[John Robertson in the Chair]
Earlier this year, I was visited by a group of my constituents in Wigan who were from Hunter Lodge, a facility for people with disabilities in the borough. They told me about the endless difficulties they faced in trying to do some of the simplest things that most of us take for granted—shopping, visiting friends or getting to work. They tried to go by train to a nearby town, but had been forced to travel by relay because there was only one wheelchair space available on the train. When the train arrived, the space was already taken. They were told that instead of travelling in the carriage with other people, they would have to go in the guard’s van alongside the bags, parcels, bikes and other goods.
I am angry that, in 2011, that is still considered by some people an acceptable way to treat fellow human beings. Astonishingly, when I looked into this matter, I found that they were the fortunate ones. Half of all train stations do not have level access, so it turns out that they were actually lucky to even be able to get on to the train platform in the first place. Despite some real improvements—not just under the previous Government, but under the Government before that—we are not moving fast enough. The Association of Train Operating Companies said earlier this year that progress on making train station platforms accessible to people with physical immobility is far too slow, and that Network Rail and the Department for Transport need to get a grip of this situation.
I am also concerned about the closure of ticket offices, an issue that many people have raised with me. Without a ticket office, it is nigh on impossible for many people—particularly those who have sight problems, are in wheelchairs, or have learning difficulties—to even buy a ticket to get on the train. In many instances, ticket office staff are the only people available to assist people physically to get on to the train. The McNulty review recommended closing 675 ticket offices around the country. I am aware of the economic realities, but I would like to see a commitment today from the Minister to assure us that he will not sanction proposals that would leave ticket offices entirely unmanned. That is not just because ticket office staff are often the only people available to help people on to the train. Many people contacted me in advance of this debate to say that so much of the staffing issue is about feeling safe on public transport—having the security of being able to get to where they are going without being stranded, which had happened to them in too many cases.
When I secured this debate, I was contacted by young people from across the country, who described to me, in a compelling way, how they had been unable to even get on and off trains because there were no ramps available, the ramps that were available were too short or too long, or nobody was there to help them use those ramps. More than anything else, I was struck by the indignity and humiliation that ran like a thread through all those stories. They need electronic ramps on every train so that they do not have to suffer both the indignity and the anxiety of hoping desperately that somebody will be available to help them, having to make a fuss as they stand on a train simply to get off it, and, in some cases, being stranded on a train because there is no one available to help them.
Although some train companies have made adjustments that already meet the demands of the law, the situation is still not good enough. For example, Virgin Trains has three spaces for wheelchairs on its “Pendolino” service. Although that is welcome, it makes it extremely difficult for people to travel together. Is it seriously too much to ask to adapt trains so that young people, such as those in the Chamber today who are listening so intently to the debate, can go out with their friends? Is that seriously, in 2011, too much to ask? Early next year, the franchise for the west coast main line will be put out to tender. Will the Minister give me a commitment today that one of the criteria for interested companies will be the progress they make on this issue?
I am also deeply concerned that the rhetoric flying around at the moment, about people on incapacity benefit, is making an already dreadful situation much worse. In an independent survey for the charity Scope, 15% said they had suffered high-level abuse on public transport. It is a damning indictment of the current situation that the campaigning organisation Trailblazers struggled to find young people who would even take part in a recent report on the issue, because they found the prospect of engaging with public transport too distressing to contemplate. People with concessionary railcards tell me that they have been questioned to a humiliating degree on public transport about the nature of their disability, particularly when that disability is not physically obvious. Will the Minister agree to take this up with the rail companies to ensure that the practice stops urgently?
The difficulty is not just restricted to trains, although that was one of the key issues raised with me by my constituents. I have also been sent stories about people trying to travel on airlines who have been asked to pay extra charges to carry medical supplies—even oxygen canisters—which were classed as excess baggage.
On air travel, my hon. Friend might want to comment on the practice of some airlines. Even when an air bridge is available at an airport to take passengers off without the need for stepped access, airlines use the access stairways to reach aircraft for what I suspect are financial reasons. In such situations, a person in a wheelchair often has to wait until a winch or lifting vehicle is brought out from the terminal. Apart from the delay that that involves, it is very embarrassing to be picked out in such a way when the facilities are available in the airport to avoid that. That should also be addressed as part of the joined-up approach that is needed.
I could not agree with my hon. Friend more. The example he gives highlights exactly the indignity and humiliation that far too many people must face when they try to do something that the rest of us take for granted. I am grateful to him for raising that point.
On the buses, people seem to fare little better. Half of all disabled people say that buses are a concern for them. Even something as simple as boarding the bus presents a problem. Many buses still do not have ramps and, even when they do, a common story emerges from all the reports that I have been sent from across the country of drivers refusing to stop because it would take too long to allow somebody to board, or because the space allocated for a wheelchair is taken up by a pushchair. I want to be absolutely clear on this point: I am not advocating that there should not be space for pushchairs; it is simply unacceptable that there is not room for everybody.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. This is an issue that concerns the whole of the United Kingdom, although this debate obviously relates to the UK mainland. In my previous job as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, I sat on a Committee that was responsible for bringing forward legislative change that enabled public transport, both bus and rail, to ensure access for disabled people in wheelchairs in particular, but for visually disabled people, too. That is starting to roll off the Assembly line, to use a pun, in Northern Ireland. Does the hon. Lady feel that the Government might take that as an example of how legislation could be introduced and delivered, in conjunction with local councils and other responsible bodies, to ensure disabled access for those who are wheelchair bound or visually disabled, not just to public transport—bus and rail—but to taxis as well?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because he gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to some of the public transport companies that have worked hard to make real strides forward on this issue. All those examples show that it can be done if there is a will for it to be done. It is up to all of us here in the Chamber to ensure that we push as hard as we can to make this happen.
Seat belts on buses are not routinely provided for wheelchair users. I have been sent some absolutely appalling stories of the indignity that people suffer when the bus drives off too fast and their wheelchair is not properly secured. Blind people have told me of their particular difficulties in identifying which bus is arriving, and knowing when to get off. Those issues could be rectified by introducing talking buses, by introducing seat belts, by introducing more space for buggies and wheelchairs, and training for drivers.
My hon. Friend has made an incredibly compelling case. May I commend to her the campaign of Guide Dogs Cymru, “Walk a Mile in My Shoes”, which I had the pleasure of taking part in last week with councillors and Assembly Members? She was talking about a joined-up approach, and that event brought home to me the difficulties experienced by people with sight loss and other disabilities negotiating city centres and getting to the bus or train station in the first place, let alone dealing with announcements and so on.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. Guide Dogs for the Blind was one of the most helpful organisations when I was preparing for today’s debate. I am sure that the Minister will want to consult it further about some of the difficulties my hon. Friend mentioned.
Almost half of all bus operator revenue comes from public funding. I want to see the Government putting serious pressure on companies in receipt of that public subsidy to ensure that the changes that I am outlining today happen. We not only can use our procurement power to make this happen, but we must and should do so, and make it happen quickly. What is so strikingly clear is that laws and training are essential, but alone they are not enough to solve the problem.
