[Relevant documents: Fifth Report of the Transport Committee, Access to Transport for Disabled People, HC 116, and the Government response, HC 870.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Karen Bradley.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I am pleased to have this opportunity to debate the Select Committee on Transport report, “Access to Transport for Disabled People”, which we published in September last year. The topic was suggested to us by members of the public. It is a vital issue in relation to equality of opportunity for disabled people and their ability to access employment, education and health and social amenities, for example. Without appropriate transport, that is not possible, and people may suffer isolation.
Our report is wide-ranging. It identifies problems such as the availability of information on planning disabled-friendly journeys, the physical accessibility of transport, spaces for wheelchairs on buses and the training of transport staff, and stresses the importance of interdepartmental working.
There are 11.5 million disabled people in the UK, one fifth of whom report difficulty with transport. The number of disabled people will grow as the population ages, and most people will face some type of disability at some time in their lives. We started our inquiry in the aftermath of the successful Olympic and Paralympic games and as the Government published their accessibility action plan, which contained a number of encouraging proposals for improvement. However, a year after the Paralympics, we were concerned that some of its schemes were falling by the wayside.
One of the most valuable parts of the inquiry for me, as a fellow member of the Transport Committee, was the opportunity to travel on public transport in my constituency and learn exactly how difficult it can be. Does the hon. Lady agree that one good thing that came out of it was that the Diamond Bus Company in Redditch went to Disability Action to discuss how things could be improved locally?
The hon. Lady is a very active member of the Transport Committee, and I agree with the point she makes. It is important to experience the problems at first hand in order to understand fully what they are and what the solutions might be.
We were concerned that some of the schemes in the Government’s plan were falling by the wayside. For example, the Department planned to review the 2005 inclusive mobility guidance for pedestrian and transport infrastructure to take account of changes in design and the lessons learned from the transport provided during the Paralympics. The issue is important, as was shown earlier this week when the Committee viewed a film made by Sarah Gayton of the Sea of Change campaign about the problem that shared space presents for many disabled people. It requires urgent attention. Can the Minister tell us when the review of the 2005 provisions will take place?
In relation to rail, the response to our report was encouraging in some respects. The Office of Rail Regulation has now taken over the monitoring and enforcement of train operators’ disabled people’s protection policies. The Government told us that the ORR will raise awareness of existing provisions. One prime candidate for action must be making known more widely the requirement for an operator responsible for an inaccessible station to provide a free accessible taxi for a passenger to the nearest accessible station. I wonder how many people are aware of that right. If a greater number made use of it, train operators might invest more in making stations disabled-friendly. Can the Minister give us any information about how the ORR is progressing with that important work?
We raised the important issue of staff availability at stations, against the background of anticipated ticket office closures and general concerns about possible reductions in staffing on trains. The Government responded that future changes to ticket office opening hours should mean no overall reduction in—and, in some cases, an improvement to—the services provided to disabled passengers. It was good to read that, but we need a clear explanation from the Government of exactly what that means and how it will be carried out. The information from the Department argues that the service provided by staff in future on the station concourse will be an improvement on that offered by those in ticket offices. Will the Minister clarify what that means? Is it really the case that any change in ticket office staff will not reduce the overall level of trained staff at the station? The issue is important, and it is creating a lot of anxiety among travellers, particularly disabled people, but also many other members of the public with safety issues.
We raised concerns in our report about the requirement to book ahead to receive assistance when travelling by train. I was pleased to receive a letter following our inquiry from the Association of Train Operating Companies stating that ATOC would produce clearer guidance for disabled travellers booking assistance. It also stated that in London, ATOC is identifying point-to-point routes where staff are available to provide assistance for disabled people who want to turn up and go, rather than pre-booking help. I welcome that initiative, but I want to know more about it, including how it will work in London and how many routes will be available in that way, so that people need not book ahead. I would also like to know what will happen outside London. Is this a pilot scheme that will start in London and then be extended? I would be pleased if the Minister gave us some more information on that point.
I apologise for being late, Madam Chairman, but the lift was not working, which happens all too frequently in transport. Did the Select Committee take evidence from people who do not book ahead with train companies, but discover that they sometimes get a better service than those who do? My experience is that very often booking ahead does not ensure that help is in place, but a lot of the train companies are much better these days if I just turn up. That suggests that it can be done on an arrive-and-help basis, rather than requiring booking ahead.
My hon. Friend makes some important comments. We received evidence during our inquiry from people who had tried the pre-booking service, some of whom had complaints about it. The points she makes are important in looking ahead to how policy might be developed.
I have mentioned some positive signs, but we need guarantees on other issues relating to rail. In particular, we need guarantees that future rail infrastructure will be designed to provide step-free access from street to train, in order to give more independence to those with physical impairments. Can the Minister give us that commitment? Can he tell us specifically what is planned in that regard for Crossrail and High Speed 2, for example?
The response to our concerns about buses was simply not good enough. I was disappointed that the Department rejected our recommendation that bus and coach drivers should be required to have disability awareness training.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. Like many colleagues, I have been written to by the excellent charity Whizz-Kidz in strong support for the Select Committee’s recommendations in the report. Does she accept that there are examples of good practice within the bus industry? The First bus company in my constituency took part in the “Swap with me” initiative piloted by Sight Concern and the Royal National Institute of Blind People, which involved taking the place of blind people by going blindfolded, as I did in Worcester, to see what it is like to use a bus in those circumstances. Does she commend those examples of good practice and support their extension more widely?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. We did indeed hear from Whizz-Kidz, which gave us valuable evidence. I commend the initiative that he mentioned. It is important for good examples to be given and for local initiative to be used, but what matters is that that initiative and those examples are then widened out across the whole network.
Leamington is home to a Guide Dogs training school. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), I am pleased to have accepted the challenge of travelling on a bus with a blindfold and being guided by a hugely intelligent dog. I recognise that buses without audiovisual systems can make missed hospital appointments, job opportunities and family occasions something of a routine. The costs of social isolation are well known, and helping older and disabled people to get around seems to make great sense.
In Northern Ireland, people who are registered blind or nearly blind get free bus passes. In April 2013, nine out of 10 people who were registered blind or nearly blind expressed concern that there were no announcements on bus routes and requested an audio system. The needs of blind and nearly-blind people are relevant not only to England, but to the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Does the hon. Lady agree that those nine out of 10 people deserve to have audio systems fitted in transport systems across the whole of the United Kingdom?
The hon. Gentleman has made an important point. I will speak specifically about audiovisual systems shortly, reinforcing the point he has raised.
On training, one issue that has been raised with me is whether the content of training is adequate. There is also the issue of whether training takes place. It was disappointing that the Department rejected our recommendation that bus and coach drivers should be required to have disability awareness training. Instead, the Department defended its decision, taken last year, to opt out of the EU requirement for such training. Will the Minister think again about this issue and discuss it with his colleagues?
