly and/or suffer from a disability, enabling them to maintain their independence and ensuring that they are less marginalised in our society than they would be otherwise. They are crucial in helping people suffering a disability and others to realise the rights to access that I think most people in our society accept should be a reality for all our citizens. After all, 15 years have gone by since the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.
This evening I want to explore some aspects of safety in the use of such mobility aids, specifically, but not wholly, in regard to the transporting of these vehicles and their users. I also intend to look at the treatment of mobility scooter users and at whether they are being afforded the protection under the law to which they are entitled.
The local authority that serves my constituency, Kirklees council, licenses 249 taxis, 55 of which are able to carry wheelchairs. There are a further 1,520 private hire vehicles, of which 120 are designated for wheelchair access. Unlike nearby Calderdale authority, Kirklees makes a distinction between wheelchairs and mobility scooters, but it seems evident that the two classes are becoming blurred and that scooters are on occasions being transported as if wheelchairs. It seems—largely, I accept, on anecdotal evidence—that sometimes this is happening without the user being relocated to a standard seat within the motor vehicle for the journey or the appliance being anchored adequately, if at all. The situation is no doubt complicated by those scooters that fit within the dimensions of the reference “wheelchair” as used in previous deliberations on this topic by the Department for Transport, but, for whatever reason, this appears to be a growing practice, at the discretion, obviously, of the driver and his employers. Indeed, the National Taxi Association accepted that there was a great deal of confusion about this matter in its evidence to the consultants MVA, which compiled research for the Department.
The NTA also accepted that it has no existing policy about scooters being transported and left it to the discretion of the driver, based, it said, on health and safety considerations. It appears to share the view of many in the trade that it is waiting for a lead from the Government. Perhaps the Minister will want to use this opportunity tonight to provide such a lead. [Interruption.] He shakes his head, and I am encouraged.
I am sorry, it is late in the evening: the Minister nodded, of course.
In the meantime, perhaps tonight the Minister can supply us with the up-to-date figures for the number of wheelchair and scooter users injured while being transported. Whatever the figures are, perhaps he can tell us whether his Department is content for this high potential for accident to remain the case, and if not, what it intends to do to cure, or at least ameliorate, the problem.
I accept that the Minister has been in post for only a matter of months, but he will be aware that research commissioned by his Department in 2006 suggested there was the potential for 180 serious accidents a year involving vehicles transporting such users and their appliances and 16 fatalities. I should add that many scooter users, such as my constituent, Mr Lawrence Conlon, also feel that the loading into and out of any taxis is fraught with danger. In a letter to me, Mr Conlon said:
“I would invite the Minister or any of his officials to take a test and allow themselves to mount and dismount one of these vehicles in a wheelchair, either being pushed or guided on and then dismounted backwards on runners on many occasions not much wider than the wheels of the chair.”
That danger was also raised in the MVA research, which recommended that the Department institute trials so as to be in a better position to judge the danger itself. Can the Minister tell us if such trials have been undertaken in the four years since this report, and have the Government looked into the lack of uniformity in respect of anchoring points on the various appliances?
I realise—and I expect the Minister will tell me this—that the Department’s default position is that mobility scooters are not safe to be transported on public transport at all, not least taxis. But the situation in the country has moved beyond that point and we need the Government to act to help regulatory and licensing authorities make sense of the situation on the ground. At the very least, we have to be assured that all journeys involving such passengers are health and safety compliant and that the drivers are trained and aware of the safety needs of this group of passengers, not only while installed in the cab, but also at the point of their being loaded into or dismounted from the vehicle. Is it appropriate, as Mr Conlon suggests, to compare the process with the same procedures when they are carried out by ambulance service staff? If so, is the Department happy with the apparent disparity in safety levels between the two?
So far I have examined the potential problems relating to access to a vehicle and safety while someone is being carried. I wish now to discuss the issue of scooter users who have little access to a taxi; such access is apparently only at the whim of a licensing department and the local taxi owners. Lawrence Conlon, like his father before him, has given a lifetime of service to my local community. Now in his 80s, he uses a motorised wheelchair to maintain mobility, but rarely can a taxi be supplied to provide transport for him. The size of his wheelchair means that it cannot be loaded into a taxi unless that vehicle has a hydraulic facility, and not just ramps or runners. No such vehicle is licensed by my local authority, which tells me that it cannot require local taxi owners to provide such a facility in even one of their hundreds of cabs.
The Minister will recall that he confirmed to me in his letter of 7 October that section 160 of the Equality Act 2010 required taxis to be wheelchair accessible, but there remains no date for the enactment of this provision. May I press him to proceed with that enactment as speedily as possible and ensure that when the provision is enacted it takes on board the need to include scooters and motorised wheelchairs, as used by my constituent and, I suspect, many others, who are currently being discriminated against?
