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Transport Safety: Blind and Visually Impaired People

Volume 642: debated on Wednesday 6 June 2018

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)

It is a great pleasure to have secured this debate in the Chamber.

Three weeks ago, I met my constituents Margaret Ambaras and Laurel Holleran on a street in my constituency, together with Linda Oliver from Guide Dogs. All three of them are blind or have a serious visual impairment. Margaret and Laurel had asked me to go and experience the difficulties that blind people face when trying to navigate our streets—difficulties that could mostly be avoided. With some trepidation, but with support, I undertook a blindfolded walk along the street near where we met.

I am sure I am not the first MP to have undertaken this challenge—the Minister may well have undertaken it herself—but what I experienced really shocked me. The street where we met is in a residential area of Dunston without much street furniture and with reasonable pavements, but I found that navigating even for a short distance was fraught with difficulties. On this particular day, the bins were still on the street and most of the cars parked on the pavement were a real problem, particularly where it was not possible to pass the cars without going on to the road. Frankly, it was pretty hairy trying to get past the cars, and to work out where the kerb was and whether any traffic was coming. For part of the walk, I had glasses on that produced the effect of having tunnel vision, really restricting my ability to read the street and the pavement.

For me, the experience may have been scary, but it was at least temporary, and Margaret and Laurel were kind and took me to a busy residential area, rather than one where there are shops and other businesses, or lots of street furniture. As we talked after the event, they explained to me that, although they both now have guide dogs and have completed training through Guide Dogs, their independence is really constrained by pavement parking. Margaret told me that she still feels unable to go to her doctor’s surgery alone, because of cars parked along the narrow path she has to follow, meaning that she and her dog have to walk on a fairly narrow road, into the traffic.

This is a timely debate, because constituents of mine, like those of a number of other MPs, are in a similar situation to that being described by my hon. Friend. They are asking for something to be done about parking on pavements, because it is a major problem for people with difficulties.

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. Many of us have been approached by constituents about the issue.

As I have said, Margaret faces difficulties going to the doctor. Laurel also told me that she is worried about going out and that she has had problems with the audio announcements on the bus, because they do not always work or are sometimes made in such a jaunty tone by a canny Geordie lass that she just cannot catch what is being said.

The hon. Lady has secured an Adjournment debate on an important subject. Does she agree that, with 250 people a day starting to lose their sight in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, there is a real need for an increase in the number of specialised public buses and trains for the sight impaired in both rural and urban locations, to ensure that constituents with a sight impairment are not isolated?

I very much agree that it is important not only that there is specialised transport, but that all public transport is accessible to people with a visual impairment.

My hon. Friend is making an important speech and I thank her for doing so. A constituent of mine who is blind asked for rail assist at his local station, but their only response was to give him a leaflet, which he could not read. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is wholly inadequate for people with a visual impairment?

I most certainly agree that that is a real problem. That is an absolutely impossible situation. It is not so much rail assist as not caring about what happens to people with a visual impairment and not thinking it through.

Pavement parking is not just a problem for blind and partially sighted people; it is a real problem for wheelchair users and for parents with prams, buggies or young children in tow, who are often forced on to busy main roads to pass cars. Today, however, I want to focus on Margaret and Laurel and others who are blind. They have worked so hard to gain their independence, but cars parked on the pavement, and other pavement obstructions, are making life difficult for them—and dangerous in some circumstances. As I have said, other forms of transport cause problems, too, so we need to look at bus and rail services as well.

This is not a new problem. It has been talked about many times in this Chamber, but it really is about time that we actually did something to sort it out. I read in Hansard that in 2015 the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) promoted a private Member’s Bill on the issue, but it goes way back beyond that time. That Bill was withdrawn following the Government’s commitment to hold roundtable discussions on the issue of pavement parking in particular, but there has been little or no action.