I have listened with interest to hon. Members’ comments today. They have all referred to practical examples of difficulties that occur because the right facilities are not in place. I joined campaigners from the Royal National Institute of Blind People on a local bus journey in Liverpool. They showed me how important it is to receive information, at the right time, about the numbers of the buses that are operating, the routes being run and, indeed, where the buses have stopped. It was clear that the lack of practical information deters many people from travelling, including people with sight impairments, learning difficulties or mental health problems, and undermines people’s confidence to undertake journeys and lead independent lives. Drivers play an important part in providing information, so it is important that they are given disability awareness training so that they have the confidence to do so. I cannot emphasise too much that training should be adequate, available and compulsory.
Hon. Members have raised the issue of audiovisual systems, which are vital. In May last year, of the 46,300 buses in the UK, only 8,500 were equipped with audiovisual equipment. Most of those are in London.
People who use buses in London soon get to know that audiovisual systems work. It seems odd that the rest of the country does not get to benefit as fully as London does from those systems. It is not just blind and partially sighted people who benefit, but tourists, visitors and people who do not know an area. Especially in rural areas, knowing where a stop is plays an important part in informing people, so that they can make the best use of their bus journey.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for those comments. I have noted a number of instances where facilities that are available on buses in London are sadly lacking in other parts of the country. Considering why that might be the case could take us off in another direction, but he raises another important point, namely that facilities required by people with impairments of some sort are also required by many others. Those facilities make journeys easier and give people more confidence in using public transport, so both his points are extremely relevant.
Given that, is it not disappointing that the Government’s response to the Select Committee’s recommendation was that there was no economic case for audiovisual systems? As my hon. Friend has pointed out, it is not just disabled people but tourists and those who are unfamiliar with a bus route who benefit from the speaking buses that we enjoy here in London.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The report focuses on the needs of disabled people in accessing public transport, but many of its recommendations would make travel better for everybody and are extremely important.
In the report, the Committee called for audiovisual information systems to be phased in on all new buses now and on all buses over a decade. That is a modest objective that would help bus users concerned about missing stops or those who are travelling in unfamiliar areas. As hon. Members have said, it would give all passengers, disabled or not, more confidence to use buses more often. Such equipment is surely essential, yet our very modest proposal was rejected. Will the Minister look at it again? Although implementing it might require consultation with colleagues, our proposal was extremely modest, but extremely important.
Our report also called for fines to be imposed when buses are misleadingly advertised as being accessible but in fact are not. Again, that recommendation was not accepted by the Department.
Many improvements to transport for disabled people are devised and implemented at a local level. I saw an example in Liverpool: I made a journey with a young woman with learning difficulties and was shown a travel training scheme. These are local schemes that aim to support disabled people who might otherwise rely on door-to-door transport. A successful scheme can provide the disabled person with more independence and reduce the cost of door-to-door services for the local authority. Will the Minister offer us an assurance that travel training schemes will be supported by the Government, at least with their initial set-up costs?
I want to raise one more important issue, concerning the ability of disabled people to claim their rights. The Equality Act 2010 is a piece of civil law. In practice, making sure that transport operators comply with Government requirements for equal access to transport has too often required individuals to pursue civil court actions. Disabled users of transport are rarely wealthy enough to pay the legal fees of their solicitors and risk funding those of the transport operator should they lose their case. Most challenges to transport operators under the Equality Act are undertaken as pro bono work by solicitors, who take out insurance to cover the costs if the case is lost. However, the civil justice reforms enacted last year will change that. As a result, cases might not be pursued and transport operators might not believe that breaches will be challenged in court. Is the Minister aware of these concerns, and will he raise them with colleagues in other Departments? Does he have any suggestions for mediation that could prevent legal action?
The list I have given is not exhaustive. I have used the time available to point to the main areas covered in the report, but there are other important issues, including concerns that the change from the disability living allowance to the personal independence payment might deprive many disabled people of transport mobility.
The Transport Committee conducted this inquiry to highlight the importance of transport to disabled people as an equality issue. Departments must work together and with local government, transport operators and campaigners. It is important to remember that improvements that help disabled people help all passengers. The response we have received to our inquiry has confirmed that this is a vital area where much more needs to be done. Will the Minister assure me that he will continue to pursue the issues that the report raises, so that transport barriers that prevent disabled people from participating fully in society can be removed? Doing so will benefit everybody.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) and her Committee on their excellent and valuable report. There are more than 11 million people in Great Britain with a disability, and current circumstances mean that many feel they are treated like second-class passengers. It is evident from the report that the status quo is not acceptable. Disabled people should receive the same service and treatment as others, but the report shows that that is far from the case.
Many of us take for granted access to public transport and we are quick to grumble when we wait half an hour for a bus or four turn up at once, or we have to make a different connection because of a late train, but the reality is that such inconveniences are insignificant compared with the difficulties that disabled people face every time they travel. I congratulate the Committee on a report which brings this situation to the fore.
Personal testimony from disabled people about their access to transport can be harrowing. I think we all remember Baroness Grey-Thompson’s comments in 2012 when she described having to crawl off a train at midnight, despite having warned the operators in advance that she would need assistance from staff. I am aware that that is not an isolated incident.
The charity, Whizz-Kidz, has been mentioned, and provided in its briefing testimonies from young people on its Kidz Board. One says:
“I would like to see drivers of taxis and buses put down the ramp straight away without you having to ask and without argument or being made to feel as though you are a nuisance.”
A testimony in a briefing provided by Leonard Cheshire Disability states:
“Some of the service bus drivers are nice but others let you know that it is a major inconvenience to have a wheelchair on the bus. You have to develop a rhino hide and just insist on your right to travel and…put up with the tutting.”
Given those testimonies, it is disappointing that the Department for Transport exercised an exemption from the EU requirement for bus operators to provide disability awareness training. I hope that that can be revised in March 2014, as evidently increased training is necessary for some staff. It is important that the training includes how to respond positively to those with hidden disabilities, such as problems with speech and mental health difficulties, which is a particular concern of mine. I recognise that many transport staff are more than willing to take all this into account positively and helpfully, but it is vital that best practice is spread across the whole sector.
The issue is not just about staff training. Improvements to infrastructure are necessary. I continue to campaign for disabled access to stations in my constituency—Hedge End is an example—and it is imperative that if a route claims to be accessible, it actually is when the passenger comes to use it. I noted the section of the Committee’s report that refers to lack of consistency. Consistency is key, and action must be taken to ensure that companies no longer let down disabled passengers, but provide them with the service they deserve.
Infrastructure improvements must go further than just the bigger physical challenges, such as level access and ramps, which of course are vital. They also encompass the smaller changes that can make a massive difference to a journey. As hon. Members have said, audiovisual destination and next-stop announcements are important. I share the disappointment of the Chair of the Committee that the DFT has rejected the call to require bus operators to introduce audiovisual systems across the bus network. When I was younger, we had audiovisual systems. They were called bus conductors and, at their best, they were really helpful. We seem to have lost them now, so we must substitute something for them.