Finally, I wish to discuss a slightly different point relating to scooters. I have before me an Office of Fair Trading press release from a fortnight ago, in which the OFT announced its intention to launch a market study into mobility aids, including wheelchairs and scooters. It says that the sector was worth £500 million to UK companies in 2008. Apparently, however, the level of complaints from customers is growing at 20% a year and now tops 5,000 per annum.
I wish to outline to the Minister just such a complaint, as raised with me by my constituent, Mrs Crossland, a scooter user who earlier this year received an unsolicited visit from a firm called New Life Mobility Ltd of Kirkgate house, Shipley, West Yorkshire. It agreed with Mrs Crossland to replace two small scooters with a more highly powered one, and in total she has parted with £1,650, in addition to the two perfectly serviceable scooters that were taken in part exchange. Six months later she still has no scooter that she feels safe using. West Yorkshire trading standards department, which I have always found very effective, has been involved but is now at the point of advising her to go to law to recoup her cash. As she has spent her life savings on this venture, she is of course not in any position to do that. I know that trading standards officers have met two directors of that company, a Wayne Patrick Allen and a Jimmy Rodgers, but apparently none of the actions it was agreed that they would take to make good the problems they have caused Mrs Crossland have taken place. May I therefore ask the Minister whether he and his colleagues in government will introduce more robust provisions that afford protection for the likes of my constituent from those who seek to take advantage of their age and infirmity to rob them of both their life savings and their mobility? An OFT investigation might help provide industry solutions to the problems that mobility aids users face, but, again, I feel that we need a strong lead from Government.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mike Wood) on securing a debate on a matter that is clearly important and that is increasingly of interest to many people. He raises some germane and perfectly fair points that I will do my best to try to answer.
All the evidence suggests that the use of mobility vehicles is growing and that trend is likely to continue as our population ages. The Department for Transport continues to seek to improve access and safety for all people, including those who are disabled and elderly, to help enhance their quality of life. As part of that, we have been considering the issue of mobility scooters and their use.
There are three main areas of concern that the hon. Gentleman raised and I shall try to take each of them in turn. First, let me put on the record that there are concerns about the safe use of mobility scooters. There are occasional reports of people being injured by them when they are used on pavements and of users being hit by other vehicles when they are used on the road. My Department is considering all those issues with a view to balancing the mobility needs of disabled people with their own safety and that of others.
The hon. Gentleman asked specifically how many accidents had been caused. There are no national statistics on this matter, so I am unable to give him a figure, but I can tell him that from 2013 the police will be able to record whether a mobility vehicle has been involved in an accident. However, as the vehicles are used in public places other than roads and pavements it is unlikely that the database will provide a comprehensive picture. Other routes for data collection are being explored, but I hope that it is helpful that we are at least taking the matter forward. I recognise that there is an issue to be dealt with.
Let me turn to the question of the lack of provision to carry scooters in taxis and private hire vehicles, which overlaps with the point about health and safety. First, the legislation governing the accessibility of public transport does not cover the carriage of mobility scooters on public transport vehicles. Part 12 of the Equality Act 2010, which incorporates part 5 of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, sets out the provisions for accessible public transport. I should point out that since mobility scooters are primarily designed for outdoor use by people who can walk only short distances, and therefore as an alternative to public transport, they are quite intentionally not covered by the provisions.
Regulations that have already been made under the provisions of the original DDA require space to be provided on buses, coaches and trains for a “reference wheelchair” but are silent on the carriage of mobility scooters, as they are in the case of taxis. Scooters continue to come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes and evidence suggests that some modern mobility scooters are in fact getting taller and heavier. As a result, many models are frankly unsuitable for carriage on many forms of public transport, including in taxis.
As for other transport vehicles, research has also shown that increasing numbers of the most popular mobility scooters on the market will now fit into the so-called “reference wheelchair” space. That has resulted in confusion as to whether they can be used on public transport since operators have adopted different policies for dealing with them. I want to ensure that we end that confusion. It has been done for wheelchairs, so we can do it for scooters.
I recognise the challenges that that presents since not only are there a large number of scooter models on the market, but the type of public transport vehicle also varies. Nevertheless, my Department is considering how we might adopt a more consistent approach on the general carriage of scooters on public transport.
On the specific point about taxis, one of the main concerns about the carriage of scooters in taxis is whether they can be safely secured, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned in his introductory comments. I cannot give him an answer tonight to his question about anchorage points, but I shall write to him after this debate and give him the information he seeks. On the MVA research, I can also tell him that no trials have taken place since that report was completed.