More recently, Transport Ministers have said that they will look at pavement parking in the context of traffic regulation orders. Over the short time I have been in this House, many hon. Members have questioned Transport Ministers on their plans to tackle pavement parking. The war of attrition seems to be showing modest results, as answers to the questions that I have looked at in Hansard have changed from, “We have no plans to do anything”, to leaving it to local councils to resolve the problem, to now saying, “We will look at how we tackle pavement parking as part of the work on TROs.” But we need faster action and we need more of it, please. We all know and understand the problems—we need to do something about them.

Local authorities can take some actions, such as designating specific areas and streets for no pavement parking, but, to be frank, it is a piecemeal approach to identify streets, go through what can be a long and costly TRO process and then try to enforce TROs at a time when local authorities are very stretched after years of reductions in grant funding. My local authority, Gateshead, has been looking at what it can do to help with the problem but, along with Guide Dogs and many other charities, it has concluded that we need a system like the one that currently operates in London, which allows for a blanket prohibition of pavement parking, but with opt-outs for specific purposes. It is clear and straightforward and does not allow for confusion, but it does give some flexibility when there are genuine reasons why it should be varied.

It will come as no surprise that I have a number of asks of the Minister. I am not going to ask her to sort out the bins—I can do that locally, with the council, thanks—but I have a number of specific asks of the ministerial team. Will the Department for Transport now introduce, as a matter of urgency, a new law on pavement parking, and will it announce a date for the delayed consultation on traffic regulation orders?

Will the Department update the guidance on the use and design of shared spaces? Shared spaces sound like a great idea to get traffic and pedestrians to behave reasonably, recognise each other and consider the needs of all road users, but for blind and visually impaired people they bring real problems, with their lack of kerbs and absence of pedestrian crossings, as the Women and Equalities Committee identified in a report last year.

Will the Department issue statutory guidance to licensing authorities to require that all taxi drivers undertake disability equality training? Margaret and Laurel both told me of situations that they had experienced, one in which a taxi driver had asked for a £25 fee, on top of the fare, to valet his car after the guide dog had been in the vehicle, and others in which drivers had been reluctant to take them with their dog. I know that that is not supposed to happen, but it does.

Will the Department consult on and publish regulations on the accessible information requirement as soon as possible? A Guide Dogs report showed that over a six-month period two thirds of vision-impaired passengers had missed their stop, as Laurel and Margaret have both done. It is really distressing for them and can be dangerous, because they are not sure of where they are or the layout of the area in which they are dropped off. That is really important. The Secretary of State already has the power to make regulations to require bus operators to provide accessible information, including audible and visual information. I understand that a consultation on regulations was planned for early 2017, with a view to the publication of regulations this year, but it has now been delayed and we see no signs of it happening. Can we get that consultation going now, please, so that we can get the regulations in place?

I wish to raise one more issue, which I suspect will be much more contentious. I recently heard about some new train carriages being produced for our railways by Hitachi in Newton Aycliffe that include accessibility features for blind and visually impaired people. That is absolutely great and as it should be, but the Government’s intention to take guards off some train services will compromise the safety of not only blind and partially sighted travellers but other passengers with disabilities. I urge the Government to recognise that point and change their position.

It is well past time that we tackled the problem of pavement parking and other transport issues for blind and visually impaired people, so that I can tell my constituents Margaret and Laurel that we really are addressing their safety on our streets and on public transport.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on securing this debate on transport safety for blind and visually impaired people, and for sharing her experience of a guided walk and how Margaret and Laurel try to navigate with sight loss.

Delivering a transport system that is truly accessible to all is of great importance to me personally and to the Department for Transport. I hope that the hon. Lady will have seen the Department’s draft accessibility action plan, which was published for consultation last year, as evidence of the Government’s commitment to taking action to safeguard and promote the rights of all disabled passengers. Following the responses to that consultation, the Department is developing an inclusive transport strategy that will build on the draft accessibility action plan by setting out the immediate improvements that can be made to the transport system, as well as our longer-term aspirations.

When are we likely to see the outcome of that consultation and when are we likely to see some real action?