Several years ago I had the privilege to work for the former Member for Walthamstow, Neil Gerrard, an inspirational MP who, among many other things, while I worked for him brought into law the Private Hire Vehicle (Carriage of Guide Dogs etc.) Act 2002. It closed a loophole in the law under which black cabs had to carry guide dogs but private hire vehicles did not. It was symbolically important and particularly important to blind people, who obviously rely more on private hire vehicles than any other form of transport, but Guide Dogs for the Blind tells me that, since then, the situation has not got much better because the Act has not been enforced. That underlines how enforcement is essential if we are to make progress.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate and on an excellent speech so far. On the subject of guide dogs, will she join me in congratulating my colleague in the London Assembly, Caroline Pidgeon, who has recently run a successful campaign to force Transport for London and the Government to lift the ban on guide dogs for disabled people on the escalators of the tube, docklands light railway and overground railway? That is another part of the whole picture.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning that, making it clear that the issue is cross-party. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which started so much, was passed with cross-party consensus, and it is on that basis that we ought to go forward. All of us ought to play our part in making things happen.
Given that enforcement is so badly needed, I would like to hear a commitment from the Minister that mystery shopping exercises should be part of the franchising agreement on the railways and that he will find a mechanism to impose that condition on companies in receipt of public subsidy. Although feedback and surveys are an important part of any organisation, what is clear from the evidence sent to me by a whole range of organisations is that feedback alone is not enough. Often people’s experiences on public transport are so distressing that they do not want to relive those experiences by having to send in a survey response or make a complaint, so I want the commitment to mystery shopping exercises to be part of our agreements with such companies.
Sixteen years ago, the landmark Disability Discrimination Act was passed in this House with cross-party support, making a promise to people up and down the country that we have simply not fulfilled. We have failed many of those observing in the Chamber, and others up and down the country. A full 13 years after the regulations that breathed life into the Act came into force, it is nothing short of appalling that the situation is not better than it is. There are 12 million people with disabilities in the UK and, as we all live longer, that number is increasing. There is not only a moral imperative to take urgent action, but a social and economic one. Yet, in advance of the debate, I was contacted by Scope, Whizz-Kidz, Transport for All, the National Children’s Bureau, the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, the Association of Train Operating Companies, Passenger Focus, the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign and many others all expressing exactly the same concerns: not only did they say that the situation is not getting better fast enough, but many are concerned that the situation is getting worse and not better.
With cancelled station upgrades, cuts to discretionary travel and ticket office closures, we need a renewed focus on the area, and urgently. That is one reason why I am so deeply concerned that the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee has been abolished. Will the Minister at least commit to setting up a working group, with transport companies and people with disabilities represented, to drive forward the necessary improvements to public transport by the 2020 deadline? Many of the organisations that I mentioned, which are far more expert in the area than I am, have expressed real concerns to me that we will not meet even those most basic standards that we promised to meet 16 years ago. The Government have made it a real priority to get disabled people into work. Setting up a working group would at least send a strong signal that they are committed to that. If they are going to ask people to go to work, they ought to be committed to enabling them to have the means to achieve that.
One of the most shocking things that I have found since my constituents came to see me in Wigan several months ago is that many of us—myself included—live our lives blissfully unaware that such an appalling situation is a daily reality for people up and down the country. I am pleased that so many Members are present today, and that we are using our position in this House to shine a spotlight on that situation. I am concerned, however, about what happens after today. Too often in this place we have a debate, express concerns and make our views known, but nothing happens next. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that any company in receipt of public subsidy will be required to report annually to Parliament on the progress that it makes in the area? The requirement need not be onerous—perhaps an annual letter to the Select Committee on Transport, for example. However brief, it would help to ensure that those of us who have the luxury of ignoring the problem are not allowed to do so.
Finally, I want to tell the Chamber about one of my constituents, Michael. He is 15-years-old; because of illness he is in a wheelchair and has been all his life. He was born alongside the Disability Discrimination Act which gave hope to people in his situation throughout the country. Essentially, if we will not take action to meet by 2020 the commitments made 16 years ago, we are saying to Michael, “You have lived all your lifetime with these problems. By the time that you are 24 years old, you will still struggle to work and to see friends. We will not give you the freedom that you both need and deserve.” We in the House are simply not doing enough to help Michael to live his life.
If we are to resolve the situation, it will require not just action but a shift in our collective mindset. It is not people with disabilities who need to adapt their lives—they have already done their bit. It is the rest of us who need to change our attitudes towards them. In the end, the question is about the sort of society that we want to live in. Do we want to live in the sort of country in which we say to my 15-year-old constituent, Michael, that we have no place for him? That is not the sort of country that I want to see. We should be ashamed, and I hope that all of us, in every part of the House, will make the issue a long overdue priority.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on a compelling and powerful speech, even if I did not quite agree with everything that she said—but such is life.
I do not wish to pre-empt my ten-minute rule Bill next Tuesday, which I recommend to everyone, but I have a few preliminary comments. All in the Chamber know how much the concessionary fares are valued by our constituents, even if we tend to argue about them at election time. One particular imbalance, however, needs to be addressed. Able-bodied pensioners who can use the buses get the concessionary fare, but disabled pensioners who cannot use the buses and have to rely on dial-a-ride services, demand-responsive services or other community transport must pay their own way. That seems to me to be a glaring imbalance, which no doubt runs contrary to the spirit of the legislation when introduced by the Labour party—none the less, an imbalance.
I understand that certain councils choose to provide free transport for the disabled, but not every council does. With the increasing budgetary pressures, I fear that fewer and fewer will. The imbalance seems not only unfair but contrary to the spirit of equality and of human dignity. However, I realise that a spending commitment would be involved, which is no doubt frowned upon. To many of the pensioners who contact me and say, “I don’t need the card; I am wealthy enough to pay myself,” I make the point that people can always pay their own way—no one is forcing them to have a card. Equally, however, my constituents in Blackpool do not deserve to be treated differently from my constituents in Wyre. Everyone should have the same right to free transport and free travel, and any hon. Member who wants to support my Bill, may add their name after the debate.
One of the great honours of being an MP is the opportunity to chair the all-party group on young disabled people. Its secretariat is wonderfully provided by the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign. I am not a great fan of the all-party group system as a whole because too many strike me as unnecessary vanity projects, or an excuse to visit obscure countries that I have never heard of. However, when I was approached, I said that I would be the chairman on one condition—that the group is meaningful. I wanted outcomes, processes and reports. I did not want to sit around just talking about the problems; I wanted to hear what we could do about them. That is certainly what I got.
Report No. 1 of the “Inclusion Now” series is called “End of the Line”. Leaving aside the fact that that was also the title of the Conservative party’s report on coastal towns when in opposition and that that is now in the Government’s bottom drawer, I welcome it because it explains what happens to many disabled people. They may want to get off at a station, but when they arrive no one is there to help them, and they may go to the end of the line, which is often many stations away, because no one will help them to get off.