The issue about whether scooters can be safely secured is due to the design of scooters, which do not always have appropriate anchorage points. There is a danger that the scooter may tip up and cause injury. Guidance published by the former Disability Rights Commission advised users of mobility scooters that they should transfer into the standard vehicle seat and that, if possible, scooters should be carried in the boot of a vehicle, but, if they are carried inside the main body of the vehicle, they must be safely secured. We take the view that a driver would be entitled to refuse to carry a scooter that cannot be secured as it would constitute a serious safety hazard. It is for the driver or operator to decide whether to transport an unoccupied mobility scooter as an item of luggage.
The hon. Gentleman will be interested in a feasibility study commissioned by the Department for Transport in 2006, which considered whether scooters can be safely carried on public transport and made recommendations as to the types of scooters that could be carried, including their dimensions and weights. It suggested that smaller and lighter mobility scooters could be safely carried on public transport in the right circumstances. The study also identified a number of safety concerns, focusing particularly on the conditions for mobility devices on public transport vehicles. They included the securement and stability of the devices, laden weight and the lack of manoeuvrability.
The ability to access public transport vehicles was also highlighted as a safety issue. There was insufficient evidence to take a view on the safe use of mobility scooters in taxis, so this was left to the discretion of the operator. Some transport operators have already put in place arrangements to accommodate scooters and their experience may yield lessons for other operators. We hope so. I have asked my officials to discuss the carriage of scooters on public transport with interested parties, including transport operators, manufacturers, health authorities and users, and to come up with possible options as soon as possible in the new year.
I want my Department to explore whether some form of kitemark system could help users and operators alike to understand which scooters could be safely carried on public transport. I do not intend to impose any new regulations or burdens on operators, but the work will seek to identify, working alongside manufacturers and operators, which scooters currently on the market could fit into a reference wheelchair space. Some operators already publish acceptance criteria and I want my Department to explore whether a similar approach could be taken nationally. If that can be achieved it would be a good result for users who would then be rather more certain about whether scooters are likely to be accepted on public transport. That should, in turn, help to inform purchasing decisions. It would also help public transport operators, which currently have to deal with a bewildering array of models, some of which are suitable for carriage but many of which are not.
The hon. Gentleman asked about protection for scooter owners, particularly Mrs Crossland. When purchasing a scooter, it is important to get the model that will suit the purchaser and their circumstances best. We are aware that the Department of Health and the charitable organisation Motability have funded a database to enable people to choose a mobility scooter or wheelchair that meets their needs. As medical devices, mobility scooters will have to comply with regulations that give some protection to users regarding the technical safety of the vehicle and instructions for use. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, which is an agency of the Department of Health, has responsibility for ensuring that this is the case.
Consumer protection legislation applies to mobility scooters as to any other products on the market. Those regulations are enforced by the Office of Fair Trading and local authority trading standards services through criminal prosecutions and civil enforcement orders. The hon. Gentleman might know that the OFT will be launching a market study into the mobility aids market. We have expressed an interest in this study, which will include wheelchairs and mobility scooters.
The hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot comment on the actions of individual companies that have affected his constituent, but he has put his remarks on the record and I very much hope that the company concerned will respond sensibly to him and his constituent in the light of his comments. I hope the debate will help to bring about a satisfactory resolution to Mrs Crossland’s situation.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of taxis and wheelchair accessibility. Before long, I hope, we will announce our plans regarding the taxi sections of the Equality Act 2010 that have not yet commenced relating to wheelchair accessible vehicles. We have already taken preliminary action on driver training and we are also looking at the quota of taxis. We are giving local authorities incentives to increase the quota of wheelchair accessible taxis in their area, so we are already taking action to increase the number of such vehicles in local authority areas.
We recognise the important role scooters play in the lives of disabled people, giving them the freedom that enables them to continue to participate in everyday life, which we very much welcome. The increase in the number and use of mobility scooters, and the public interest in them, presents us with an opportune time to look again at the feasibility of the carriage of mobility devices on public transport. The hon. Gentleman is right to chivvy us along on that matter, and I am grateful that he has done so.
I have not been in office very long, nor have the Government, but in the past the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee—DPTAC—has commented that it was concerned about the lack of co-ordinated information. DPTAC sought an interim measure and some formal guidance from the Department for Transport. We are doing what we can to take the matter forward, because I am concerned that the present arrangements have led to a plethora of different solutions that sometimes cause more problems than they solve. I am determined to try to sort that out.
Correct information is crucial, and we shall explore how best to make it available both to people who want to take scooters on public transport and to transport operators. In particular, we want to make sure that when someone buys a scooter they have clear information about whether the scooter is accessible for public transport. People are entitled to that information at the point of purchase.
Finally, it will be important to ensure that in our considerations we balance the needs of disabled people and their ability to maintain independence with the operating constraints of the transport industry.
Question put and agreed to.