The inclusive transport strategy is due to be published shortly. I am sure the hon. Lady will be very pleased when the report comes out. I cannot highlight the action points—obviously, I cannot divulge them—but she will be pleased when she sees the results considering the issues she has raised today.

The accessibility action plan will set out immediate improvements that can be made to the transport system, as well as our long-term aspirations of supporting the Government’s aim for disabled passengers to have the same access to transport as everyone else, enabling them to travel easily, confidently and without extra cost. The inclusive transport strategy will be published later this year. I am sure the hon. Lady will understand that I am not able to divulge all the details, but she will be very pleased with the outcome. There are some assurances I want to give the House today that are unique for supporting blind and visually impaired people using the transport system.

I am pleased that the hon. Lady undertook the guided walk. I was the chair of the all-party group on sight loss, because my father has a visual impairment. As well as assisting him at home and on transport, I have also spent some time as his carer, so I understand at first hand the particular difficulties for people with sight loss and visual impairment. Since becoming Minister, I have met the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association and the Royal National Institute of Blind People to hear the views of people with sight loss and visual impairment who are engaging with public transport. They raised a number of issues very similar to those raised by the hon. Lady. Let me take them one by one.

The first issue is parking on pavements. My father raises this all the time. I know that the hon. Lady recently wrote on this matter to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), the Minister with responsibility for roads. I appreciate the difficulties caused to blind and visually impaired people by drivers parking on pavements. As the hon. Lady noted in her speech, parking on pavements in London is banned by default and is allowed only in exceptional circumstances. However, it is virtually the reverse outside London, where pavement parking is allowed unless local authorities seek a legal order to prevent it within a certain area.

It is not just the parking of vehicles on pavements; shops put tables, chairs and advertising boards out, too. For those of us who have good vision and can see them that is great, but a disabled person will not know they are there at all. It is not just the vehicles; it is what shops are doing as well.

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. Extra street furniture or clutter inhibits people in confidently navigating their community, especially streets that they know well. One bad experience can set them back, so we need to raise awareness, whether it is among shopkeepers, local authorities or people picking up rubbish and understanding the kind of debris they leave behind. I believe the hon. Gentleman is now the new chair of the all-party group on sight loss and visual health.

There are calls for the Government to introduce a law that bans all pavement parking across England, allowing it only in exceptional cases, thereby mirroring the case in London. The Minister with responsibility for roads is keen to make the process as simple as possible. Before seeking new primary legislation, we will evaluate the effectiveness of the current legislation that allows local authorities to take action themselves. We seek to understand the issues that are preventing them from taking action already. The Department will be taking forward that work over the coming months and will look to draw conclusions by the end of the year.

I thank the Minister for that comment, but I am sure she will understand from her experience the difficulties that many local authorities have in acting on a piecemeal basis. Many are very keen on an overall approach that will make the rules much more clear and consistent. Local authorities can do things, but they are not in a position to do as much as they would like.

The hon. Lady raises a very valid point, which is why it is important that we base any legislation on evidence, to make sure that the guidance is absolutely appropriate, accurate, and level in constituencies and councils across the country. We want people to have similarly positive experiences when they navigate their local streets.

I turn now to taxi and private hire drivers who refuse to pick up people with assistance dogs or charge extra for doing so. That attitude and behaviour is just wrong. It is also unlawful. It is against the law to refuse carriage or to attempt to charge a higher fare. A small number of taxi drivers are exempt—for example, there might be a medical reason why they cannot have an assistance dog in their vehicle—but otherwise this practice is unacceptable, and I call on local licensing authorities, including Gateshead, to take action against drivers who break the law. I expect local authorities, as does the hon. Lady no doubt, to investigate complaints fully and pursue criminal prosecutions where appropriate.

Drivers who are convicted can be fined up to £1,000. The hon. Lady mentioned the experience of Margaret and Laurel. I recently spoke to the all-party group on disability, and a lady who came to that meeting had been momentarily denied access to a cab because she had a guide dog with her. It is just wrong. Local authorities have the power to require taxi drivers to attend disability awareness training, and I strongly urge them to make use of this power, as well as the powers to remove licences, investigate cases and impose fines of up to £1,000.