The report was followed by a public hearing of the all-party group to which we invited numerous transport providers. At the start of the meeting, I said that I did not want negativity, and to hear just the bad. As the hon. Member for Wigan said, we have made strides, and if we tell train, bus and taxi companies only what they are doing wrong, they will not be encouraged to fix what is wrong.
Some dreadful cases came to light. Buses pulled away sharply with wheelchairs going everywhere, and passengers with imbalance issues were sent flying. The assisted passenger registration service limits people’s spontaneity because they must give 24 hours’ notice. If I had to give 24 hours’ notice of where I wanted to go, I am not sure that I could live my life as it is.
The hon. Lady referred to accessibility issues at stations. I know that many of the buildings are old—they have been around for a long time—but with better creativity and a bit of thought, I am sure that solutions could be found. Perhaps the most controversial issue was staff awareness and individual members of staff who did not meet the standards expected by their own company. That is a difficult issue. Many people think that such members of staff just need more training. I take a slightly more libertarian view, because we cannot control what occurs in people’s minds. I would love to make them all think as they should think, but that cannot happen. However, every disabled person who suffers should have the confidence to enter the complaints process knowing that they will be listened to, and knowing that they will not be dismissed.
We cannot have passengers being left on trains, and we cannot have staff members ignoring them at stations. We cannot have that attitude, but we must recognise that there is a problem because of the age of many of our trains, buses and so on. I often travel by train into Manchester from Preston on what is essentially a bus on wheels. I suspect that it is older than me. It is unrealistic to expect it to have all the knobs and flashing buttons that a modern train might have to enable passengers to draw attention to the fact that a disabled passenger may be trying to get off. Such technology might ease the problems for staff also.
I pay tribute to National Express, which does an excellent job in providing for disabled people. There are issues about the Government’s funding of coach services that might threaten some of the subsidies, but I had better not go there. However, I have asked National Express why it does not introduce a 50% reduction card. If it has so many disabled passengers, I am sure it will keep them if it introduces a card under its own steam.
The hon. Lady was critical of the abolition of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, but I do not share that criticism. We are having a quango cull, with many worthy bodies disappearing, but Equality 2025, which is based at the Home Office, will absorb its responsibilities, and a wider equality framework may be more effective at achieving the goals that she wants.
I do not want negativity, so I shall mention a success from the Trailblazer campaign. Carrie-Ann Fleming, who lives in Kendal, often had to wait an hour at a bus stop for the right disabled-access bus to come along. She thought that that was not good enough, so she launched a campaign and fought really hard. For once, a local council listened to someone complaining about something. That rarely happens, but it did in this case, and the council will alter the timetables to ensure that she can get on a bus without having to wait an hour.
I will close with a plea for human dignity. Some 47% of disabled people experience some form of abuse on public transport, according to Alice Maynard of Scope. She is no relation; I do not know which of us is more relieved about that. Even I have experienced abuse. I take a bus to the station every morning on my way here. At 7 am, I am often a bit groggy and a bit woolly-headed, and I do not always keep my balance when the driver puts his foot down and roars off from the bus stop. I may go flying, and on one occasion I crashed into a business lady who was not very happy about that. I apologised, and explained that my balance is by no means perfect, and that I struggle on buses. She said that I should not be on a bus if I cannot stand up straight. I just said, “I beg your pardon?” I could not believe it, because I have as much right as she does to be on the bus. It is not called able-body transport; it is called public transport. That means that we should all be able to use it, not just the able-bodied.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on the way she introduced this important subject. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). I have spoken about the issue in several debates, and I am grateful for the opportunity to make a few further points.
The starting point must be that measures to make it easier for disabled people to use mainstream public transport are simply part of a wider objective of ensuring equality for disabled people in society overall. Public transport should be accessible and affordable, so that disabled people can travel when and where they like. That is a basic principle of equality and human rights, and it underlines all that we should be doing in this area. I know that many hon. Members want to speak, so I shall make only a few comments.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan said, the percentage of the population with a disability is substantial, and the figures for Scotland are even higher than those for the United Kingdom. It is estimated that about 20% of the population of Scotland have a disability. At some stage, almost all of us in the Chamber will have a disability, which shows the scale of the issue. People with mobility issues make around one third fewer trips than those without such difficulties. Disabled people are disproportionately dependent on public transport, and 60% have no car in the household, compared with 27% in the general population. In March 2009, only 53% of licensed taxis in Britain were wheelchair accessible, and in 2009-10, 39% of buses in Great Britain did not meet the accessibility requirements in disability discrimination legislation.
I am pleased to say that in my constituency the situation is considerably better. Every taxi, but not private hire cars, in Edinburgh must be wheelchair accessible. Two bus companies serve Edinburgh, and 100% of the buses operated by Lothian Buses, which is Britain’s largest publicly owned bus company, are accessible, as are 85% to 90% of the buses operated by First Group, to be fair. That illustrates the fact that we can make a difference and that changes can be made. It is a matter of political will, as well as legislation and regulations.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) for securing the debate. Before coming to the House, I spent 30 years working in the area of special needs and disabilities, and my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) is right to say that planning sits at the centre of those issues. If we put the needs of disabled people at the centre of our planning, whether for a leisure centre, a system, a school, a college or a train, we will get it right for those disabled people, but also for everybody else—that comes from 30 years’ experience.
Absolutely. I intended to make that point later, but I shall deal with it now. It is essential that regulations are tightened and that funding is provided. The wonderful phrase “joined-up government” needs to apply in this area because there are many examples of simple things that could be done to improve access for disabled people. There are also examples of where the consequences of a minor local policy or local works were not thought through and had a detrimental effect on access for disabled people. I believe it would be good to retain the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, because whatever support is provided in-house by the Department for Transport, it will not have the same voice as an independent body that speaks for its users. I shall not go into that in detail, but we shall see what the Government have to say on the matter.
A lack of joined-up thinking can make a difference. For example, I have seen trains that have good accessibility, such as spaces for disabled people and a ramp that is operated either manually or automatically, so that when the train arrives at a station, people can leave it easily. However, there may be temporary works at the station—perhaps a barrier or building work has been set up, or a load of bricks has appeared at the end of the ramp—and people cannot get off. That point is not only about accessibility for people in wheelchairs; accessibility can be difficult for all sorts of people because, to put it bluntly, not enough thinking has been done on how to join up different aspects of a service.
I will refer again to Edinburgh, where 100% of Lothian Buses are now accessible to disabled people. A few years ago, a number of buses were introduced with an increased number of spaces for wheelchairs. However, there were a number of complaints, particularly from pensioner groups, because the buses would drive off quickly and people would lose their balance and fall over. The issue was solved simply by installing more rails and grips for people to hold on to once on the bus—a common-sense approach that was not thought of at the time, but which, due to consultation with local people, was resolved quickly. That is an example of the need for simple, joined-up government, as well as regulations and spending, and it is why the voice of disabled people is particularly important. There is no better way to understand where services or adaptations are needed than talking to those who use them.
