[Relevant document: Oral evidence taken before the Women and Equalities Committee on 10 October, on Disability and the built environment, HC 1471.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the inclusive transport strategy.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to introduce this important debate today on an issue that will affect us all at some point in our lives. As I am sure right hon. and hon. Members will know, about one in five people in the UK are disabled. We also have an ageing society, and, as people get older, they are more likely to experience a wide range of conditions such as mobility impairments, memory loss, or visual or hearing impairments. As a society, we are also increasingly recognising that not all disabilities are visible and that mental health conditions and cognitive impairments, as well as hearing loss and memory loss, can have just as profound an impact on people as physical disabilities.
Regardless of the nature of a person’s disability, they should have the same access to transport and opportunity to travel as everyone else—access to services that most of us take for granted day in, day out. Accessible transport helps to reduce social isolation and loneliness, as well as to create opportunities for disabled people to play a more active role in society. Disabled people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people, and the Government have a manifesto commitment to get 1 million more disabled people into work by 2027. Disabled people might face many barriers to finding employment, but the ability simply to travel should not be one. Against this backdrop, I am proud to have been the Minister responsible for publishing the Government’s inclusive transport strategy in July. I thank the Department for Transport’s accessibility team for all their hard work; the sector, which we have worked with; and the disability groups, including the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, that helped and advised us.
The inclusive transport strategy followed an earlier consultation on a draft accessibility action plan that received over 1,000 responses. I thank the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard)—I hope that I pronounced his constituency correctly—for the substantial work that he undertook while he was responsible for the accessibility action plan in the Department for Transport. The accessibility action plan was an extensive engagement programme and represented a number of disability groups, whose voices were taken on board.
Let me remind the House briefly of the main elements of the inclusive transport strategy. First, the word “inclusive” is important, as it signals that we are adopting a holistic approach, rather than simply focusing on the physical accessibility of our infrastructure. This is about much more than simply ensuring that stations have step-free access. It is about designing and implementing all our policies and operations in such a way that they genuinely work for everyone. That is what we mean by inclusive.
The strategy starts off by setting a vision, which is that the Government want disabled people to have the same access to transport as everyone else and to be able to travel confidently, easily and without extra cost. Its overall goal is to create a transport system that offers equal access for disabled people by 2030. We chose that date because it links to the UN sustainable development goals for that year, particularly the goal to provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all. We also took account of the fact that, with the best will in the world, although there is much that we can do quickly—and we will work at a pace—some of the ambitious changes that we want to make will just take time. Some of our infrastructure, for example, was built at a time when accessibility was not taken as seriously as it is today; in fact, it was not considered at all. I am thinking particularly of many of our smaller railway stations, including those in my own constituency, which do not have step-free access. Matters requiring new legislation will also inevitably take time.
Having set the vision and overall goal, the strategy then sets out a larger number of measures under five main themes, which I will briefly summarise. First, it says that we will do more to promote passenger rights and ensure that existing legislation is better enforced. That matters because one very strong message that emerged from the consultation was that, although lots of legislation is already in force, not everyone is always aware of it and it certainly is not always enforced. For example, I am sure that hon. Members have heard many stories of blind people being charged extra for taking guide dogs in taxis or of taxi drivers not stopping to pick them up at all. That sort of behaviour is unacceptable. It is also illegal, but that is not widely enough understood and it is not consistently enforced. That is why we will be launching a public awareness campaign next year, working with a wide range of disability partners to raise awareness of disabled passengers’ rights when using the transport system.
The second theme of this strategy is the need for better staff training. We are talking about not just frontline staff such as bus drivers, railway station staff and so on, but also back office staff and managers. Training has to be top down as well as bottom up. This is important because the attitudes of staff can make a huge difference to the journey experiences of disabled people. This can be what makes or breaks a journey and builds or damages the confidence of a disabled passenger.
I am committed to improving staff awareness across the transport sector. Next year, we will publish guidance to improve bus driver awareness training on disability issues. We will also develop a monitoring and enforcement framework for this training, which will include identifying a body to ensure compliance across the bus sector. In the rail sector, bidders in future franchise competitions will be required to commit to providing enhanced disability training for staff, covering a range of impairments, including less visible disabilities. We will also require bidders to commit to involving disabled people in the design and delivery of that training. Involving disabled people directly in the provision of training is essential. It will help to ensure that transport staff fully understand the diversity of disability and the importance of providing good customer service, also enabling them to take some responsibility for the passenger not just on their part of the railway or the station, but for the onward journey.
The strategy’s third theme is a need for better information. Having the right information in an accessible format is an essential part of making it easier for people to travel. Of course, this benefits not just disabled people, but everyone else. By accessible information, I mean everything from providing audiovisual information on buses to including clear and simple signage in places such as railway stations that works for people with difficulties with communication, understanding or memory. Audiovisual information on buses is another tool that can make all the difference to someone’s experience of a journey. The Department is taking forward the necessary legislation to ensure that this is rolled out across all bus services. We are providing £2 million of funding to help speed this up and make it more affordable, particularly for small companies.
Accessible information is not only about audiovisual information. Improvements to real-time information can also make a difference to someone’s confidence to travel. Real-time information can alert people to changes on their journey or enable them to update their assistance requirements. That is why, as part of the strategy, we are supporting the Rail Delivery Group as it trials a new Passenger Assist application. This application will, for the first time, enable disabled passengers to book and change their assistance requirements digitally and receive updates on their journey in real time. I am challenging the Rail Delivery Group to present a mobile system—preferably an app—that will reduce the amount of time it takes to pre-book a journey, making it as easy as possible for disabled people.
Anything that improves the quality of disabled people’s experience of passenger assistance is very valuable, but should not the goal be to turn up and go—for someone with a disability to be able to use public transport in just the same way as you or I, without having to make a pre-planned journey? They should simply be able to use the facilities because they are accessible to everyone.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady, who is an expert in this area, as she chairs the Select Committee on Transport. The goal is that every passenger, regardless of their disability, can turn up and go—just as abled-bodied people can—but we have to accept that, in some circumstances, some bookings might need to happen in advance, especially when the journeys involve a variety of transport such as buses, taxis and other sorts of mobility. We hope that Passenger Assist can enable those journeys to be dealt with from start to finish, but of course the aim is for people to be able to turn up and go. More readily available information will benefit us all, including those with disabilities and those requiring physical assistance. We also want to ensure that we are covering other less visible disabilities such as autism and hearing loss.