I agree with the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association and many other disability charities that audiovisual announcements are vital. Lack of information apparently causes 89% of blind and partially sighted passengers regularly to miss their stop. As the association states, missing a stop is a pain and an inconvenience for most of us, but for a partially sighted or blind person it can cause major difficulties and could be dangerous. It genuinely puzzles me why it is too much to ask that audiovisual systems be introduced gradually over 10 years, as the Committee suggested. They could be introduced as new buses enter the fleet or older ones are refitted. They exist on trains, so why not on buses? Audiovisual systems also have benefits for the wider population, including older people, children and those with mental health difficulties. If buses are more accessible and appealing to use, more people will use them, improving bus company revenue, so it would be win-win all round.
A Department for Work and Pensions survey showed that 37% of disabled respondents found transport accessibility a significant barrier to work. That leads me to the conclusion that improving access to public transport would play a role in reducing Government expenditure, which many desire. Given that, we must ask what wider effect access to transport is having on people’s overall well-being. Transport is more than just getting from one place to another; it is a vital part of everyone’s life, whether getting to work, visiting family and friends, going out for the evening or even getting to a hospital. It is not good enough that for some of us these normal activities are fraught with difficulty.
This has been a useful debate so far and it is good to see mostly cross-party consensus on some of the issues, but in the end, the question is about the sort of society we want to live in and whether everyone should have the same opportunities as everyone else.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Dorries. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mike Thornton) and the Chair of the Select Committee on Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman). I am now a Member of the Committee, but was not when the report was compiled. I hope to be in line with your recommendation to be brief, Ms Dorries, but I want to cover a few points.
I thank the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association and Rhiannon Hughes, Public Affairs and PR Manager of Whizz-Kidz, for their briefings, and the disability groups that gave a presentation to the Committee on Monday night. As the Chair of the Committee said, the Committee’s second recommendation was about shared space. I want to refer specifically to one of the shared spaces shown on the film: Exhibition road in west London. It is situated between the Victoria and Albert museum, Imperial College London and the Royal Albert hall, and is a major thoroughfare for tourists, children and all manner of people.
The shared space is very attractive and its arrival is welcomed by everyone, but particularly by people with young children, people in wheelchairs and people with shopping. However, the film demonstrated graphically that Exhibition road is a race track. We seem to be falling down in the UK in the demarcation between where what was the pavement finishes and where the road starts. The recommendation addresses that, and the Department’s response, which refers to work that has been undertaken to look at that, and says specifically of the guidance to local authorities on the introduction of shared space that
“work…has been halted for the time being, as a consequence of corporate planning and resource constraints.”
My first question for the Minister is: what is the latest on shared space and guidance from the Department to local government?
I next want to refer to recommendation 4 and the submission from the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside and the hon. Member for Eastleigh said, 89% of blind and partially sighted passengers report having missed a stop. The Department’s explanation that there has not been a business case seems flimsy. There is a social need and I suspect that the business case is stronger than that which was accepted by the bus companies. We have talked about inability to get to work, and missed hospital and medical appointments and interviews. That results in a cost on the state and on taxpayers. The business case may seem to be less strong than it is.
The Government’s response mentioned that the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), had written to the bus companies encouraging them to work in partnership with local authorities to see if the uptake of audiovisual systems could be increased voluntarily. My second question for the Minister is: what was the outcome of the letter, the encouragement to bus companies and the discussions with local authorities, and has there been any progress?
I have received a briefing from Whizz-Kidz, which made three recommendations:
“That transport providers treat young disabled people like any other passenger…That disabled people play a key role in auditing and assessing the transport services…That accessible transport is a key focus of the Paralympic Legacy”.
That last point was mentioned by the Chair of the Select Committee. The briefing also referred to three recommendations from the Select Committee report that it particularly supports: for the Department for Transport to involve disability organisations and charities in the prioritisation of transport, for it to provide disability awareness training for staff in the bus and coach industry and for it to develop and publish a methodology on that.
The Whizz-Kidz briefing covers a variety of recommendations, but specifically refers to recommendation 16. The Government’s response said that the
“DfT remains committed to review the use of exemption in a year’s time”.
Both the hon. Member for Eastleigh and the Chair of the Select Committee referred to that. The Government said that the exemption will be reviewed by March 2014, which is only six weeks away. The question, which I am sure the Minister will be able to respond to, is about whether that review is on course and what its outcome has been.
In conclusion, I congratulate the Transport Committee on another excellent report. I have seen many reports over the years, as both Transport Minister and shadow Minister, and this one lived up to all my expectations. I am sure that the Minister, who is known to take a keen interest in these issues, will respond as positively as he can. Having read the Government’s response to the report, I have to say that its tone is not as positive and optimistic as it should be, although I am sure that he can correct that.
I wish you, Ms Dorries, and all hon. Members a very happy new year. Best wishes for 2014! It is a real honour and pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick). He is knowledgeable and passionate about these matters.
I want to participate in today’s debate because I have received a large number of representations from my constituents about access to transport for disabled people, particularly for those suffering from visual impairments. That is not entirely unsurprising. Poverty, deprivation and an ageing population are all factors that contribute to physical disability and some degree of sight loss.
Hartlepool has a higher than average level of deprivation, and some 40% of all households there include a person with a physical disability of some kind. An ever greater proportion of my constituency population is over 65. Some one in six people in Hartlepool are over 65 and by 2030 they will constitute 23% of the town’s population. That means that an extra 7,100 people in Hartlepool will be over the age of 65, and possibly suffering from sight problems, in a little over 15 years’ time.
In those circumstances, a reliable, inclusive and, above all, practical—I have heard that many times already today—public transport system is vital for my constituents and would allow those with physical impairments and disabilities to enjoy a better quality of life. It would also encourage, as the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mike Thornton) said, greater use of bus services, which would make them more viable and be, as he said, a win-win situation.
I have to be blunt, however. Hartlepool does not have a public transport system—not really. It has a private sector monopolistic service, run by Stagecoach. It disregards choice, quality and provision of service and concentrates on profit at the expense of passengers, especially those with disabilities. That is why the company can boast of a 17.1% profit margin in its UK bus operations.
Those are “sector-leading profit margins”, as the company said in its latest annual report, and that is why it can increase its earnings per share and dividends to shareholders this year. It is also why it can abolish evening and Sunday bus services in my constituency. I wrote to Stagecoach on behalf of my constituents on the campaigning matters of audiovisual announcements and better accessibility through the use of low-floor boarding devices and new stock. I was told about Transport for London and the trial of a system on the service 7 route in Perth, but the company’s letter did not even mention Hartlepool.
I was struck by the opening remarks of the Chair of the Transport Committee, who mentioned that we need to have modern buses to provide greater space for wheelchairs. Far too many of the buses used in my constituency are 20 or 30 years old. They need to be modernised and that is not happening.
I do not want to discourage enterprise and rising profits for companies, but when it is done at the expense of a deteriorating service to customers, particularly those with physical disabilities, and without the option for those passengers to move to a more appropriate competitor that can provide a better service, it is clear that competition is not working and something needs to change. In these circumstances, it is important that we have a smarter regulatory system that works in the interests of passengers, particularly those who, for reasons of disability, would find it difficult—if not impossible—to travel by other means in a safe, reliable and affordable way.