I have two final points to make. First, the campaign for talking buses is an eminently sensible proposal that seeks the mandatory installation of audio and visual announcements on all new buses. The cost would be small compared with the overall cost of new buses, and that provision could be attained by amending the Public Service Vehicles Accessibility Regulations 2000. As I understand it, the Department for Transport currently does not intend to legislate on that, but I hope that the Government will change their position. Such a measure would make great common sense and be useful to all passengers, not just those with issues of accessibility.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) for securing this important debate. Is my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) aware that in many countries campaigns such as that for talking buses, run by Guide Dogs for the Blind, are commonplace? When I worked in Japan more than 20 years ago, talking buses were the norm and were not seen as unusual. I do not know when that began, but it is imperative that such a system is introduced in this country as soon as possible. If that is not carried out voluntarily by bus companies in receipt of public funding, strong pressure should be put on them.
My hon. Friend makes a good point; I have been on buses with that facility in other parts of Europe. If regulations are not changed, the speed with which that facility spreads through the bus network will be so slow that it will take 10, 20 or 30 years for a reasonable number of buses to be equipped, if it happens at all.
Just before the previous intervention, the hon. Gentleman touched on the point that I wish to raise. A lot of the interventions that we have mentioned—not all of them, but those such as talking buses and having more grab rails—would benefit everybody. For too long, and in so many ways, we have accepted a design that is no good for either disabled or non-disabled people. The principles of inclusive design should help everybody, and we should encourage that as well as those things that specifically help some groups of disabled people.
Indeed. I do not want to turn this into a debate about the advantages of publicly owned bus companies, although I am sure some hon. Members would like me to do so. However, Lothian Buses is an example of a company that, because of its nature, has the advantage of being close to local needs. The newer double-decker buses are longer and provide more space for buggies, pushchairs and wheelchair access. They are gradually introducing audio and visual announcements. It can be done; it is about making a choice and taking a decision on what is needed. I suspect that legislation on public transport might allow local authorities to specify regulations on improving local access more clearly—perhaps that point is for another day.
My final point is to emphasise the need for a joined-up approach. We will not get every bus and train in the country fully accessible overnight—it takes time to make such things happen. People on train journeys frequently use more than one operator. They may get on a train that is accessible, but change en route to a service that is entirely inaccessible. They may not have realised that and assumed, or even inquired and been assured, that the next train would be accessible. However, if it is not, they will be stuck on a station, perhaps without assistance, and will have difficulty in completing their journey. A bit more thinking and a more joined-up approach would improve such situations, although I accept that that cannot be done overnight in every part of the country.
That takes us back to the issue of equality. Every passenger, whatever their position, should have the right to start and complete their journey without unreasonable obstruction or a lack of facilities that prevents them from doing so. In spite of the work carried out by the previous Government, which I hope will be continued by this Government, the issue needs to be pushed up the agenda more often. Thinking and regulation need to change, or else, despite all the improvements, it will be many decades before we can say that we have a fully accessible transport service in this country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) for securing the debate and for her passionate advocacy of a noble cause.
My hon. Friend is right: how we support and care for the blind, the partially sighted and the disabled in our communities is the hallmark of a civilised society. I pay tribute to many friends from over many years, including those I represent in my constituency of Erdington, who have battled against adversity, often in the most extreme circumstances. Their approach to life was captured by one sufferer of multiple sclerosis from Castle Vale who has been confined to a wheelchair for many years, but said, “I’m disabled, but I’m proud of being disabled.” Disabled people do not want our pity; they want to play a full part in society. They expect us to discharge our moral duty to them, and for those with responsibility to comply with obligations in the law.
My hon. Friend was right to say that there was all-party consensus on some of the landmark changes over the past 20 years, including the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. However, if that is the hallmark of a civilised society, by that test and under successive Governments, our society has sadly too often failed the disabled. Having said that, this Government are moving in the wrong direction.
Today, we rightly focus on transport, and the problems with it are set out in the excellent Trailblazers report. That report includes the personal experiences of an admirable woman, Jagdeep Kaur Sehmbi—Jagz, to her friends—who is here today. She has undertaken tremendous work on behalf of those who are wheelchair bound and the disabled more generally, and she has demonstrated just what the problem is. Let me quote just two paragraphs from what she says in the report. On the issue of trains, she says:
“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.”
On the issue of buses, she says:
“Once the driver didn’t drive up to the pavement, not because he couldn’t, but because it was easier for him to drive off after the other passengers had got on, so I had to get off in the road, which meant the ramp was very steep and then I had to find a place to get up onto the pavement.”
Jagz has not been deterred from continuing to travel, but it is clear from my experience that many who have such bitter experiences give up and stay at home, just when they want to play a full part in society.
The report goes on to detail its findings, and I want to refer briefly to four. First, on transport, the disabled end up having less choice and paying more. Secondly, the young disabled, in particular, feel very much that they are second-class citizens. Thirdly, disabled people cannot always access the first taxi, train or bus to come along. As a result, one disabled person told me, “I felt humiliated about being there on the pavement. Everyone else could get on board, but I couldn’t.” Fourthly, the assisted passenger registration scheme demands 24 hours’ notice, which in turn restricts spontaneity and independence. It also fails to provide a service that passengers can count on, which again is evidenced by Jagz’s experience.
Of course, there is an obligation on the companies that provide those services, and I will come to one such company in a moment. Crucially, however, the Government must also act—not only on the framework of regulation, but where there is evidence that companies are not discharging their obligations properly.
That leads me to London Midland. The company is proposing—the proposals are on the Secretary of State’s desk right now—to make significant changes, including to the manning of stations. In my constituency, for example, Gravelly Hill station and Erdington station will no longer be manned after 5 o’clock in the evening. Centro has concluded a consultation process, and 18,000 representations have been made, including many from the disabled, objecting to the proposals and seeking to bring home what they would mean.
I have been working with the Royal National Institute of Blind People, Mencap and the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign to bring home what the impact of the proposals will be, and I want to give one example. The formidable Mike Hughes, who is a former police officer, is now blind. He is chair of the west midlands region of the RNIB. He tells a story about how he got off at Sutton Coldfield station at 9.30 one evening. Normally, he immediately rings for a taxi—he has two numbers programmed into his phone—but this time he could not get a signal. He was completely lost, and this is a strong, self-confident individual. Fortunately, the person manning the ticket office, who was about to close it down, helped him out and took him somewhere where he could get a signal and call a taxi. Like Jagz, Mike said, “I wasn’t deterred, Jack, but I know many people like me who’ve had bad experiences and who were deterred from travelling.”
As a result of the growing concern among the disabled, I and the organisations that I mentioned met London Midland in July. With me was the admirable Rebecca Swift, the RNIB’s regional director. The people we met from London Midland were perfectly decent individuals, but I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for saying that they were somewhat uncomprehending of their proposals’ consequences for the disabled. We asked whether the company had consulted. They replied, “We think we did.” We asked how. They said, and I kid thee not, “For example, we put up posters in the stations.” Our next question was, “Posters for the blind and partially sighted?”