Margaret, Laurel and Linda told me that it appeared to be rather too easy in some cases to get an exemption. They would like the process tightened up, with properly authorised GP certificates to prove the need for an exemption.

I take the hon. Lady’s point and will reflect on her concerns. An independent task and finish group is looking at taxis and private hire vehicles, and we await its report, which I hope will cover this area. I have a concern about this issue as well. There should be very few exemptions—there should be very good reasons why a driver cannot allow a passenger or guide dog into their cab—and we should be absolutely clear about what those are.

I move on now to talking buses. Audible information on buses is key to enabling disabled passengers to take journeys. Disabled people make 10 times as many journeys by bus as by rail, and it is essential that the service provided should be accessible to them. The provision of audible information on all buses will clearly make a huge difference in this regard, but some passengers have raised concerns that there is too much information on buses and that it confuses them even further, so although some bus companies have already introduced talking buses, they will not be required to do so by law until the relevant power in the Bus Services Act 2017 takes effect. We will consult later this year on the regulations that will bring these powers into force.

I accept that some early adopters of talking buses sometimes fail to provide the correct information or information at the right time to enable a blind or visually impaired person to get off at the right stop, and I appreciate entirely the distress this can cause. It only underlines the need to consult ahead of the legal requirement being introduced. We need clear evidence on how much information is needed, at what point in the journey and how often, and we need to factor it into any appropriate regulations. That will allow us to provide clear, evidence-based and legally mandated standards that all bus operators must meet, and that the Office of the Traffic Commissioners will have responsibility to enforce.

I now move to shared spaces, which are a particular concern for people with visual impairments. There is no single definition of “shared space”, but it generally means a space that has different road users, including vehicles and pedestrians, sharing the street. This might be very good for some people with disabilities, especially those in wheelchairs, but kerbs and controlled pedestrian crossings are sometimes removed, which can be particularly difficult for blind or partially sighted people.

The Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, the Department for Transport’s statutory adviser on accessible travel, has written to me about this to highlight its concerns about shared spaces. In addition, the consultation on the draft accessibility action plan prompted a lot of feedback on this issue. Once again, my father regularly updates me on how such spaces are not working for him. In short, concerns about the safety of shared spaces, particularly for blind or visually impaired people and guide dogs, are coming through loud and clear. In the light of these continuing concerns, the Government are considering what further action might be appropriate and will make this clear when the inclusive transport strategy is published.

We take this issue very seriously, and the strategy will cover most of the issues that the hon. Lady has raised, but whatever action the Government and other authorities take to improve the rights of disabled passengers, it will make a difference only if those rights are effectively enforced. To this end, I recently met the chief executives of transport regulators, including the Office of Rail and Road and the Civil Aviation Authority, and underlined to them their responsibilities for ensuring that disabled passengers receive the services they are entitled to.

I want to make a point about Passenger Assist. My visually impaired constituent was simply given a leaflet that was supposed to enable him to travel. Does the Minister agree that that is not acceptable? Although Passenger Assist is available to wheelchair users in my constituency, there are no taxis that can accommodate passengers with wheelchairs. I am trying to arrange for some disabled constituents to visit the Minister in a couple of weeks, but they are having real problems in accessing any sort of public transport.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The purpose of Passenger Assist is to assist passengers with all kinds of disabilities, and handing out a leaflet is just not on. The role of Passenger Assist is to help passengers to reach their destination with the service for which they have paid. I look forward to meeting the hon. Lady and her constituents to discuss that further.

As I have said, I have met the regulators and reminded them of their responsibilities, and of the work they need to do to ensure that redress is available when things go wrong. That is another issue that we must tackle: when laws and regulations are in place, we must ensure that they are enforced.

I thank the hon. Member for Blaydon again for securing a debate on such an important issue, and I look forward to working with her and Members in all parts of the House to achieve our ambition to improve the travelling experiences of blind and visually impaired people.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.