I wrote to the Minister’s predecessor at the Department, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), and I was disappointed to receive quite a blunt response:
“At the Guide Dogs Parliamentary Reception in March 2011, I announced we do not intend to legislate to make audio visual systems on buses mandatory.”
I am disappointed at the Government’s response to the Select Committee’s eminently sensible, reasonable and measured recommendations, particularly on bus travel. The Government’s responses are complacent—even dismissive—and are letting down people in my constituency, particularly those at risk of being vulnerable. Without appropriate public transport as the country ages, a growing proportion of my constituency will be left isolated.
The issue is not just about an ageing population, however. Tonight, sunset is at 4.11 pm, well within the working day. Often, people with visual impairment will not be able to go to work, contribute and have a rewarding career because they are frightened that they will be unable to get home; it is dark and they will not know where they are. We are undermining the potential of many hundreds of thousands of people in this country and reducing our economic potential if we do not address that issue, which is why it should be a priority for the Minister.
I cannot understand why the Government are not being smarter and encouraging innovation in the use of technology in this field. Why is the Minister’s Department not pooling together with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to provide seedcorn funding that could utilise big data and technology? That could be through the development of a smartphone app that could plot where a passenger was and inform him or her when the bus was arriving at their bus stop. Can we not have smarter street furniture that would allow that to happen?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I want to see these ideas developed. It would be a good demonstration of what private enterprise working with Government can achieve. It would help visually impaired people, as well as stimulate British enterprise and innovation into providing a product that could generate revenue here and around the world. I hope that the Minister will look at the issue closely and talk to his colleagues in Government to see what can be done.
I will embarrass the Minister by saying that he is a good man, who cares about transport and knows about it, as my hon. Friend the Select Committee Chair does. I know he has family in Hartlepool, so he knows better than most Ministers how an inclusive public transport system can benefit my constituency. I hope that he takes on board the concerns of my constituents and the sensible and measured recommendations made by the Select Committee. I hope that he ensures that people suffering from sight impairment in my constituency and elsewhere can benefit.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I am glad to have the opportunity to take part in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) and other hon. Members who have spoken in this debate on the powerful points they have made in support of the case for better access to transport for disabled people.
First, I take up the point made by my hon. Friends about the need for more and better audiovisual announcements on buses. I fully support the Committee’s recommendation that the Department for Transport should require all new buses to have audiovisual systems and for that to be phased in over no longer than 10 years—hopefully, quicker than that. Of course, that issue applies not just to England, but throughout Great Britain and perhaps Northern Ireland. It is certainly relevant to my constituency, and I hope that the Government will reconsider their refusal to make the provision mandatory.
The argument that there is no business case for the mandatory introduction of audiovisual systems—that a mandatory rule would place new financial obligations on operators in a difficult economic climate—is one that I do not think we can accept. First, no one can say that a transitional period of perhaps up to 10 years just for new buses will in any sense place excessive burdens on operators, unless the Government think that there will be a bad economic climate for the next 10 years; that is another issue.
Phasing such a system in will surely not be impossible for the vast majority of operators. We do not accept that buses can go around without having destination boards or numbers; it should be as automatic that new buses should have audiovisual information in them. I do not see that there is a case against that.
As many hon. Members have said, the provision of audiovisual information benefits not just passengers with visual or hearing impairments; the public as a whole benefit from such provision. We see that in London when we travel on buses. I represent another city that has many tourists. We can see how it benefits tourists, and others who are not used to the city, to have that information available. It is obvious to me that that should be mandatory. Another reason why it is important is that otherwise we will be penalising the operators that are prepared to put the facility in place.
I am fortunate, in that Edinburgh has Britain’s largest municipally owned bus company, Lothian Buses, which, like many operators in London, is increasingly providing audiovisual announcements on buses. On five routes, they are provided as a matter of course, and they will be added to other routes in the summer.
I am glad to say that the new Edinburgh tram system will be fully operational within a few months, and audiovisual information will be provided on the new trams as well. That decision has been taken by Lothian Buses itself. The company has not been made to do that by the Government and nor has it had any assistance—from the Scottish Government, in this case—in providing that help. It has made the facility available because, as a publicly owned operator, it has a commitment to providing as accessible a transport system as possible.
Indeed, Lothian Buses won an award from the Scottish Accessible Transport Alliance a couple of years ago for its work in this area. Of course, it is common sense to provide all passengers with the facility. There should be no difficulty in the Government making it mandatory for all new buses over a period.
My second point is about provision on buses for people with disabilities and particularly those who require wheelchair access. As we know, the regulations provide that all bus and coach operators will have to make their vehicles, both new and old, accessible to disabled people over a transitional period, but in practice that is taken up much more actively by some operators than others. I am glad to say that again, in Edinburgh, Lothian Buses has a good record in this respect: 100% of Lothian buses are now wheelchair-accessible and that will also be the case for the trams in the future. Again, that has been done without any assistance from any governmental source.
However, as we have heard, the situation is not as good in every part of the UK. I certainly support the recommendation in the Select Committee report that the Department for Transport should introduce financial incentives for bus operators to replace older non-accessible buses, particularly where no alternative bus route is available. We all know of cases in which a route is meant to be accessible, but then suddenly the bus operator, for some operational reason, puts on a service that is not accessible. That means that a person who wants to get on the bus with a wheelchair may have to wait half an hour or two hours or not be able to travel at all in a rural area, because the so-called accessible service has not been provided.
That takes me to my third and last point. Much more work must be done to create a seamless journey for all passengers, but particularly for people who have disabilities and especially, in this context, those who require access for wheelchairs, although not only them. For example, a passenger travelling in my constituency on one of the new No. 10 buses, with full wheelchair access, to Edinburgh’s Waverley station can look at the mobile app that has already been developed by Lothian Buses; it provides information on many of the issues on which the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mike Thornton) was looking for assistance on behalf of people with disabilities and travellers more generally.
The passenger gets to Princes street in the centre of Edinburgh, gets into the new lifts, which take them down to the platform, and gets on to a train with a wheelchair-accessible place run by East Coast Trains. They go to London, use the lifts at the new King’s Cross station and get on a wheelchair-accessible bus to wherever they are going in London in due course. Then, at the end of their journey, they find that they cannot get off a bus or they have difficulty because they cannot get to the kerb, as someone has parked in the way.
Alternatively, the passenger gets off the bus without difficulty but then has difficulty getting across the road at a pedestrian crossing because of the limited time allowed for pedestrians to cross. As hon. Members, we all know the Streets Ahead Campaign, which began recently and which, among other things, wants to extend the amount of time allowed for pedestrians and others to get across pedestrian crossings.
We must have an integrated approach, a seamless approach, to travel planning. That means, in particular, much better integration of the needs of disabled people into planning at an early stage, tackling issues such as street clutter, thoughtless parking and broken kerbs, which are, in their own way, just as important to providing accessibility to transport for people with disabilities, because that is all part of the whole travel experience. I therefore strongly support the Select Committee’s recommendation on the need for co-ordination in this area.