We then asked, “Do you think you’re covered by the obligations in the law?” The London Midland people said, “Not sure. We’ll go away and write to you.” They wrote back and said, “We don’t think we are, but in future we will act as if we were and consult properly.” That was in accordance with what we had argued. The problem is that they now propose to go full steam ahead with their proposals; there has been no change. That is simply not good enough, which is why I have written to the Secretary of State asking whether he will intervene. I will say more about that in a moment.
Others have contributed to this important debate. Mencap, for example, has focused on National Express, a company I know very well. It is the biggest long-distance coach company and it is a reputable company. It is also a good employer and it is sensitive to the needs of the communities it serves. However, on 18 routes, the 30% of fares that are concessionary are now at risk because of the changes to the bus service operators grant. I wrote to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), and the reply I got today said:
“All coach operators, including National Express, are free to continue to offer half-price concessionary travel to older and eligible disabled people on a commercial basis.”
That sounds like the legendary saying by Anatole France that the rich and the poor are both free to sleep under Paris bridges at night. National Express is not a charity; it is a good company, but if it is to continue to offer concessionary fares in a significant way, it will require continuing Government support.
What is so admirable about the initiative taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan is that she has ensured that the voice of the blind, the partially sighted and the disabled is properly heard in the debate. I know that the Minister understands some of the issues, and when he responds to what he has heard today I hope he says how the Government intend to proceed. Specifically, London Midland cannot be allowed to blunder on regardless if the disabled are the casualties of its actions. It has not consulted properly, but the organisations representing the disabled have, crucially, offered to work with it on a consultation. That is why I have requested a meeting with the Secretary of State that involves Jagz and the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, the RNIB and Mencap. No fundamental decisions that impact seriously on public transport and, in turn, on the disabled should be taken unless the voice of the disabled has been properly heard.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing the debate and on the excellent way in which she introduced the subject for us. The background is that 60% of people with disabilities have no access to a car and are therefore totally reliant on public transport, whether bus, train, tube or taxi. For them, public transport is of even greater importance than for the rest of the population, and that fundamental point should underlie the debate.
In London, the treatment of passengers with disabilities is probably, although it does not always feel like it, rather better than it is in many other parts of the country. That is not an accident; it has happened because we have a regulated bus service and a unitary transport authority. It has also happened because of the hands-on approach taken by the former Greater London council and, for most of the period since their introduction, by the Greater London authority and the Mayor in pushing the whole disability agenda. The Mayor’s office also has a very effective advisory network that can ensure that it delivers on those issues. Under the previous Mayor, Ken Livingstone, there was an ambitious programme to convert a large number of tube stations to disability access, for which he should be commended. That is the issue that I want to refer to in a local context.
There are 11 stations—Network Rail and underground— that serve my constituency. Of the Network Rail ones, on the North London line, Upper Holloway, Crouch Hill and Canonbury have proper disability access, with ramps and so on, and all are staffed at present. With the stations that are mixed London Underground and Network Rail, there is an utterly ridiculous situation. In the case of Highbury and Islington, for example, the London overground station has disability access—it has recently been refurbished to bring in the East London line—but the underground station does not, so it is impossible to get off an overground train and on to an underground train there, because there is not proper access to enable people to do so.
Finsbury Park is a very old, busy and crowded underground station, and Network Rail, the underground and buses converge there. After a lot of argument, Network Rail has agreed to put in a lift between street level and the mainline platforms, which are well above street level. At the same time, Transport for London has cancelled its plans to put in a lift to the underground platforms underneath. Thus we have a ludicrous situation in which someone in a wheelchair, arriving at Finsbury Park station by the overground, will be able to get from the mainline platforms to the street, but will not be able to get to the underground.
I use that station frequently and every day passengers carry people with wheelchairs, and carry buggies, up and down. The overcrowding and lack of accessibility, and the danger that goes with that, are ridiculous. I hope that the Minister will pass on to his friend the Mayor of London what I have to say to him: please think again about the cancellation of the conversion scheme for a large number of London stations. It is making the lives of many people a misery and something should be done about it. The conversion needs to happen much more widely, across the network.
At other stations there is no access for people with disabilities. Those include Archway, which was also the subject of a plan from Ken Livingstone. Three stations that were due to be converted have had their plans cancelled. Highbury and Islington is the other, and only one station—Tufnell Park—has accessibility to the tube, which is by means of a lift. The situation is ridiculous, but I do not plead that case just for my constituency. I am using it as an example that could be repeated across London; it is not exclusive to my area.
My second general point is about buses and accessibility. After a lot of campaigning, London buses have ramps, and drivers are supposed to stop in such a way that the ramp can be used, enabling wheelchair users to get on the bus. Many drivers are good, reasonable, responsible and decent, and they stop in the proper place, giving people time to get on. That is fine, but unfortunately some drivers do not do it. Buses are often crowded, so often people with a wheelchair have to wait for many buses to go by before they can get on. On a cold winter’s morning, it is no joke when a person in a wheelchair is stuck for a long time simply trying to get on a bus. Space is lacking, because it is taken up with buggies and other things, so while I obviously accept the point that awareness is needed, we need training to go with it.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will dwell on that point for a moment. He referred to gaps in his constituency, but in the past 15 or 20 years there has been movement on the issue of infrastructure across the UK. However, there appears still to be a gap in staff training and awareness of problems. Although there has been some progress on that in the past 10 years, more needs to be done, particularly as some people do not seem to be aware of the crucial issues that affect partially-sighted and disabled people.
I absolutely accept that attitudes, awareness and training have improved, but we need only look at the building we are in to see that we still have very far to go in achieving proper accessibility. I realise that those things are not simple, but nevertheless they must be achieved.
Outside London, where the bus service is largely less regulated, facilities tend to be much worse, and we need a much tougher approach from central Government to ensure that bus companies do as they should, bus stops are appropriate, and buses are sufficiently regulated and regular to enable people to get around. It is no fun to be waiting in a wheelchair in the cold, unable to move around to get warm, as other people who are not in wheelchairs can.
As to Network Rail, the McNulty review stated:
“The Study recommends that the default position for all services on the GB rail network should be DOO”—
“with a second member of train crew only being provided where there is a commercial, technical or other imperative.”
How many times have we seen people trying to get on or off trains at remote or suburban stations at night, when there are no staff on the station or the train—only a driver, who cannot see everything or be everywhere? It is then a great struggle simply to get on or off a train. The McNulty proposal to go to a largely driver-only-operated service means that many suburban and rural services will have no member of staff on them, and in addition there will be unstaffed stations. That is obviously a huge deterrent to anyone who has special needs getting into the station and on to the train. I hope that the Minister will make it clear that he does not want that aspect of the McNulty proposals to be introduced.
Additionally, it is often difficult for people, particularly those with sight difficulties, when there are no staff on the station and only ticket vending machines are used. The machines are often the wrong height or badly placed. Getting a ticket and getting on the train when there are no staff becomes a nightmare. It is unnecessary and wrong to have such arrangements; they are uncivilised and we should put a stop to them.