The fourth theme in the strategy is about ensuring that our infrastructure is genuinely accessible to all. By infrastructure, I mean not only the public realm—stations, bus stations or streets—but also our trains, buses, taxis, boats and planes. The strategy included some significant new commitments under this theme. First, it confirmed that the Government would provide up to £300 million of funding over the period to 2024 to improve the accessibility of our rail network under the Access for All programme. This is an area of considerable interest for many hon. Members, and it was the subject of a Westminster Hall debate earlier this month. I have also written to all hon. Members to explain how the funding works and what needs to be done if they would like a station to be included in the programme.
Secondly, the strategy included the announcement that the Government would ask local authorities to pause any shared-space schemes that they are considering. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for the work that she and the Women and Equalities Committee, which she chairs, have done to review disability and the built environment, particularly for its recommendation with regard to shared-space schemes. The Committee’s recommendations and the feedback provided by many stakeholder groups informed our decision.
The Minister has touched on the really important issue of shared spaces. I am pleased to see that the strategy calls for a halt to any further new shared-space developments, but there is a problem with existing shared spaces. Can she confirm whether there will be funding for local authorities to make those shared spaces accessible and not no-go areas for blind and partially sighted people?
This is a very important issue on which I gave evidence to the Committee just a few weeks ago. People’s interpretations of shared spaces are varied. There is no agreement, even within the community that lobbies for people with visual health problems, on what the minimum size of a pavement should be. That is why we will undertake a consultation with Transport Scotland to get some data on what works and what definitely does not work so that we can update our guidance by the end of next year.
We, too, have a problem with shared spaces, particularly outside a local primary school. Will the Minister ensure that the needs not only of people with disabilities but of smaller and older people in our communities are included in the consultation so that all voices can be heard? Many of us are very worried about these shared-space ideas.
That is an incredibly valuable point. When talking about shared spaces, we may think about those who are using wheelchairs or those with visual health problems, but not about mums or parents with buggies, let alone older people. That is why the interpretation of shared spaces is so varied. There is some valid concern that when shared spaces are imposed in their totality, when there is absolutely no infrastructure in place, the situation can become incredibly complicated. We all have anecdotal evidence of where it is or is not working, but we absolutely need to collect the data so that we can ensure that the guidance is the best that it can be.
As I mentioned, we will work with Transport Scotland to take on board all the feedback. We are working with our stakeholder groups to make sure that we have a much more informed decision on shared spaces, particularly with regard to controlled crossings and kerbs, and dealing with people with a variety of disabilities. It is only right that towns should be designed in a way that works for all, and the Government are determined to work with local authorities to ensure that this happens.
I have written a letter jointly with my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing to clarify the approach that should be taken to shared-space schemes. The letter makes it clear that the pause applies to schemes with relatively large amounts of pedestrian and vehicular movement such as high streets and town centres, but does not apply to streets within new residential areas or the redesign of existing residential streets with very low levels of traffic. Whether to improve individual schemes is a matter for local authorities, which need to ensure that they are compliant with their duties under the Equality Act 2010, but we hope that common sense will prevail before the updated guidance is issued.
The strategy includes a commitment that the Department will provide £2 million of funding to enable more Changing Places toilet facilities to be installed at our motorway service areas. Having access to these facilities can be genuinely life-changing for some families and allow them to make journeys that would otherwise have been impossible. We will shortly announce further details on how we intend to allocate this funding, and we will be working in partnership with Muscular Dystrophy UK. This should allow the majority of motorway service stations across the country to have Changing Places toilets by the early 2020s, compared with fewer than a fifth today.
The Department announced shortly after the publication of the strategy that it would extend the eligibility criteria for the blue badge scheme. The new criteria will extend eligibility to people who cannot undertake a journey without a risk of serious harm to their health or safety, or that of any other person such as young children with autism who cannot undertake a journey without it causing them very considerable psychological distress, or who have very considerable difficulty when walking. This is another step forward in ensuring that people with less visible disabilities get the support that they need to live independently. It was widely welcomed, including by the National Autistic Society, which said that it was
“thrilled that the Department had listened to the concerns of autistic people and their families”
and that the announcement would
“make a massive difference to the lives of many of the 600,000 autistic people in England, and their families.”
The fifth and final theme in the strategy is the importance of making sure that our future transport systems work for everyone. Transport is changing, and the technologies and services we are using are also changing rapidly. Many of these changes will offer wonderful opportunities for disabled and older people. Autonomous vehicles, for example, could mean that those who would not otherwise be able to drive, including perhaps those with visual impairment, could do so for the first time.
In Birmingham, people are very excited about the 2022 Commonwealth games, and the Government recently announced £170 million to improve transport there. Does the Minister anticipate that that will ensure that the games are completely accessible to people of all abilities?
That is a very valid point. I assume that when my hon. Friend mentions the games being accessible to people of all abilities, he does not mean the contenders but the people who are going along to visit the great city of Birmingham. That should be the ambition—absolutely. Our desire is to make sure that our services are fully accessible, and any new funding recognises that as well. New technologies should be designed, from the outset, in such a way that disabled and older people can use them.
The strategy includes a commitment that the Government will publish a monitoring and evaluation framework explaining how we will measure the impact that it is having. That is really important. It is essential that we track the progress that is being made towards our goal of creating a transport system that offers equal access for disabled people. The Department will publish the detailed monitoring and evaluation framework in early 2019.
The strategy also includes a commitment that the Department will report regularly to Parliament on the delivery of commitments set out in it. This will allow hon. Members to hold us properly to account. Finally, it includes a commitment to create a new stakeholder advisory group to allow organisations representing disabled people to have more of an opportunity to shape the Department’s policies in the future. The announcements we have made in the strategy show that we have been listening to disabled people, and I am determined to ensure that we continue to do so as we deliver it.