I would like to conclude by recognising that the Government did think again on the abolition of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee. I was one of the hon. Members who raised that issue with the Minister’s predecessor and I am glad to say that the Government reconsidered the proposal to abolish the DPTAC. The issue was raised with me by campaigners in my constituency. As someone who is always ready to criticise the Government when they do the wrong thing, I am also prepared to recognise when they have done the right thing.
I am glad that the Government have listened to disabled passengers’ organisations and other groups that wanted the DPTAC to be retained. I hope that they will now take the next step forward, which is to listen to the views expressed by disabled persons organisations and transport organisations generally and to make the changes that will improve the transport experience for passengers with disabilities in the way that the Select Committee has recommended.
I urge the Minister in particular to change the Government’s stance on audiovisual announcements on buses. That is an easy thing to do. The necessary legislative changes could be made quickly and would make such a difference to so many passengers—those with disabilities and others—throughout our country. I urge the Government to think again on that point in particular.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I am very grateful that my hon. Friends have given so much attention to the issue of wheelchair accessibility, but there is one specific issue—the need for audiovisual announcements on public transport—that I wish to address.
Before the Christmas break, I marked the international day of persons with disability by navigating Middlesbrough town centre blindfolded, with the help of the Guide Dogs association. I was joined by representatives and service users from Middlesbrough Shopmobility, as well as Linda Oliver and her guide dog Zoë. Wearing a blindfold and experiencing the world without sight was extremely unsettling and it gave me a greater understanding of what it is like for a blind or partially sighted person to do what we, the fully sighted majority, take for granted. With many blind or partially sighted people reliant on buses for mobility and freedom of movement, it is concerning and disappointing that they are often prohibited from accessing such a lifeline.
I welcome the progress that has been made to make public transport more accessible for those with disabilities, but I urge the Minister to go further. Blind or partially sighted people whom I met told me that accessing public transport can be a very difficult and disorientating experience. I know that to be true, as I was given the experience of being blindfolded and taken on a short journey on a bus around a town that I am so familiar with. I soon lost my bearings and all sense of my surroundings and became completely reliant on assistance from those around me to get on the bus, find my seat and get off at the correct stop. I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mike Thornton) and with the Guide Dogs association, which has pointed out that when we get off at the wrong stop, it is an annoyance, but for a blind person it can be very dangerous.
The changes to the Public Service Vehicles Accessibility Regulations 2000 to make buses more accessible for disabled people are welcome, but sadly fall short of including audiovisual announcements. The Transport Committee rightly highlights the fact that the lack of onboard AV information reduces the willingness of the visually impaired, as well as the wider public, to use buses. AV announcements would help the elderly, who may not be as confident as they once were, or those with special needs, who could strike out more independently if they had the reassurance that AV announcements would bring. Indeed, AV announcements would also help the fully able first-time visitor to a town or city to navigate around.
It is not always possible for a blind or partially sighted person to rely on a bus driver or fellow passenger to tell them when to get off. Bus drivers have a great deal to do these days: they are not only drivers but conductors. It is simply unrealistic to expect them to be able consistently to offer extra assistance to the visually impaired. That is backed up by the figures from the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association report, “Road to Nowhere”, which states that around half of travellers surveyed are not told when to get off at the correct stop.
A constituent contacted me who had taken a bus from Aberdeen to Westhill, and had told the driver that they needed to know when they got to the Tesco store. The driver forgot, which meant that my constituent had to stay on the bus until it returned to the depot and then have another go with another bus driver. There was no way that they could have found their way if they had got off at the wrong stop.
That is a stark illustration of the point I am making. The problem will not cost a lot to put right. Research by the TAS Partnership found that it would cost only £2,100 to install a system to make AV announcements on a single-decker bus and £2,500 on a double-decker bus. The systems could be introduced over a number of years, as new buses are brought into the fleet, to mitigate the burden on bus companies. Is it not ridiculous that we are talking about such sums of money, when AV devices should be an integral part of the plant and machinery of any bus operation? Windscreen wipers were not compulsory years ago. Such devices should be part and parcel of the ordinary running of a bus company. When it comes to the business case, I have not run a bus company, but it would not surprise me if making buses more attractive for people attracted more passengers and encouraged a greater flow of income. It is not rocket science.
The introduction of AV announcements will give greater independence to passengers. I urge the Government to take account of the Transport Committee’s recommendations and ensure that such announcements are phased in over the next 10 years and on all new buses. I applaud the determination of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, which is campaigning for the creation of a fund to encourage local authorities and bus companies to install AV announcements. Ultimately, the issue is one of equality, and indeed of disability discrimination. I urge the Minister to consider closely the suggestions made in this debate. They will give our fellow citizens the dignified assistance they request to overcome the hurdles and difficulties they face as they endeavour to play their full and rightful role in our society—difficulties that the majority of us simply never encounter.
Let me begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) and her Committee for a striking, effective and comprehensive report. I cannot do full justice to the report in the time available, but I would like to comment on some of the pressing issues that the Committee has highlighted. I commend the excellent contributions that have been made across the Chamber, particularly by my parliamentary colleagues including my distinguished predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick).
More than one in five people with a disability have experienced difficulties using transport, according to research by the Department for Work and Pensions. In rail alone, the number of journeys made by disabled people is estimated to have increased by 58% over the past five years. The Labour party is proud of its work in government on accessibility issues, which included updating the Disability Discrimination Act in 2005 and working on rail, aviation and access to taxis and minicabs in the Equality Act 2010.
Nothing stands still, however, and it should not do so under this Government. The Transport Committee’s report is comprehensive, with 107 written submissions and 34 witnesses interviewed. Difficulties using transport affect about a fifth of the population. My disappointment at the Government’s response, which is shared by several hon. Members present, is that they have not engaged adequately with many of the Committee’s key recommendations. The tone of much of the response drifts between complacency, defensiveness and world-weariness about the whole issue. We accept that the problem presents complex challenges, but surely it also provides opportunities to increase disabled people’s ability fully to participate in society and in the economy, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) ably pointed out.
The Department for Transport had to be taken to task by the Transport Committee for the lack of information it provided on the accessibility action plan. The Department finally released the report on progress on Christmas eve, but if it thought it was playing Santa to disabled people, it was deluding itself. In the same way, the Department gave a dismissive response to the perfectly sensible suggestion for a cross-government working group on accessibility—a response that might be characterised as “carry on silo-ing.” I hope the Minister does not share that world view, as I am sure he does not.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside, the Chair of the Transport Committee, has stressed—as have so many other hon. Members—the importance of phasing in universal audiovisual systems over the next 10 years. The response so far, as we have heard, has been to encourage bus operators to adopt such systems voluntarily, and to say that the business case has not been made. Disabled bus users make it clear that such systems are key as they make journeys, and the statistics from Guide Dogs have already been quoted. My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) described, from a sighted person’s perspective, his own experience of how hugely dangerous it can be for a blind person to be left stranded in an unfamiliar area.