As many as 10,000 ticket staff across the country could lose their jobs between now and 2013 if McNulty is implemented. Those people are there to help, bring security and support people. Surely we need to give a lot of thought to that, and quickly. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan on obtaining the debate, and I hope that the Minister understands that the role of the Government is to regulate and to ensure that services are provided: because 60% of people with disabilities have no access to a car, public transport is the only option for them. Buses and trains must be accessible, stations must be staffed and the staff must be trained to assist people as necessary. That is the only right and proper thing to do.
It is a privilege to be called to speak in the debate following so many excellent speeches that covered so much ground. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing the debate and setting out the grounds for it so well. So much has been covered that those listening can benefit from a shorter speech by me. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] It is good to have support for that from colleagues.
Of course, many of us take access to public transport for granted. When a train is delayed or we wait a bit for a bus, we all grumble about the inconvenience and how much more arduous the journey is. However, for many people, a delayed train is insignificant compared with the difficulties that they face every time they try to travel. If their bus in London is diverted, they may not simply be able to use the underground instead. If they are lucky enough to be in an underground station with full access for people with physical disabilities, they can travel to only 59 other stations out of the 270. Public transport should be just that—a transport service accessible by all members of the public, no matter what their need.
Disabled people in this country have the right not to be discriminated against or harassed in relation to the use of transport services. A right of access to transport for disabled people was first set out in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, before a broader right to access was enshrined in the Equality Act 2010. However, as many disabled people know only too well and tell me at constituency surgeries and on the streets, that right simply has not become a tangible reality. We desperately need to ensure that what we have put on the statute book is embedded in reality in all local services.
I am sure that we will hear from the Minister about the work that the Government have done, but there is much more to do. Just over 50% of bus stops in London are fully accessible. That represents a huge increase, but is still a very disappointing number, given what is needed. Almost every group that represents people with disabilities has highlighted the problems with the lack of proper transport provision. We have heard several times about Trailblazers. I have met representatives of several disability groups in Cambridge. They raise those problems regularly.
However, we must not concentrate just on people with physical disabilities. There is an idea that someone who is disabled can only be someone in a wheelchair. The issues affecting people in wheelchairs are, of course, very important and have been discussed, but disabilities are not always obvious. I want to highlight some of the particular issues faced by people on the autism spectrum, including those with Asperger’s syndrome. We have a number of such people in Cambridge, which is why I raise the issue. Roughly one child in 100 under the age of 18 has an autism spectrum disorder. The National Autistic Society recently produced a very good video, which I urge hon. Members to watch. It highlights what autistic people face when trying to use public transport. That is particularly hard for them because it is not obvious that they have any issues at all.
We need to consider the issue more broadly than just by thinking about how people get from A to B. We must consider how the problem with access to transport affects people’s overall well-being—their entire lives. If people are discouraged from travelling, what does that do to other areas of their lives? I am referring to their ability to meet people, form friendships, find work and pursue interests—to have all the life experiences that the rest of us take for granted. This is not just about transport; it is about everything else that happens.
Clearly, it is important to pick up a lot of the details. Many very small things could be fixed. That is why I highlighted the work on guide dog access done by Caroline Pidgeon in the London assembly. These are not hard things to do, but they are very important.
There is much still to do that requires a bit more. We need to ensure, for example, that all the Crossrail stations have proper toilet facilities. It is important to remember that something as simple as a toilet facility can represent a huge block for people who are disabled, whether because they are in a wheelchair or because they have one of the range of conditions, such as Crohn’s disease, that have a huge effect—
Indeed. We need not only to build such facilities, but to ensure that they are open, accessible and functional. That is a very important point. There are too many instances in which that is not the case. We have a particular issue in Cambridge, although it does not involve transport. A developer wants to move the disabled toilet up a few floors in a shopping area. Of course, that would make it very hard to get to.
I will not say too much about the concerns over the reductions in relation to discretionary fares. That issue has been highlighted, and I share the concerns expressed. However, as well as the detailed changes and the infrastructure changes, which are extremely important—
I know that my hon. Friend is keen to proceed, but infrastructure is certainly a concern of the Chippenham Accessible Rail Transport group. The group and I have thrown our weight behind Network Rail’s attempts to bring disabled access to Chippenham railway station, but Brunel’s railway is considered a heritage asset. I hope that my hon. Friend and the Minister would agree that when the council consults heritage groups about changes to achieve decent disabled access on our public transport, we need those groups to get behind such proposals and work with the industry to make them a reality—they should not be allowed to become a block to progress.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. From my role as co-chair of the Lib Dem transport group, I know that he campaigns very hard for his railways and I congratulate him on that. We have had a number of conversations on what is a real issue not just for his station, but for a number of others. There is a tendency for some heritage groups and people who work in that area to take the attitude that nothing must ever be changed, which is simply not what we want. Freezing all old buildings as they were in the ’70s is not always the right thing to do. The point of public transport is not to be a beautiful monument, but to enable people to travel, and travel easily. I hope that we see more movement, which is happening with much of the heritage sector, towards the idea that we need to come up with creative solutions that enable things to work, as well as, we hope, to look good and continue that heritage. That is a very important point, and there are a number of other points that one could talk about in relation to infrastructure.
As well as the piecemeal changes and infrastructure changes, which affect disabled people on a personal level, there is the issue of planning a long-distance journey. The sheer lack of information and the complexity involved in finding information make it very hard. If someone wants to travel between two places that they do not regularly travel between and that are a long way apart, rather than within a city, they have to check the accessibility of every service, or they risk taking a tube, a train and a bus and then finding that they cannot take the next bus. It is extremely hard to plan a long-distance journey. There is a huge need to ensure that there is linked-up availability of information, whether that is available online or in other ways—different people want to use different methods—so that people know that their entire route is accessible and they will not end up at the end of the line with the problems that have been identified.
This has been a very useful debate and it has been good to see mostly cross-party consensus on what we need to do. I look forward to the Minister explaining what we will be doing to deliver on the hopes and aspirations that we all have. In some ways, the issue is simple: we need to ensure that the transport service that we provide as a nation is fit for everyone. I look forward to hearing how that will be achieved.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, particularly as this is my first time speaking from the Front Bench. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing the debate. As ever, she spoke with great passion on behalf of those in society whose voices are too often unheard or ignored. She painted a very clear picture of the difficulties, indignities and anxieties that disabled people face in trying to travel on public transport and feel safe. It is clear from the number of people here today to listen to the debate and from the number of hon. Members from every part of the UK who have participated that there is a collective, cross-party will to tackle that inequality.
The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) also spoke with passion, and this place is richer for his being here and speaking with the real understanding that comes from personal experience. Among the many issues that he raised, what struck me was the importance of changing attitudes. That is difficult and we cannot legislate for it, but I want to hear from the Minister what the Government are doing to ensure that staff are aware of and trained to respond to the needs of disabled passengers, so that they do not face the same bitter experiences that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) described, which he had heard about from his constituents.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) made important points about the practical steps that can be taken to improve accessibility and rightly pointed out that this is about not just buses, trams and trains, but airports and taxis. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) reminded us that 60% of disabled people have no access to a car and spelled out both the progress made and the challenges that remain here in London. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) rightly highlighted the needs of people with hidden disabilities, such as autism or learning difficulties.