The inclusive transport strategy marks a significant step forward in ensuring that our transport systems are genuinely accessible to all our users. This is a key part of making a society that works for us all. The strategy is ambitious, as it should be, and comprehensive, as it should be, and it sets out a clear direction of travel. The House will have an important role to play in holding the Government to account on the delivery of the strategy. I commend the inclusive transport strategy to the House and look forward to working with hon. Members as the Government deliver it.
This debate is about the 13.9 million people in the UK who want to benefit from barrier-free travel, whether for work or leisure, whether to advance their opportunities or lifestyle, and to do so with choice and dignity, and without additional cost. No one chooses to be born with or to develop an impairment, and yet we know that disabled people are seriously economically and socially disadvantaged, frequently facing barriers throughout their lives, and facing discrimination even now in 2018—23 years after the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.
Inclusivity across our transport system can, should and must break this cycle and enable disabled passengers to access the things that the rest of us can enjoy. Labour fully comprehends this, because it is written in our DNA that when you create barriers, whether economically, socially or physically, you not only discriminate but limit the opportunities of others. We know how transport provides social connectivity to people who are isolated, can facilitate access to work or leisure, and can enhance independence and opportunity. To get this wrong is to limit the lives and hope of others. To get this wrong means that the state has disabled people by allowing barriers to continue.
Progress and spend over the past eight years has been too slow and too little. The inefficiencies within the system have yet again meant that disabled people were pushed to the back of the queue—and, I have to say, without enough realisation from Government or remorse from the industry.
Tragically, Governments and society have for too long built those barriers to disabled people, to exclude them and to remove the freedoms that so many of us take for granted. Today, I am sure we will hear many powerful examples of physical barriers across different modes of transport—planes, trains, buses and taxis—and for those wanting the opportunity to actively travel by cycling, walking or use of a mobility vehicle. We will hear about the infrastructure limitations and barriers that people face, and the choices and opportunities that they limit or deny people altogether.
I recall a woman in my constituency who is doubly incontinent, due to radiotherapy treatment for the disease she had—she did not choose to be so. She was denied universal credit owing to the complete failure of work capability assessments, which has left her in poverty, making it unaffordable for her to travel. Not having a toilet on a train, at a station or on a coach means that she cannot travel to see her mother. That is her goal. We must and should enable her to reach it.
I use that example to highlight the range of considerations that must be taken into account when we create an inclusive transport network. Disabled people are priced off our railways because they are far more economically disadvantaged than non-disabled people. Disabled people have to find an additional £570 a month in costs. Poverty is a major reason why people cannot travel, and because people cannot travel—for example, for work—they are economically disadvantaged. If Labour is about anything, it is about breaking this cycle, which we know has got far worse since this Government came to power. Wages have stagnated to below 2010 levels, and the most in need are denied the very social security to support their access requirements, keeping people in poverty or pushing them further into poverty.
Labour will, as is our mission, end this shameful and disgraceful approach to disabled people. In the sixth richest country in the world, we will not tolerate marginalising the most vulnerable people in our society and robbing them of the most basic rights that anyone should be able to have. Transport provides such an opportunity to turn people’s fortunes around. Whether someone faces a physical or sensory impairment, a mental health or neurodiversity challenge or a combination of those, whether they are injured, a parent with young children and buggies to navigate, old or frail, Labour will remove the barriers that stop them achieving their goals.
The Government’s inclusive transport strategy makes a good start, but much is missing, and I wait to hear how it will be fully funded and scheduled for implementation. Maybe Monday will be its judge, when the Chancellor gives his Budget statement. I know that the Minister has prioritised this strategy, but sadly her boss, the Secretary of State for Transport, has not shown such commitment.
More than £50 million of the Access for All funding planned for the current control period has been deferred, with half of all projects being postponed. Control period 5 funding has been slashed from £135 million, including a £32 million roll-over, to £87.1 million in 2012-13 prices, with the remainder of the original fund value now planned to be spent between 2020 and 2024. Labour is committed to restoring the £50 million that the Government have slashed from that budget.
Network Rail is inviting nominations for eligible stations, following the Government’s commitment of up to £300 million for Access for All in control period 6, but it is also looking for cash-strapped local authorities to contribute to bids and work in partnership—money that they do not have. Commitment is demonstrated by money. That is where the Government have been left wanting.
The Government’s inclusive transport strategy sets out five strands of work: raising awareness of passengers’ rights, staff training, improving information, improving infrastructure and using technology. Those are all welcome and all plausible, and long overdue. Addressing rights and responsibilities is good. Every penny wisely spent on infrastructure forms a crucial part of removing barriers for people who want equality, but sadly the strategy is not complete, and I therefore have to say that disappointment was felt on the Labour Benches. I know from talking to the amazing charities working on access issues across the transport sector that they share that disappointment.
I turn now to those who work across the network—something omitted from the Government’s strategy. Staff training, which we know can make a real difference, is rightly in the strategy, but who is working in the sector? If the transport sector does not make a radical change to who it employs, transport will fail to understand what is wrong. Of the 13.9 million disabled people, just 3.4 million, or 24%, work—what a wasted opportunity.
Every time I ask this question, I think of a constituent of mine who is autistic. He absolutely loves trains and wants to work on the railway. He has done courses and training under Government schemes, but at 30 he has only had three months of work sticking labels on jam pots. We are impoverished because his ambition has been denied. I set a challenge to the transport sector and the Minister today. Having tried to draw out statistics to no avail on how many disabled people work across the sector, which speaks volumes, my challenge is this: what are you doing to radically change the diversity of the workforce? No excuses and no prejudices—what are you doing?
If the workforce is inclusive, the industry and Government will not only grasp what they have to do to change, but economically, people who have been disabled will be able to get out of their homes and travel, and economically, the sector will benefit. If we have to enable staff, we have to enable everyone. Labour is committed to taking us on that journey, and we believe that the unions will be the facilitators of change. This is in Labour’s DNA. It is in our name. We are about transforming the world of work.
At this point, I want to recognise the incredible work that the Transport Salaried Staffs Association has done on neurodiversity and the transport sector. It stands out in the industry and has shown real leadership in recognising opportunity. I also have to extol the commitment and endurance of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers for its persistence in making the case that a second safety-critical person—a guard—must be on a train. It is right. If transport is to be inclusive, physical and structural changes have to occur, but we also need people to be there, providing the vital public service that enables, not disables, people.
