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Use of Powered Wheelchairs (Weight and Age Limit)

Volume 542: debated on Tuesday 20 March 2012

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to increase the 150 kg weight limit for class 3 powered wheelchairs used on a public footway to 200 kg; to remove the lower age limit of 14 years on use of class 3 wheelchairs; and for connected purposes.

My Bill would amend the Road Traffic Act 1988. The amendment would remove the 150 kg weight limit and the lower age limit of 14 years on class 3 wheelchairs. That would in effect modernise the 1988 Act to adapt it to modern technology, enabling severely disabled children, including those under the age of 14, to use high-specification powered wheelchairs on a public footway.

I decided to introduce this Bill after learning of a remarkable campaign by an organisation in my constituency, the brilliantly named Newlife Foundation for Disabled Children. Newlife is a combination of charity, social enterprise and business, which exists to help children with disabilities. Founded by Sheila Brown OBE in 1991 as the Birth Defects Foundation, it has helped around 4,000 UK children and spent over £5.5 million on vital equipment such as wheelchairs and child safety seats. It has invested £11.3 million in medical research and runs a nurse helpline, calls to which grew by 300% last year.

Sadly, what Newlife has discovered over recent years is that wheelchair providers, usually primary care trusts or local authorities, have found a loophole in the current law to avoid having to fund high-specification powered wheelchairs, to both adults and children who need them. It is good news that more children today are surviving illnesses and cancers, but the sad news is that one in three will still go on to have a long-term disability as a result. With that increase in service users, eagle-eyed wheelchair managers are regularly refusing to provide a “sit to stand” wheelchair, or vouchers towards that equipment, for a child in their area, because their directors of risk have become aware of legislation that actually makes providing that equipment illegal, even for free through charities. That is then used as an excuse to save money in their budgets; they do not have to provide the expensive equipment needed. At the same time they prevent charities from providing it for free, at no cost to the taxpayer. PCTs are currently not balancing their books on the backs of the poor; they are balancing their books on the backs of the most severely disabled children, which I am sure the whole House would find abhorrent in a developed country such as ours.

Working with local lawyers in Staffordshire, Newlife's excellent campaign director, Susan Woodward, has established that the legislation that needs amending is the Road Traffic Act, or ROTA. In essence what has happened is that modern technology, which has been used to develop better, more appropriate and enabling wheelchairs, has also caused the equipment to increase in weight since ROTA was enacted. I do not believe for a moment that ROTA intended to discriminate against children getting the wheelchairs that they need. However, time and development of equipment have simply moved on and ROTA has not kept up. My Bill is therefore about modernising ROTA to take account of modern, appropriate and enabling wheelchairs and to end the absurd situation where disabled people’s mobility is impaired further. Modern wheelchairs have simply got heavier with adaptations such as motorised seats, communication equipment, more robust tyres, other aids and oxygen cylinders. Meanwhile, the legislation has stood still.

Under ROTA, wheelchairs are classified in three ways: class 1 manual wheelchairs, class 2 powered wheelchairs weighing not more than 113.4 kg or capable of reaching speeds above 4 mph, and class 3 high-specification powered wheelchairs. It is the conditions relevant to class 3 that cause the problem. ROTA states that class 3 wheelchairs must not be used by a person who is under the age of 14; that, when being used on a footway, the “invalid carriage”—the words of the legislation show how old it is—must not be driven at a speed greater than 4 mph; and that the unladen weight must not exceed 150 kg. Other regulations within ROTA include the means of stopping, lighting, speed indicators, horns, vision and rear view mirrors. Essentially what all that means is that several of the high-specification wheelchairs Newlife and other charities would like to provide have become illegal. That is because they would fail to meet the requirements for age, for weight and for certain wheelchair accessories such as lights, horns and rear view mirrors.