We would all agree that good public transport is vital to disabled people and their families. It provides access to education, employment, health care, sports, leisure and volunteering opportunities. It enables disabled people to live independent lives. It helps to combat social isolation. Using public transport empowers disabled people, allowing them to develop self-confidence and skills.
The previous Labour Government made huge strides forward in improving public transport, including by making it more accessible for disabled people. However, there is clearly more to do. As we have heard today, disabled people still cannot access the services that many of us take for granted, but during the 13 years of Labour government the UK saw spending on rail that was almost two and a half times higher than we inherited. The creation of Network Rail brought significant modernisation of lines and stations, and a programme of replacing the ageing train fleet began, with 4,800 new accessible train carriages built since 1999.
Labour also significantly increased the support for local transport services, with investment more than doubling on our watch, including improvements here in London to buses and the tube, as we have already heard. Local bus services saw investment rise by almost 300%, and across the country bus fleets were modernised, often incorporating features to make them more accessible.
The Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations 1998 and the Public Service Vehicle Accessibility Regulations 2000 made a number of changes to make using public transport easier and safer for disabled people. The majority of buses now have handrails and wheelchair spaces. All new tram and train carriages must be accessible, and there is a requirement for audio-visual systems—vital improvements for disabled people, but benefiting everyone else, too.
Parents with pushchairs find it easier to get on a bus because it has a low floor and a space for the pram. They no longer have to struggle to fold a buggy while holding a toddler and bags of shopping; I speak from experience. Visitors feel more confident in using the train and tram because there is a display showing where they are and what the final destination is. I cannot resist an example from my own city. It is reassuring to hear Wendy Smith, the voice of Nottingham’s tram, tell someone what the next stop is when it is dark outside or pouring with rain, or when the tram is crowded.
In 2005, the Department for Transport began trials of on-board audio and visual passenger information systems, with a view to amending the 2000 regulations to make such equipment mandatory if the trials prove successful. We need to ensure that that research progresses, and I ask the Minister to set out clearly what his Department is doing to extend such provision across the bus network. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan said, under the 1998 regulations, all trams and trains must be fully accessible by 1 January 2020. What is the Department doing to ensure that train companies meet that deadline?
Unfortunately, the progress achieved under Labour is now under threat as a result of this Government’s reckless deficit reduction plans. We recognise that transport spending needs to be reduced, even though that means making difficult and unpopular decisions, but the Government are going too far and too fast, with serious consequences. Funding for local transport will be reduced by 26% by 2015—over a quarter of the budget gone. With ring-fencing removed and local authorities under pressure, transport spending could even be lower. Worryingly, the Financial Times reported today that Campaign for Better Transport has uncovered the fact that English regions have already lost more than 1,000 bus services—over a fifth of all those supported by local authority funding. Funding for the concessionary fare scheme has already been cut by £223 million, and the bus service operators’ grant will be cut by £254 million by 2013.
Overall, the Government are taking away half a billion pounds from local transport funding, causing unaffordable fare rises and the closure of routes, which will hit everyone in our communities. Disabled people, who are often on low incomes and especially reliant on public transport, will be hit even harder. The scheme that provides half-price coach travel will be wiped out a stroke at the end of this month, putting long-distance travel out of reach for many pensioners and disabled people, and threatening some routes.
In many areas, school transport, which is particularly important for disabled children and young people, is being cut or removed, hitting family budgets and excluding disabled youngsters from after-school activities such as sports, drama and music. That comes on top of the removal of education maintenance allowance and a threefold hike in tuition fees. No wonder so many young people feel that they are being priced out of opportunity.
Quite rightly, many hon. Members have focused on the need for physical changes to public transport vehicles to make them more accessible to disabled people, but such changes will simply be irrelevant if the services that people need are not running, or if disabled people cannot afford to travel on them. Families up and down the country, including those of the disabled, face a cost-of-living crisis. Household bills are going up as a result of rising prices, wages are stagnant for those in work and many people face unemployment, including nearly 1 million young people, as today’s figures show. They have to rely on benefits, which are not keeping pace with inflation. How on earth will they cope with the 28% increase in rail fares planned for the next three years?
Disabled people face the additional worry that scrapping disability living allowance and replacing it with the personal independence payment might mean that they lose the help that they have been receiving with the extra costs of mobility. That fear is particularly acute for disabled people in residential care, including young people living in residential schools and colleges. As it stands, the Welfare Reform Bill will remove the mobility component of PIP from those young people, even though there is no evidence of the double funding that the Government claim. What discussions has the Minister had with his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions about their internal review of those proposals? Will he update us on their progress?
Disabled people already face barriers to their inclusion and participation in society. The Government should be on their side, breaking down those barriers, not building them even higher. How will the Minister do that? What assessment has his Department made of the impact on disabled people’s access to public transport, particularly that of young disabled people, of his 26% local transport funding cut? Will his Government’s decision to increase rail fares by 3% above inflation for the next three years have a disproportionate impact on disabled people? If so, how will he militate against it? Has he assessed how the loss of ticket-office staff will affect disabled passengers and what are his conclusions?
As the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee goes up in smoke as part of the bonfire of the quangos, how will the Minister ensure that disabled people, including young disabled people, are properly consulted on decisions that can have a profound impact on their lives? As we have heard today, disabled access to public transport is an issue in constituencies across the country. He needs to explain why disabled people are being asked to bear the brunt of his Department’s spending cuts.
As always, it is a pleasure and honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. May I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), not only for the work that she has done today, but for her career at the Children’s Society and Centrepoint? She has been a stalwart of the disability lobby for many years, and I am sure that she will be here for many years to come.
It was a pleasure listening to the debate. It is a shame that some colleagues have not stayed. There is a problem with this Chamber sometimes; people say their bit and then disappear, which I think is wrong, no matter which side of the House they are from. The debate was going well until the brand new shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), stood up. I welcome her to her post. Perhaps in future she will listen to the debate a little bit more, rather than read a prepared speech, which was a party political rant. The issue is not party political, and we had agreed before the debate started that the previous Government had done brilliantly when they were in power. Previous Governments have tried hard. We were left with a difficult economic situation. One of reasons why the previous Government had not done more was that it was difficult and expensive to do so. If we all admitted that, we would get a proper debate in the future.
I apologise to the hon. Member for Wigan. I am not the Minister responsible for the portfolio; I do roads and shipping. The Minister responsible is away on other ministerial business, and in my response I will not be able to answer directly many questions that have been raised by hon. Members today. Each individual will be written to by the Minister responsible and the officials.
I am grateful to the Minister for stepping in at short notice to cover his colleague’s brief. Will he take a request back to his colleague to meet me and a small number of representatives from some of the campaigns that I have mentioned to put to his colleague directly some of our concerns and proposals? I am concerned that the issue could get lost as part of a wider Government agenda.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. One of the things in the many notes that were being passed back and forth here was that that would take place and that I would put my colleague on the spot, because the hon. Lady asked for a working group. Yes, we will have a working group while other proposals go forward. That is certainly important.