My hon. Friend is dealing with issues around the presence of staff. Does she agree that the presence of a member of staff on trains and at the station is not just important for disabled people—it may be vital for them—but is good for everyone, because it means that everyone who encounters a difficulty has someone they can go to for help and advice?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We know how vital our public servants working across the rail industry and the transport network are, at vital interchanges and stations, providing not only signage and support for individuals but the holistic customer service that the public rightly expect.
Cracked pavements are a major transportation barrier for people who trip over the cracks. People have lost their lives as a result of this. If we are going to talk about active travel, which we must, we have to ensure that councils such as my own—which has shamefully not addressed this—are equipped to address this issue. Parking on pavements is a cause of this and must be addressed. I was delighted when the Minister said that she was committed to addressing this, to help visually and physically disabled people avoid serious risk.
We need to build a cycle industry for everyone. EMPowered Cycles, which I went out with a few weeks ago on a ride, is inspirational in the way that it adapts bikes to enable anyone who wants to cycle to do so. Labour wants every child to have the chance to ride and to access cycling—and, for that matter, we will extend that enjoyment to all, taking away the multiple barriers faced by disabled people who want to cycle. Making cycling accessible for them will make it accessible for all.
The Bus Services Act 2017 rightly demanded that audio-visual equipment be installed across the network—thanks to Labour’s amendment. However, two years on, we are still waiting for the Government to lay the regulations. When will those regulations be laid? Will Brexit get in the way yet again, or will we see them laid? The bus companies say that they are not able to install the equipment because they do not know the scope of the requirements on them. I urge the Government to move on that issue.
To access a bus, however, people need a bus. The cuts to bus routes, with 199 routes cut or reduced last year alone, have cut the opportunities for disabled people at a time when 60% of disabled people live in homes without a car. That is why Labour is committed to reconnect people and communities in rural and urban areas through our bus plan. As for the fear this Government have sowed throughout the community transport sector—I thank all those involved in the sector for their service—they have not even had the decency to respond to the consultation from May, which is six months ago, leaving community transport in paralysis. Labour would take away that fear and support this vital lifeline to so many.
In the light of the independent report on taxi and private hire that was published in September, “Taxi and private hire vehicle licensing: recommendations for a safer and more robust system”, Labour welcomes the recommendations and has committed to reform the legislation guaranteeing national standards on safety and accessibility.
As for rail, we could dedicate a whole debate to station access. Stations absent of rumble strips on their platform edges and those with poor signage are failing the test. My trip to Biggleswade station highlighted how making such adjustments would mean that not only disabled people, but elderly people and mums and dads with pushchairs could use the train. Just 20% of stations are currently step-free. May I congratulate Liverpool’s metro Mayor, Steve Rotheram, and Councillor Liam Robinson, with their publicly owned trains on their publicly run network, on procuring an entire fleet of new trains that are step-free and accessible? It just goes to show what a publicly run service can achieve and why Labour will prioritise this issue—oh, and they have ensured that there will be guards on the trains.
I have to raise Govia Thameslink Railway’s disgraceful pronouncement earlier this year about dwell times at stations. That was another of its failings, and another reason that the Secretary of State should bring that route back under public ownership. It instructed staff:
“DO NOT attempt to place PRM”—
a person of reduced mobility—
“on train if there is a possibility of delaying the service”,
and that someone having a seizure should be moved
“from the train as quickly as possible”.
This is completely unacceptable. It boasted that such
“processes will help us deliver a 21st century railway”.
No they will not, and to discriminate so overtly shows just how unfit such franchise holders are.
Labour further understands that we need a real shift in engineering. I say to disabled people, “Become engineers”, and I say to the Government, “Make this happen”. When our engineers, designers and transport leaders have lived experience, then we can engineer in access for all. Others have to change, too. At a recent presentation, the Office of Rail and Road told us how it was content that one in five people were failed by Passenger Assist. That failure told us why we are not content with that organisation. Leadership has to be about ambition, and I was very surprised that the Minister said that her strategy would be delivered by 2030, which coincides with a date set by the UN, given how fast she could drive forward the strategy.
Leadership is about ambition, and that is why Labour believes that the public transport system can and should be transformed. With my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) at the helm—a man burning with ambition to create an economically, socially and physically inclusive railway—that will change lives, and that is what Labour Members will achieve when we come into government.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), but I have to say that I was surprised by the tone of some of her speech. I have never previously viewed inclusive transport as an overtly party political matter; lavatories and lifts matter to us all. This goes deeper than just lavatories and lifts, but they are important. As far as I am concerned, the inclusive transport strategy is something to be celebrated across the House.
I heard what the Minister said in her generous remarks about the great man, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). I should say that the codename for this report in my office is the Maynard report. I do not in any sense mean to denigrate the great work that I have no doubt the Minister will do in taking this forward. As she said, on this issue, she will be a fast driver for change. However, I think we should all pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, who has a personal interest and passion in this area, which he has had and has evidenced throughout his career. I know that he feels particularly strongly about the accessibility of our transport system. In fact, he feels equally strongly about accessibility and transport. In the early years of this strategy, he was able to marry his two passions together, and the report is a testament to some very hard work both in the Department and in the ministerial team.
For those with disabilities, not being able to access work, visit family and friends, or pop to the shops is isolating and can only make disabled people feel more lonely. The inclusive transport strategy shows that the Government are taking accessibility very seriously. I was particularly interested in the section on those with less visible disabilities, which are easy to ignore—I am sure that we all do that—on a daily basis. From railways to roads and from air to maritime travel, I have no doubt that the strategy will help to ensure that all forms of transport are made considerably more accessible to disabled people.
In Banbury, we have been talking a lot about our transport network as part of our bid to become an age-friendly town. A community-led initiative recently ran a survey of older people in the town, and transport came top of their list of priorities. We know that we have an ageing population across the nation, and that many people are living longer with more complex needs. Ensuring that they are able to access public transport is an important part of their independence. We have made really good progress: 98% of buses in England now comply with the Public Service Vehicles Accessibility Regulations 2000, which is up from 28% in 2004. Audible and visual announcements are now commonplace, and the new £2 million fund available to provide further support to the roll-out of these announcements across the UK’s bus network is welcome.