It is fine to encourage voluntary take-up—as the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), did—but has it been successful? Guide Dogs suggests that only one operator has responded on the issue. However, operators that have installed the system say it has proved to be good value for money. A representative from Brighton and Hove Bus and Coach Company said:
“AV systems punch above their weight due to how valuable they are for the blind and partially-sighted.”
Will the Minister or his officials tell us which operators are resisting the Transport Committee’s modest proposal? If operators have not yet put forward a business case that the Department considers reasonable, can it not do more to seek one out and to recognise the full social benefits that such systems offer? The Department has said that it does not have a method for assessing the full quantitative benefits of access to transport, such as social inclusion and links to skills and jobs. Is it not about time that the Department developed one or worked with similar economic models that have been produced elsewhere? Departments have to produce an equality impact assessment for each piece of legislation, and the Department for Transport should use such a mechanism when it looks at issues such as this.
On the business case, is it not remarkable that in two UK cities with among the highest levels of bus use, London and Edinburgh, operators have chosen to install AV systems as far as possible? The operators are realising the benefits from doing so voluntarily, so why do the Government not make that mandatory throughout the country?
My hon. Friend makes a good suggestion. Notwithstanding the difference between major cities and the rest of the country, I might suggest that the Department for Transport should get off its bottom and look at what is being done in London and Edinburgh. Perhaps they might discover a mechanism for producing a business case. The cost, as we know, is around £2,500 for a double-decker bus, compared with £190,000 for the whole process.
Do the Minister and the Department recognise that although many services are delivered locally, his Department can play an essential role in bringing together local stakeholders and encouraging dynamic partnerships? In my constituency, I have been privileged to be president for the past 17 years of Rideability, a disability organisation that provides on-call access to people with disabilities. The organisation has recently entered into an agreement with my local council that allows it to secure its future while retaining its input to an expansion of the scheme. That shows what can be done through intelligent co-operation between local government, consumer groups and the third sector. Surely the Minister’s Department should be incentivising the formation of such groups.
The Committee also said that the exemption to EU law, which the Government brought in, that prevents bus and coach operators from being required to train their staff in disability support should end. My hon. Friends have asked the Minister whether he would review the exemption in March 2014, and I echo that question. What evidence do we have to show that the current approach is working? Replies to the parliamentary questions I have tabled claim that, currently, 75% of drivers have had basic training. Progress on that will not be reviewed until March 2014. The Government need to be far more proactive in targeting 100% rates of training and retraining, and should work closely with sector skills councils such as People 1st, which has done good work in this area, to develop the best strategies for doing so.
The Committee also mentioned financial incentives. The Government response was that they would probably contravene EU state aid law—my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool will be only too familiar with how that catch-all argument has been used with procurement issues. What discussion has the Minister’s Department had with Government lawyers, or preferably an independent legal adviser, to confirm that such incentives would not be possible under EU law? Just because not all disabled people require a wheelchair-accessible vehicle, why will the Government not consider incentives to make more available for those who do? Why not listen to the calls from Leonard Cheshire to ensure more regular checks on accessibility equipment, so that disabled-access bus routes are not left without an appropriate vehicle?
The Committee also talked about journey planning. As Leonard Cheshire commented, the Government should not be complacent or self-congratulatory about what has been achieved so far. The Committee suggested that the Government should consult disability organisations over decisions about what stations should be prioritised for improvements. The Government said that third parties would only recommend their local stations and such consultation would not add value to the process. I dispute that, as I think most MPs would. It is a very Eeyore-ish attitude. I talked to my local bus users group, working with Blackpool Transport in Blackpool, where we have retained our municipal status for both the bus services and the trams. The group works on a range of issues, including disability and accessibility.
The expertise of such organisations is vital, as access to stations is a key issue. The progress being made is important, but is it not awful, in the 21st century, that the majority of rail services and stations have yet to achieve step-free access via lifts and ramps? I am thinking of examples in my neck of the woods of older Victorian stations, such as Preston. For disabled people, getting into and across the station is a bit of a lottery—the Blackpool Gazette reported a disturbing case last year of a lady from Blackpool who tried to do it.
Whizz-Kidz has been mentioned. I have been proud to work with it in the past as an ambassador. It has achieved good things, helping two young people in my constituency and providing life-changing equipment worth more than £1 million. Should the Government and the Department for Transport not seek to engage more broadly with such national bodies, as policy is developed and accessibility criteria are set? Should they not recognise the expertise and objectivity that charities that serve people with disabilities can contribute to the process?
It was a huge privilege to host the Paralympics in this country in 2012. It did the country’s reputation, and its reputation for addressing issues for people with disabilities, an enormous amount of good. One of the many benefits that the games brought was that they shone a light on some barriers that disabled people still face when using public transport. The games sparked a renewed attempt to make transport accessible for all.
I emphasise what colleagues have said. The Minister is a reasonable man. I know that, as a regional MP, he will not simply take a London-centric view. Is it not sad, however, that the Government response to the report offers thin gruel for those striving for these golden ideals? We risk squandering the potential and optimism of that summer and making little of our Paralympic legacy. We were capable then of putting the wonderful success of our Paralympic athletes on stamps, which went out across the UK. Surely we should now make more effort for the people themselves, so that the Paralympic athletes and all those with disabilities can do likewise.
I congratulate the Select Committee on Transport on its excellent report, which is certainly food for thought. As a former member of the Transport Committee, I participated in an earlier report on the issue, when we looked at plans to make the Olympics fully accessible for disabled people. Indeed, the Olympics were delivered with wonderful opportunities for everyone to access events.
Mention was made of Christmas eve. The report appears to be a little like the sort of list that my children used to bring me to give to Santa, but on such occasions, I could not always give every gift on the list; I hope that the Government’s response at least shows that we are behind the moves to make all our transport accessible to as many people as possible.
I welcome the opportunity to update the House on some of the many developments that the Government and transport industry are taking forward to improve transport for disabled people. My noble Friend Baroness Kramer leads for the Department on the issue. Reference was made to a world-weary approach. I met my noble Friend this week and can say that she is absolutely enthusiastic about this topic and the phrase “world-weary” does certainly not apply. Although the Government were not able to agree with all the Committee’s recommendations, Committee members raised a number of important matters and I hope to tackle the main points on which the Government were challenged. Before I do so, I shall address one or two of the points made during the excellent contributions that we heard this afternoon.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) asked about the 2005 regulations and whether they would be updated. The Department remains committed to renewing and updating “Inclusive Mobility: A Guide to Best Practice on Access to Pedestrian and Transport Infrastructure” during 2014, as set out in the accessibility action plan. She also asked if many disabled people were aware that they had a right to a taxi if they could not get access to a train at a station; I did not realise that people had that right. I hope that it can be publicised more widely, so that people are aware of it.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), who is no longer in her place, said that often turning up and hoping to get help can be better than booking in advance. Constituents have written to me about delays on the trains that mean that the assistance they hoped to get—for example, at York station to make a connection to Scarborough—is unavailable.
Particular reference was made to access on Crossrail. Sponsors are keen to make the line accessible, but delivering that will depend on cost, technical feasibility and identifying suitable funding. There has been criticism in the press and Parliament about Crossrail not providing step-free access at all stations. However, Crossrail will dramatically improve accessibility to rail transport in London, with 31 of the 38 stations on the route having step-free access and an estimated 93% of journeys on the route starting and ending at step-free stations.