In my constituency—we are all constituency MPs at heart—I have raised such issues to my own station, where the lift is out of operation. The station is managed by London Midland. I have had detailed and quite strong conversations before I became a Minister, and certainly since.
There is often no sense as to why certain things happen. A profoundly deaf and blind constituent of mine had long been campaigning for a suitable bus for a disabled person to stop in my town centre, and it is there and has happened, which is great. However, the stop is next to a river and the railings have been taken down. Probably no one would believe that, but imagine someone who is blind, like my constituent, getting off the bus where the railings have been taken away and there is a river. Although it is not deep, we know what the problems would be. What was the logic of that? Where were the brain cells when that decision was made? Who knows what engineer decided to do that, but, as a constituency MP, I shall find out.
The points that have been raised today cross a spectrum of disabilities. Very often we talk about those who are wheelchair bound. The problem is that there are a plethora of different types of wheelchair. A lovely young man called Jack asked if he could do his work experience with me in the House of Commons—this story relates to what the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) said about the state of the Palace and its lack of accessibility. I said yes to the work experience and a risk assessment and an access assessment were carried out. The answer was then no, because they could not accommodate the size of Jack’s wheelchair. Well, in the end we did. It was a long-drawn-out route around the Palace, as I was in Norman Shaw at the time, but we did it. So often, we are told why we cannot do something instead of how we can do something.
Jack and one of my closest friends who sustained some of the worst injuries in the London bombings and survived spoke to me about the matter. They said, “Don’t keep wrapping us up in cotton wool. We’ll tell you how we can do things. We’ll tell you how we can get there, rather than you telling us.” That is why working groups and the different lobby groups are so important.
Interestingly, when it comes to access into buildings, I was told that we should ask disabled people how much access they need because we are paying through the nose—Jack’s words not mine—for the works. A whole industry has grown up around access into buildings for disabled people. Actually, the whole matter could be dealt with much more simply and easily.
Why on earth would they want to put the toilets two floors up in Cambridge? I know exactly where the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) is talking about because my daughter is studying at the Anglia Ruskin college in Cambridge and has a Saturday job in the place mentioned. The question that we must ask, as constituency MPs and Ministers, is why. Tell me the reason why that has happened and why we are in that position? As I mentioned earlier, I will pass on any question that I cannot answer this afternoon to my colleague who will then respond in writing.
All front-line rail staff are supposed to be trained, but will it make any difference if they do not have the will, inclination or empathy to help? One thing that we can all do is to say to young people, “Let us be your voice.” That is what we are here for. They do not want to fill in survey forms; they have had enough of that. I say, “Just give us a little whisper and tell us on what train or on what bus a member of staff was rude to you or did not do what they should have done.” It is amazing, colleagues, what a letter or a size 10 boot from an MP can do to energise employers to look at what their staff are doing.
When the Minister argues that we should offer to be the voice of some of these people, I assume that he would also support the various parliament-type organisations that enable disabled people to be their own voices and to represent themselves much more strongly.
Such organisations do a fantastic job, but we need to ensure that there is access to this place. The all-party parliamentary groups, of which my hon. Friend is a member—I was chairman of several all party groups when I was a Back Bencher—are about access. They are not just talking shops. They are there to say that people have the right to come forward.
It is a requirement of rail employers to ensure that their front-line staff have the right sort of training.
I thank the Minister for giving way; he has been generous with his time. I am interested in his point about writing letters. If I forward a letter to him from Disability Action in Islington concerning the cancellation of the step-free access programme to the London underground, I am sure that he will be straight on the phone to Boris Johnson who will make sure that these programmes are reinstated. Have I got a deal there? Is that okay?
That is right. The lift cost £25 million. One issue that has been raised is the age of our network. I do not know whether that applies to our buses. Actually, the situation in London has dramatically improved because all buses have disabled access now. Although we have more modern trains, our stations and platforms are a massive issue for all constituency MPs.
I thank the Minister for his constructive response to the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan for a wider discussion to take place and the establishment of a working group. That is welcome indeed. May I just ask him about the specific issue of the changes being proposed by London Midland? Given that the proposals are now on the Secretary of State’s desk, will he facilitate a meeting with the RNIB, Mencap and the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign because it is important that their voices are heard before a final decision is made?
The point that I was going to get to is the urgency of some issues, including the one that the hon. Gentleman has just mentioned. It is the Minister of State who is responsible for that issue. I will put a note on her desk tomorrow asking if that meeting can take place. I am not responsible any further than that, but I will do what I say and anyone who knows me will say that that is the case.
I thank the hon. Member for Wigan, who is relatively new in the House, for giving the Minister a list of the questions that she wants answered; it is ever so helpful. Notes are flying back and forth and I must have 20 notes sitting on my desk here. Clearly, I will not be able to answer all of them in the four minutes that I have left and I am not going to try. I do not wish to have a pop at the hon. Member for Nottingham South. I remember sitting in the same seat as a shadow Health Minister for almost exactly the same amount of time that she has been in the House. It is an honour and a privilege to be in this place whether in government or in opposition. Sometimes it may seem difficult, especially when one thinks of the huge number of civil servants backing the Minister and writing his speeches for him. However, I must say that I have not read the speech that they wrote for me. Well, I read it last night and did not like it. They will get used to me; I am just that way.
Let me stress again that all the points that have been raised are about tone and about people’s rights. I know that we are not allowed to indicate who is in the Public Gallery in Westminster Hall, but we are privileged that people have come here, sometimes in very difficult circumstances, to express their rights and to say, “Why am I getting a bum deal compared with other people?”—I do not know how Hansard will work that one out, but there we are. The situation is fundamentally wrong, but it is not easy to resolve. I hate the word “targets” but we have targets for 2020, which the companies will have to meet. In the hon. Member for Wigan’s constituency, there will be a franchise change in 2013. I am conscious of her question, and the Minister responsible will respond to it. I also need to know what rail operator she refers to. Perhaps she can write to me and let me know. We got rid of guards vans in 2004. If that was a comment, it might have been sarcastic, but it was also manifestly incorrect. There are no guards vans to travel in.
The rail companies operate a taxi service—I do not like it because it is a cop-out for them—and the people to whom the hon. Lady referred should have been offered a taxi for the short distance that we are talking about. Instead of one person waiting to be shuttled to their destination, which is an appalling situation to be in, common sense should have prevailed and a taxi should have been ordered to take all four people to their destination. If the hon. Lady can write to me and tell me the name of the company, it would help. People are out there checking up on these companies. It is a huge rail and bus network, but there are people out there checking out what is going on and whether promises, commitments and franchise agreements are being met.
Instead of being typically British and just putting up with things because that is the way we are, we should perhaps be more like the German transport people whom I met earlier today. They would not put up with this because they have a completely different attitude. They expect a service and they tell people in no uncertain terms where they should be. Let us speak up on behalf of our constituents. Constituents need to complain to their MPs and their MPs should tell us. If that happens, perhaps we can have a service for the 21st century that everyone deserves.