Many of my constituents have also benefited from community transport initiatives. Two years ago, residents in Wendlebury were pleased to receive funding from the Department for Transport’s community minibus transport fund. The minibus is available for hire by all villagers and it provides a vital lifeline to those who find it difficult to get around. The volunteer community connect transport scheme is run by my constituent, Keith Davies, through the Banbury citizens advice bureau. He and his fellow drivers work with the Royal Voluntary Service to help the elderly disabled to get to a GP or hospital appointment, pop to the supermarket and meet friends or visit family in town. Its work is really valued by our community, and it is right that it should be celebrated.
Local councillors have also been working extremely hard to reinstate community bus schemes that had gone out of service. In Banbury, I particularly want to celebrate Councillor Kieron Mallon, who has helped to reinstate the B1 Easington route via Kidlington Assisted Transport. Three other bus routes have been piloted—the B7a and 7b in Grimsbury and Poets Corner and the B8 in Hardwick—and I am hopeful that they will become regular routes. We know that outside the inclusive transport strategy the Department is currently looking at the use of section 19 and 22 permits by some community transport operators. It is important that any action taken is proportionate and does not put any of these schemes at risk. We must continue to be proud of the support and help that the Government have given to community transport services.
I am sure that, like me, many colleagues here this afternoon will have received lots of emails from constituents about pavement parking. Guide Dogs has run an effective campaign. We know that cars parked on pavements and other street obstructions can be problematic for people in wheelchairs, the partially sighted, guide dog owners and indeed people with buggies, whom the Minister mentioned earlier. It is welcome news that the strategy recognises these issues and that the Department will carry out a wider review of pavement parking laws.
Extending the blue badge scheme will also make a genuine difference to those with hidden disabilities. The scheme has worked well, but I have long campaigned for temporary blue badges for those who have had an operation or broken a leg, for example. I have talked to the Minister about that before, and no doubt I will again. This great scheme could be more flexible, but in general it is to be celebrated.
I also welcome the strategy’s commitment to fund Changing Places lavatories at motorway service stations in England. In Banbury, we know how important these facilities are, even though we do not yet have one. Cherwell District Council has been exploring potential sites for a Changing Places facility over the last few months, and I really hope that we will be able to build one soon and that disabled people will not have to hang on much longer. Ensuring that adults with acute learning and physical disabilities have fully accessible toilets is really important. The £2 million fund to install facilities in motorway service stations will help to ensure that disabled people and their families can travel more comfortably and without worry.
There are many aspects of the strategy that I have not been able to touch on today but which are also extremely welcome to my constituents. I congratulate the Department on taking decisive action to open up our transport network so that it is accessible for all. Everyone deserves the right to travel confidently, easily and without extra cost and worry.
I am delighted to speak in the debate, although the opportunity has come around rather sooner than I expected, so I am afraid that my speech is in the form of a large pile of Post-it notes. I apologise if it is a little disjointed. I welcome the Department’s work on an inclusive—
I thank the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan), who is a valued member of the Transport Committee, for allowing me to continue.
I very much welcome the Department’s work on an inclusive transport strategy and the opportunity to debate these issues. We know that disabled people are often reliant on public transport, and much of my speech will focus on that. As the Minister said, disabled people face difficulties due to the accessibility of transport, its cost and attitudes, and as I have said already, many measures that can make public transport more accessible for people with a disability also make it more accessible for everyone. Audio-visual announcements on buses, which are standard in London and, I am pleased to say, available on almost all buses in my city of Nottingham, not only are essential for someone who is blind or visually impaired, but help everybody using the bus, particularly if they are visitors from out of town or going on an unfamiliar route. If people can hear what the next stop is, it helps everyone. We look forward to having visual announcements on all trains in the future. As people get older, they often experience greater difficulties with mobility and hearing, and with an aging population, addressing such issues becomes ever more pressing.
The hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) talked about pavement parking. Guide Dogs has done important work to raise the profile of that issue and the problem it poses to many people with a disability, so I hope that the Minister will tell us when we can expect to see some change. Pavement parking was the subject of a private Member’s Bill some time ago, when the Government promised to act, so I would be grateful if she could give us a timescale. I also welcome the work around shared spaces, which is another issue that Guide Dogs and other organisations regularly raise on behalf of people with visual impairments.
Of course I welcome the commitment to getting more disabled people into work, but my concern is whether the Government are doing enough on a range of issues so that people have the support that they need to get back into work. Perhaps that is an issue for another day, but the availability of accessible and affordable transport certainly plays a key role in ensuring that disabled people can access the workplace.
Funding for these measures is really important, but sadly there is a problem in my city at the moment. In September, Nottingham City Council changed the rules for the concessionary pass for people with a disability. Until early September, disabled people could use their mobility pass before 9.30 am, which was a huge assistance not only to disabled people in work, but to many who would be travelling to attend hospital and other medical appointments. As a result of the funding reductions that the council has suffered, it has had to go back to the national system, which says that passes can be used only after 9.30 am. That enormously regrettable decision is having a significant impact on disabled people in my constituency, although I understand why the council made it. This is about the availability of resources as well as policy.
Another local issue—I wonder whether the Minister is aware of this at a national level, and whether it is a problem in other places—relates to payments for on-street parking through parking meters. Increasingly, meters that allow people to pay by cash are being replaced by services such as RingGo, which involve people paying for their parking by telephone or using their smartphone. I am concerned about the impact of that on older and disabled people, particularly those who are deaf or have a hearing impairment. Has the Minister considered that issue and asked local authorities that are implementing such changes whether they have properly considered the impact on disabled people?
I will come on to speak about a number of individual modes of transport, but people going on journeys do not think, “I’m going to take a bus journey and a rail trip, and then I’m going to walk.” People think about getting from their starting point—perhaps their home—to where they wish to go. We must ensure that there is joined-up thinking, because a disabled person needs to be confident that every leg of their journey will be reliable and accessible. What action is the Minister taking to ensure that there is the joined-up and integrated approach that a disabled person will need if they are to have the confidence to travel? Unfortunately, we know that many disabled people are stopped from travelling because they do not have that confidence.