All central London Crossrail stations will be fully accessible from street to train, and there will be step-free access from street to platform at 20 of the 27 service stations on the route. At a further two stations—Taplow and Langley—there will be step-free access to the eastbound platform, which will be used by Crossrail, but not to the westbound platform. There are currently no plans to deliver step-free access to Iver, Hanwell, Maryland, Manor Park and Seven Kings stations.
Crossrail is meeting its legal obligations. The stations that will not be made step-free will have minimal or no infrastructure work carried out on them, and therefore there is no requirement for them to provide step-free access. Work is now under way to look at finding technical solutions to make the remaining seven stations step-free and to explore potential sources of funding. Based on the time frames for the feasibility work and the decisions around the Access for All programme, the position should be much clearer by the spring of this year.
As I thought I had made clear, where Crossrail is carrying out substantial construction work at stations, it has an obligation to make those stations accessible, but where stations are not being modified, Crossrail is not forced to make them accessible to be legally compliant. However, as I have said, work is ongoing, and we will be in a much better position by the spring. May I also point out that the wonderful new north-south railway line that we are endeavouring to build will be fully accessible on High Speed 2?
The Minister must be very frustrated by this situation, because Crossrail will be the showcase for UK plc—the latest 21st-century addition to our major national infrastructure. He knows, as we all do, how difficult it is to retrospectively make all these kinds of changes. Crossrail is being built now; if this work is going to happen, it should be happening now. I hope that he will make his best efforts to ensure that Crossrail finds a solution to the problem of the small number of stations that are still being left out at present.
I fully endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) has just said about taking the opportunity now to ensure that access is provided at all the stations on Crossrail.
A related point is that if Crossrail is approaching this work on the basis of meeting its legal requirements, I must say that we often find situations where accessibility at some stations requires someone in a wheelchair to use four, five or six different lifts to get from one point to another within the same station. Obviously, I accept that there are difficulties in terms of what can be done in many stations. Nevertheless, I hope that every effort can be made to ensure that, where accessibility is provided, it is provided in a way that is as convenient as possible and not in a way that forces passengers in wheelchairs to go on a magical mystery tour to get from one part of a station to another.
Absolutely—I could not agree more. Sadly, one of the problems that we face is that we are dealing, of course, with upgrading some Victorian infrastructure that was not built with disabled people in mind at the time.
I am sorry that members of the Select Committee were not entirely satisfied with the response to the Committee’s recommendation that the Government should require bus operators to introduce audiovisual systems across the bus network. We recognise that many people find audio and visual announcements useful for travelling, and we understand the social benefits of having such systems on buses—in fact, they are useful for all bus users—but we are aware that this technology comes at a considerable cost. Our findings show that installing audiovisual technology on all new buses could cost between £5.75 million and £9.7 million per year. These figures are based on projections that between 2,500 and 2,800 new buses could be registered each year through to 2015.
May I just make some progress, because there is good news?
We have previously written to the bus industry to encourage it to work in partnership with local authorities to see whether the uptake of these systems can be increased on a voluntary basis. However, the Government support the industry’s drive towards developing and promoting the use of smartphone technology to assist blind and partially sighted passengers, as well as able-bodied passengers, as an alternative to audiovisual announcements. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) said, while the technology on the bus can give information to the person on the bus, smartphone technology can give that person information on their journey to the bus stop and at the bus stop, as well as other information that may be useful to them.
If we are not careful, we could be guilty of looking at the last generation of technology without looking at the next generation of technology, which has tremendous potential to give people information they need about all types of transport delays or updates. Indeed, the Government’s innovation transport systems catapult fund is available for this type of technology, and the Government and Transport for London are keen to share data and to make their data open, so that there can be innovation in the use of apps and other smartphone technology to ensure that people can access the information that is freely available.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and I strongly appreciate the point that he makes about leapfrogging from existing situations with audiovisual systems to the use of apps. Such apps may all be useful and helpful, but I caution him that the idea, the practice and the roll-out sometimes take a little longer than people think, even in this digital world. However, we are talking specifically about costs now for audiovisual systems. The Minister has quoted some figures, so will he make the results of that research publicly available to all Members and place them in the Library, so that Members can judge them for themselves?
Yes, by all means. I am happy to ask my officials to do that. However, we are keen to ensure that we do not place undue burdens on operators, many of whom—on certain routes—are facing particular financial difficulties, although I noted the points that were made about Stagecoach and its profitability.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again; he is being very generous in doing so. I think that I am right in saying that he quoted a range of costs from £5.8 million to £8.4 million. Can he tell the House how much that is per bus? Has any work been done in respect of the additional revenue that might accrue to bus companies as a result of widening their customer base?
Well, if 2,500 buses cost £5.75 million, that is just over £2,000 per bus by my calculations. I have taken note of the points that the hon. Gentleman made about the age of some of the buses in Hartlepool, and I will certainly write to Stagecoach managers and invite them to Scarborough to visit the Alexander Dennis bus factory, where I am sure they will be able to place an order for state-of-the-art Enviro200 single-decker or Enviro400 double-decker buses. The factory will be more than happy to supply Stagecoach with such buses.
I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister’s remarks about smartphone technology. However, will he ensure that, in consultation with local providers, the problem of connectivity—particularly in rural areas—is addressed, because we all know that a smartphone is a wonderful gadget in town but very often it just will not work on rural bus routes?
May I briefly welcome the initiative to do more to improve awareness of the Transport Direct website, because pre-planning for journeys is so important, particularly for people with hidden disabilities, which we have not really discussed today? I urge the Minister to ensure that that work happens as quickly as possible and, if appropriate, to set a timetable for early meetings with stakeholders to ensure that that portal is accessed by as many people as possible.
Certainly—I would be delighted to ensure that that happens. Indeed, my own house does not have a mobile phone signal, so I am aware that there are numbers of people who do not have a signal for a smartphone and that many people from poorer families do not have smartphones.
We will continue to work with the bus industry to identify the best solutions to improve access to the public transport system for all passengers. Having met various bus stakeholders in December to discuss accessibility issues, my colleague at the Department for Transport, Baroness Kramer, who leads on accessibility issues, will write to bus industry representatives shortly to encourage the development of simpler and more affordable audiovisual systems for buses.
Aside from the use of audiovisual technology, as members of the Committee will be aware, the Government have placed a requirement on bus operators to ensure that all buses used on local or scheduled services are fully compliant with the Public Service Vehicles Accessibility Regulations 2000—or PSVAR—by 2015, 2016 or 2017, depending on the bus type. The regulations require buses to include facilities such as low-floor boarding devices, visual contrast on the edges of steps, handholds and handrails, and priority seating for passengers in wheelchairs.
As of September 2013, 78% of the total fleet had PSVAR accessibility certificates and the figures are rising steadily. The transition will take place over time, with transport operators inevitably using a mixed fleet of accessible and non-accessible vehicles in the run-up to full compliance, but the change will have a significant impact on disabled people’s access to the bus network.