In essence, ROTA categorises very technologically advanced wheelchairs heavier than 150 kg as cars, which can be driven legally only by over-17s who hold a driving licence. Therefore, they cannot be provided to children under 17, as they are too young; but nor can they be provided to over-17s, as very few of the powered wheelchairs have lights, horns, rear view mirrors or a speed indicator. They are not cars; they are wheelchairs. The situation is clearly absurd.

I am aware that the Department for Transport recently undertook a consultation on possible reforms of highway mobility scooters and powered wheelchairs. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), whom I am delighted to see in his place, concluded that no changes should be made regarding speed limits, weight limit or the minimum age for using a class 3 vehicle. In a written statement, he said:

“I do not, at this stage, propose that there should be an alternative to the current arrangements for registering class 3 vehicles”.—[Official Report, 1 March 2012; Vol. 541, c. 44WS.]

He did decide, however, that the maximum weight of class 2 powered wheelchairs should be increased to 150 kg —a move welcomed by many disability charities, including Newlife.

I am not clear why the Department stopped short of amending provisions for class 3 wheelchairs, and only increased the weight of class 2 to match that of class 3. Such an approach is illogical: why have different classes if they contain the same weight? If class 2 has increased to 150 kg, surely it is logical that class 3 should increase by a similar amount. The weight restrictions for class 3 wheelchairs were devised more than 20 years ago, when wheelchairs were still called “invalid carriages” and were primitive compared with the designs available today. Modern designs provide for a “sit to stand or lie” facility and have longer battery life. They also provide for wider, more robust tyres that allow users to travel on difficult, uneven terrain. That is why they are heavier: they can do more things and help disabled people more. Nowadays, it is not the equipment that is holding people back, but outdated legislation.

The legislation does not allow any child under the age of 14 to use any mechanically propelled wheelchair over the weight of 150 kg. That is because it is a prescribed condition of class 3 “invalid carriages” that they are not used by people under the age of 14. However, that provision is now having the perverse effect of preventing severely disabled children under 14 from accessing high-specification wheelchairs, which could be of enormous benefit to them. Young kids with degenerative conditions and very complex postural requirements need these heavier and more sophisticated high-spec chairs to help with lung and other organ function. The age restrictions should therefore be removed to allow younger children to benefit from the use of chairs that accurately reflect their needs.

Of course we need to balance the safety of pedestrians and other road users with the mobility needs of users, but it is clear that the current legislation arbitrarily discriminates against children under 14. Why not choose 13 and a half or 14 and one month? This is a civil servant’s arbitrary measure. A much better basis would be a basic assessment of a child’s ability to use the relevant high-spec wheelchair, rather than an arbitrary age limit.

To conclude, the Road Traffic Act 1988 was written when wheelchairs were an aid to mobility. Today, wheelchairs provide disabled children with an aid to life. Children with the most disabling conditions rely on their wheelchair to meet their therapy and personal care needs, to prevent deterioration in their condition or the experiencing of pain, and to provide access to education and family life. For some children, their wheelchair lengthens their lifespan. The Act therefore discriminates against the children who have the greatest need for this equipment.

We all know in this House that ten-minute rule Bills rarely make it on to the statute book. I am already anticipating the cry from the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) of “House not sitting” when I read out the date for my Second Reading debate. However, I am honoured that both the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes, and the Minister for disabled people, my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), are sat here listening from the Front Bench. I urge them when they leave this Chamber to work together to amend the legislation and use the opportunity to improve the lives of some of the most needy in our society. To disable our disabled community further by legislation is simply nonsensical. We have 21st-century equipment and 1980s law. This is an easy amendment for the Government to make. It will allow charities and statutory services to respond fully to need, instead of having a make-do, lesser alternative. Those are the reasons why we need the Bill, which I commend to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Mr Aidan Burley, Dame Anne Begg, Stephen Gilbert, Keith Vaz, Stephen Lloyd, Jeremy Lefroy, John Glen, Karen Bradley, Priti Patel, David Morris, Christopher Pincher and Mr Robert Buckland present the Bill.

Mr Aidan Burley accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 April 2012 and to be printed (Bill 320).