A report published in April 2017 by the Equality and Human Rights Commission stated that transport options for disabled people are “very limited” because of access and expense, and that disabled people report feeling “trapped” by high costs and limited options. The report also refers to
“attitudinal or psychological barriers that prevent or discourage disabled people from using transport services. This could involve the behaviour and attitudes of some transport staff or concerns that people have about using transport, such as fear of crime, abuse or attack”.
Of course, those are not just issues for disabled people, as they often affect young travellers or women travelling late at night. There are many common issues that we can look to address.
Community transport has already been mentioned, and the Transport Committee’s first report of this Session considered the Government’s proposals on changing the regulations on section 19 and 22 permits. There is considerable concern among Members on both sides of the House about the potential impact of the Government’s changes. Indeed, it is not just a potential impact, because the Government’s actions in July 2017—that was before the Minister took responsibility for community transport, which is a recent development—have already started to have an impact on community transport operators. I wrote to the Minister only a couple of weeks ago to express concern about the actions of some local authorities, traffic commissioners and police. That is happening even though the response to the consultation has not been published and the Government have not issued new guidance.
When the Committee took evidence as part of our inquiry, we heard from hundreds of individual disabled people and the organisations that represent them. We were struck by how many people referred to community transport as a “lifeline”. I am sure that the Minister has listened to concerns raised across the House. I hope that she will take them into account when she publishes her response to the consultation and act to protect community transport, which is vital for so many disabled people.
I know the Minister is passionate about buses and I have been heartened by our discussions so far, but there are a number of issues to raise. One concern that has been highlighted by the Campaign For Better Transport since 2010 is the loss of supported bus services, which in part relates to the reduction in funding for local authority services. Thousands of services have been cut or scrapped altogether as result of those changes, and the impact of that on people who depend on buses—they might be people on low incomes, older people, or of course disabled people—is a great concern. Ahead of the Budget, I hope that the Minister has had conversations with the Chancellor and put in a plea for appropriate funding for transport, and particularly for buses, which are so important to communities up and down the country. Those cuts have had a particular impact on rural communities and more isolated locations.
The curtailing of services can have a particular impact on disabled people. Last week, the Transport Committee held an outreach event in Leicester where we talked to bus users. One woman, who had been a driver in the past but due to having had a stroke was now a bus user, described how on one of her local services the number of stops had been reduced. Where the bus had previously stopped at the hospital, it now stopped at the bottom of the hill before it reached the hospital, leaving her with a difficult journey uphill to access a very important local facility. That is just one example of how services are sometimes curtailed in a way that has a disproportionate impact on disabled people.
Reference has been made to the importance of wheelchair spaces on buses. Everyone is of course aware of the potential clash between buggies and wheelchair users for that space. I pay tribute to Doug Paulley, who took this issue on and confirmed that disabled people should have access to them. I welcome the Government’s commitment to act, but I would like more clarity on when it will happen. We raised this issue during the passage of the Bus Services Act 2017 about 18 months ago, so it would be helpful to understand when further action will be taken. We do not want to see a clash between the needs of wheelchair users and those with large amounts of luggage or prams and buggies. We want to ensure that buses are accessible for everyone. There are some really good examples of bus design. Nottingham City Transport, in my constituency, has large banks of tip-up seats that allow space for two wheelchairs or a large number of parents with children in buggies, so it can be done. We need to ask some bus operators why they are not acting more quickly.
The same is also true for audiovisual announcements, which I have already mentioned. Another shocking example from our visit to Leicester last week was told to me by a young woman. Her friend, who is visually impaired, had got on a route that normally has audio announcements, even though it is not standard in that city. She noticed that there were no audio announcements, so she spoke to the driver who said, “Oh yes, we’ve turned them off because I find them annoying.” That is really shocking, so what action will be taken to ensure that that cannot happen?
Finally on buses, the Minister knows that I wrote to her about the importance of transport to hospital. Many of those who use an older person’s concessionary bus pass use it to travel to hospital and medical appointments. I was really glad that, after I wrote to the Minister—alongside Age UK, which has done excellent work on this in its report, “Painful Journeys”—it appeared in the inclusive transport strategy. I just want clarification on some of the action that was promised. Has transport to hospital been raised at the disabled people and society cross-ministerial working group mentioned in the strategy? Is cross-departmental work currently under way? If so, what specifically is happening? What are the Minister’s plans for ensuring that the commitments in the strategy on transport to hospital actually happen? Will they definitely be built into the evaluation framework? I am sure that she will address those issues when she sums up later.
Trains often dominate our discussions. I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I am hoping we have plenty of time for this debate.
I will try to push on, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I have such a long list of issues to raise.
On trains and the disabled people’s protection policy, we know that the Office of Rail and Road was looking at undertaking a review of the guidance. It stated that a consultation on draft revised guidance was planned for September this year and that completed guidance would be published by the end of the year. Will the Minister update us on what she knows about that work, because it was not published in September as planned?
On step-free access, I welcome the progress that has been made, but 202 stations out of 2,565 is simply not enough. What is the goal on that? Perhaps the Minister could clarify whether, when we talk about step-free access at 202 stations, that is from the train to the street or just from the platform to the street, because that makes a big difference. Step-free access is important, but I appreciate that it can be costly to implement. There are some much cheaper and simpler measures that can make a difference. Although it will not solve the problem of step-free access, one such measure is seating at stations. We have a “Take a Seat” policy across the city of Nottingham, and I have noticed that there is nowhere for people to sit down and have a rest at some stations. I noticed last week that people can sit down and have a rest at Euston station, but if they do, they cannot see which platform their train will be on. That leaves disabled people without very much time to get to their trains. Perhaps the Minister will raise that with train operators.
Another question is the accessibility of the rolling stock—the trains—for persons of reduced mobility. Currently, 78% of the rolling stock on our network meets modern access standards. That figure should be 100% by 1 January 2020. What assurance can the Minister give us that that will be the case?
I have already touched on staffing issues on trains and at stations. I was really pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) mention the importance of attitudes to invisible disabilities. The TSSA’s work on neurodiversity is particularly significant. I am sure the Minister shares my concern about the report in The Guardian on Wednesday of the mum of a 17-year-old son who was humiliated by Great Western staff, who accused her of trying it on when she asked if she could take an earlier train because her son was overwhelmed by the station environment. Train operators need to do more to train their staff properly so that such circumstances do not arise.