On disability awareness training for bus staff, raised by the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mike Thornton), the Government appreciate the important role played by staff providing assistance—as well as their awareness of and attitudes towards disabled passengers’ needs—in disabled passengers’ ability and willingness to travel.
EU regulation 181/2011 on bus and coach passenger rights came into force in all member states on 1 March 2013. The Government took steps to apply a number of exemptions within that regulation, including—many hon. Members expressed their disappointment about this—exempting UK bus and coach drivers from a requirement to undertake mandatory disability awareness training. This exemption was applied in line with Government policy on adopting any EU legislation, to make full use of any derogation that would reduce costs to business. This policy ensures that UK businesses are not put at a competitive disadvantage compared with their European counterparts.
To mitigate the impact of applying the disability awareness training exemption, in July 2013 my predecessor as Minister, now Minister for Crime Prevention, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), wrote to bus and coach industry representatives to encourage the completion of disability awareness training by all drivers at the earliest opportunity. It is estimated that approximately 75% of all bus and coach drivers have completed some form of disability awareness training and this figure continues to rise.
My noble Friend Baroness Kramer will also write to bus operators to obtain examples of their disability awareness training and statistics on customer satisfaction. In response to concerns from the public about the disability awareness training exemption, the Department agreed to review its use in March this year, one year on from commencement, to ensure further progress has been made and that drivers are receiving adequate training in this area. The hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) mentioned this. Bus and lorry drivers have to engage in compulsory certificate of professional competence training, one day a year. Many bus operators regard this as an opportunity to use that training to help in this regard.
On rail, I believe that we have a good story to tell, as borne out by a recent study by the European Commission, which stated that the UK has the best major rail network in Europe, with passengers recording an overall satisfaction score of 78%.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on what he is saying. In North Herefordshire, we have disabled access in Leominster, but not yet in Ledbury. Will the Minister do all he possibly can to ensure that, next time that it is possible to sort the station out and change it so that it is accessible to disabled people, it is high enough on the list to get the funding?
Yes, I note my hon. Friend’s good point. Sadly, there is a surfeit of applications, compared with the money that there is to go round, but we are making progress every year.
The UK scored higher than some EU countries on accessibility for passengers with limited mobility, although a 65% satisfaction rating still means that there is a lot of room for improvement and we are not complacent about that.
As with buses, we have targets for an accessible rail network. All rail vehicles must be accessible by 1 January 2020, incorporating features that facilitate travel by disabled people, including wheelchair spaces, audiovisual passenger information systems, priority seating, contrasting handrails and accessible toilets, where toilets are fitted. Already, more than 7,600 rail vehicles being used on the network were built or have been refurbished to modern access standards, including half of all trains. There are many plans to upgrade train fleets ahead of the 2020 deadline. It is worth mentioning that all older rail vehicles have features that already make them accessible to most disabled people, even if they have yet to receive the full suite of improvements.
We also take seriously improving access to stations. Unfortunately, though, many of our mainline railway stations date from Victorian times. These 19th-century stations were not built with the needs of 21st-century passengers in mind, and this has left us with a huge task in terms of opening up the rail network to disabled passengers. Currently, more than 450 out of a total of 2,500 stations have step-free access between all platforms. By 2015, we expect that some 75% of rail journeys will start or end at a fully step-free station, up from around 50% in 2005. The number of stations fully accessible to disabled people other than wheelchair users is significantly higher.
Accessible stations have a significant impact on people’s journey experience, not only for disabled and older people, but also those carrying heavy luggage or travelling with a child in a pushchair. My colleagues and I are, of course, concerned that only around 20% of our national rail stations have step-free access to every platform. That is why we have continued the Access for All programme that was launched in 2006 and have made plans to expand it, to provide a step-free route at more than 150 stations by 2015. That programme has already delivered smaller-scale improvements at 1,100 stations.
We know from research into Access for All projects that passenger numbers—for both disabled and non-disabled passengers—rise significantly once a project is complete, so we have added £100 million to extend the programme until 2019. We have already received nominations for more than 200 stations for this funding, which is about seven times the number that we can support with the money available, and that tells me there is an appetite in the industry to further improve access to stations. I recently visited Morley station, with our excellent parliamentary candidate, Andrea Jenkyns, to see the problem first hand in Leeds.
Of course, as well as having accessible infrastructure, disabled passengers need to have confidence that staff will be available to assist them. The Government have no plans to impose cuts in staffing on trains or at stations. It is and will remain a matter for train operators to determine their staffing levels, to provide the required standard of service for passengers.
Ticket-buying habits are changing and passengers are booking their travel through a wider range of sources, often using the internet and mobile devices, as well as using systems such as Oyster. As part of the Department’s review into fares and ticketing, we set out proposals to improve the way in which we manage opening hours at ticket offices. We are keen to see a shift towards more efficient forms of ticketing, such as better self-service ticket machines, websites and mobile applications. We want to make it easier for the rail industry to propose innovative changes that harness new technologies for the overall benefit of passengers and taxpayers, but we also want to ensure that all passengers, including disabled people, continue to enjoy a high level of service.
We recognise that passengers feel strongly about changes to ticket offices that may have an effect on staffing, so before agreeing to any changes, we would need to be confident that passengers will continue to enjoy ready access to ticket buying. We plan to give passenger bodies a stronger role as part of the proposed change, enabling them to have more input in shaping any proposals, as well as the ability to raise objections on a wider range of grounds than previously, such as the impact of any proposal on disabled passengers.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) raised the issue of shared space. I have seen Exhibition road first hand and I have to say that, having previously been an enthusiast for shared space, when the hon. Gentleman was the Minister, that enthusiasm has waned somewhat. I am not aware that large numbers of local authorities are keen to introduce these schemes, but if hon. Members from around the country have knowledge of any, I should be pleased if they fed them in. This does not seem to be a movement that is gathering force.
The Government remain committed to changing the transport industry’s approach to disabled and older people in British society. I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate and to stress that the Government are committed to improving the travel experience for disabled people who use public transport. In 2012, we delivered the most accessible Olympics and Paralympics in history, by prioritising and planning accessibility from the start and working co-operatively. We have shown that we can do it, and the Government want to build on that success.
[Katy Clark in the Chair]
The debate has reinforced the importance of this issue and the importance of the Committee’s conducting its report, securing its reply and debating this further with the Minister. I thank all hon. Members who have participated in the debate and contributed to it.
Will the Minister write to us with more information on the availability of staff at stations to assist passengers? I was a little bit concerned when he stated that the Government had no plans for cuts and that this was to do with the operators. I should like more information on that. Could there be more urgency in addressing some of these issues, particularly the installation of audiovisual systems? Smartphones are not an alternative to audiovisual systems. Step-free access to trains and training require more urgent attention.
I am sure that all these issues will continue to be debated and that campaigning on all of them will continue. I thank everybody who has brought us to this point. I advise and, indeed, warn the Minister that I am sure that there will be more to come. I thank him for his replies.