The Minister alluded to the issue of taxi drivers who ignore customers in wheelchairs or try to charge customers more if they have assistance dogs.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we must all be mindful of the needs of the visually impaired? A constituent of mine recently reported to me the difficulties he had with crossing roads safely after his guide dog surprisingly and unfortunately died. He relayed to me the challenges caused by cars that were badly parked too close together or illegally on pedestrian crossings.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that important issue about the experience that disabled people, including those with sensory impairments, face when they are out and about on our roads. In addition, some crossings do not allow enough time for people to get across the road. I am sure that the Minister has heard and will consider what my hon. Friend has said and that she will make sure that it is reflected in her final strategy.
I want to raise a couple more issues, one of which is about aviation. Many of us will have seen reports in the media of the experience of BBC journalist Frank Gardner on planes. At the moment, it is not possible to take a wheelchair on to a plane. Has the Minister looked into that, and when will it be addressed? Not entirely dissimilar is the question of taking mobility scooters on public transport. In Nottingham, many users of mobility scooters welcome the tram, because they can take their mobility scooter on to it. They do not need any assistance, because there is level-floor access; it is great. In some cities, albeit a small number, it is not possible to take mobility scooters on to the tram network. Three rail companies—Grand Central, Gatwick Express and Northern—have a total ban on mobility scooters. What discussions has the Minister had with them about improving the situation for those who rely on mobility scooters?
I want to mention a problem that sometimes arises for passengers on the railway who use “turn up and go”. I understand there can be a lack of communication between the originating station and the destination station. Will the Minister tell me what she is doing to ensure that train operators are addressing that issue, to ensure that there is good communication between stations?
My final plea is for the Minister to do something about fares. As she will know, fares on public transport have been rising faster than wages since 2010. That clearly has a disproportionate impact on disabled people who rely on public transport and many of whom have lower incomes, particularly those who have suffered changes in their disability benefits. Will the Minister ensure that funds are made available to hold down the cost of public transport so that more people can have access to it, either because they need to or because they want to? We know that it has many benefits in helping us to tackle congestion and poor air quality.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate on behalf of the Scottish National party, and also to follow the all-encompassing speech of the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood).
It goes without saying that, although transport is devolved to the Scottish Parliament, there is certainly scope for us to discuss areas of best practice. I note, for example, that the inclusive transport strategy recognises that the UK Government are monitoring policy developments on the part of the Scottish Government, and I believe that it is sensible to proceed on that basis.
I am sure Members on both sides of the House agree that when we discuss this issue, the views of disabled transport users must be first and foremost in our minds. Whenever possible, it must be the experiences of disabled people that shape the policy. Our role is to try to understand the many practical difficulties that disabled people experience in accessing transport, such as the lack of wheelchair-friendly taxis, poor dropped kerbs leading to bus stops, and long-outdated train stations that do not cater for those who need extra assistance.
Obviously we all recognise that disabled people should not have to feel socially isolated or be treated like second-class citizens, and it behoves policy makers, north and south of the border, to ensure that our various forms of transport are genuinely accessible. Indeed, progress has been made as we move towards the point at which all buses, coaches and trains must be accessible to disabled people. In Scotland the percentage of buses that are accessible or have low floors increased from 33% in 2004-05 to 96% in 2015-16, and figures published in 2017 show that 47% of taxis in Scotland were wheelchair-accessible.
That progress, however, has been too slow for too long. The transport section of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 included a commitment that all licensed taxis would be wheelchair-accessible by 2012. The taxi trade had 17 years in which to deliver that goal with the encouragement of Governments, but it did not happen. As time has passed, successive UK Governments have allowed timescales to slip and transport providers to relax rules contained in the Disability Discrimination Act.
I have been greatly educated on this subject by one of my own constituents, Councillor Jim MacLeod from Port Glasgow. Jim has been a tireless champion of disability rights. Over many decades he has learned, through personal experience and from helping others, just how incremental progress has been. In his expert view, the most pressing issues facing disabled people are cars blocking access to pavements and dropped kerbs; a lack of wheelchair-accessible taxis; buses having only one wheelchair space, which is often taken up by prams; no announcements on buses to let blind people know where the stops are; a lack of accessible train stations or railway staff to assist disabled people getting on and off trains; and a range of continuing issues relating to disabled people boarding planes. Other Members have raised all those issues today, so it is clear that they exist throughout the United Kingdom.
When reading background media coverage relating to this subject, I was struck by one particular story from Edinburgh. It concerned a wheelchair user who said that she had felt “embarrassed and humiliated” when a bus driver refused to fold away an empty buggy, which would have allowed her to enter the bus. Another passenger then shouted at the woman, blaming her for the bus being held up. The passenger continued to snigger and demean the woman, which made her feel that
“some people are valued more than others.”
In 2018 it is truly shocking that anyone, particularly a wheelchair user, is made to feel like that for something as simple as entering a bus. This is not an isolated incident: it is alarming to note that disability hate crime in England, Wales and Scotland has risen dramatically in the last year. Further, research by disability charity Scope found that one in four disabled people have been prevented from using public transport by other people’s attitudes. In the context of the inclusive transport strategy I therefore welcome the UK Government’s commitment to launching a public awareness campaign in England and Wales to promote ways in which members of the public can positively interact with disabled people to encourage a supportive travelling experience.
In Scotland, too, we have learned the lessons of the “letters from Scotland” campaign in an effort to highlight hate crime and to send a message of solidarity and support to those on the receiving end of such abuse. Such campaigns are vitally important because there is no point in having the latest accessible buses or newest technology only for disabled people to be put off traveling because of intolerance from passengers or transport staff. If we are serious about tackling the disability employment gap, we must be moving towards the point where disabled people accessing transport is just an everyday, unremarkable, mundane occurrence. Sadly we are not at that point yet.
Undoubtedly, new technologies will play a part in making transport more accessible, and might even revolutionise how disabled people are able to move around the community. I recently met with BMW who showed me some of their work in the field of automated cars. Their vision is impressive, but emergent technologies like fully automated vehicles are still a long-term aspiration.
In that regard, it is important that we are realistic about how disabled people use technology. Polling by Scope found that disabled people are far more likely to use “mainstream” technology than “specialised” assistive technologies. In a sample of 2,000 disabled people, 78% said that mobile technology was helpful or very helpful in helping them live more independently. Some 65% on the other hand indicated that they either did not use assistive technology or did not find it helpful. I hope digital companies therefore realise the excellent market potential in developing technologies that can assist disabled people in travelling. In this instance, both the developer and the consumer have much to gain from the implementation of new technologies.
On 6 June I had the opportunity through an Adjournment debate to raise the issues brought to me by my constituents Margaret Ambaras and Laurel Holleran, who are blind and partially sighted. They and their colleagues took me on a blindfolded walk which allowed me to experience the difficulties they have to face. In that debate I highlighted to the Minister, who is also responding to this debate, a number of issues that they raised with me, some of which have again been referred to today. Those issues are pavement parking and shared spaces and issues to do with taxis, accessible information on buses and safety in travelling.
In that debate, I was able to explain the problems they were having and asked the Minister some specific questions about pavement parking and guidance on shared spaces. I am very disappointed therefore that pavement parking gets barely a mention in the inclusive transport strategy and action on it is again put on hold.
The Minister shakes her head, and I will be glad to hear her comments on that. Action on pavement parking is still being considered as it has been for some time. What was highlighted in that earlier debate was a need for a policy not just in London, but across the whole of the UK, to allow for pavement parking to be banned and to be the exception rather than the rule. My constituents Laurel and Margaret, along with Guide Dogs and other organisations, will be very disappointed that that issue has not been tackled, because it is very important for them. It really affects their ability to get around and to make the whole journey by walking from, for example, where they live to the railway station, the bus stop or other locations. It is really sad that we have missed this opportunity to do something very immediate to resolve that problem. As the Minister will recall, local authorities are keen to have guidance on this issue so that they can tackle it.
The issue of shared spaces is considered in the inclusive transport strategy, and it is good that the Government have put a pause on them, but as others have said, there is no clear guidance for local authorities on retrofitting shared spaces to ensure that they are safer for people with disabilities of all kinds, particularly those who are blind or partially sighted. It will be interesting to hear from the Minister exactly what is going to happen now. What are we going to do? Are we going to ban shared spaces, as many people with these problems would like to see, or will there be guidance on exactly how to make the existing ones safer? Looking to the future, how are we going to ensure that people with disabilities are able to cope with them? I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on that.
In the debate, I also asked the Minister whether the Department would issue statutory guidance to licensing authorities on disability awareness training. It is clear from my constituents’ experiences that such guidance has not always been available. I note that there is a reference in the strategy to providing such guidance, and that a working party is looking at the issue, but as I understand it, the Government have not responded to the working group’s report on this aspect. That is disappointing as well, and I wonder whether the Minister could update us on when we are likely to get a response on that issue.
I also asked the Minister about accessible information on buses. This is already provided in some places, but as others have said, it is sometimes switched off and it sometimes just does not work. That is something that really needs to be tackled, but I note from the report that it has been deferred to the end of the year for further guidance to be issued. Will she also comment on that?
The Minister was kind enough to write to me after the debate about the issue of guards on trains. This has already been referred to many times this afternoon, because many people with disabilities are really concerned that there will no longer be guards on trains. They have relied on those guards to help them in the past, and their presence is a key part of ensuring that people with disabilities feel safe on trains. The Government have to reconsider their position on this, because it is so important to so many people. Again, this is a missed chance.
I know that the Minister understands the importance of some of these issues because, as she said in my Adjournment debate, she herself has had experience of them within her family. However, I am really sorry to see that pavement parking has been sidelined. Other issues that have been mentioned today include the importance of bus services to people with disabilities. My constituents Margaret and Laurel have told me about the importance of bus services to them, so it is really disappointing to see the number of bus services being reduced nationally. We are seeing bus services disappearing in my own area, where funds are stretched, and I know that that is happening across the country.
Another issue that we talked about in that debate was accessibility on trains. As other Members have said, this is not just about step-free access in stations; it is also about being able to get on a train. In my case, when I get the train in Newcastle, I have a struggle to get on it because there is a huge gap. What steps are being taken to ensure that there is funding to make our stations and our trains properly accessible?
At this point, I should refer to my constituent Catherine Nichols, a young woman with a number of disabilities, some of which are visual and some of which relate to her mobility. Catherine never ceases to remind me of how important it is that people like her and those with other disabilities are able to get on a train and that trains are suitable for them to use safely. We need to pick up on such issues, but it seems that money will be a real restriction on any improvements, but I want accessibility to be improved, so money is necessary, and other Members have asked the Minister to raise that with the Chancellor.
We cannot ignore the issue of pavement parking, as raised by Guide Dogs and my constituents, any further. The matter has been put off and put off, but it needs resolving because it is hampering people’s ability to get where they need to be and to use accessible transport. The issue needs to come to the top of the pile and be addressed as a matter of urgency.
As expected, we have had an insightful and thoughtful debate about how we must absolutely remove the barriers that have been created across the transport system, which have disabled 14 million people across the UK who experience some form of impairment. I thank all hon. Members for highlighting their concerns, their cares and their local examples. Each case tells a story of how communities have been denied access to transport and, therefore, to the opportunities enjoyed by so many of us.
The hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) extolled the transport system in Oxfordshire, but it is alarming to learn of the level of cuts made by the Tory-run Oxfordshire County Council. The impact on the buses has been of such a scale as to garner national media attention, showing that the Government’s austerity plan is still very much alive.
As ever, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) gave us a tour de force as she took us around the different modes of transport in her constituency, eloquently setting out what needs to be done and highlighting Nottingham City Council’s dedication to increasing disabled people’s access to transport. Like her, I regret the fact that the cuts that her council has faced mean that it is not able to offer disabled people the ability to use their passes at peak times. I hope that the Chancellor will give her some hope on Monday. The intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith)—I was sorry to hear about the loss of his constituent’s dog—highlighted how important it is that road users and planners ensure that vehicle parking does not create more barriers.
The hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) highlighted the progress made by the Scottish Government, who are moving far faster on initiatives than the UK Government. He mentioned how his constituent Jim MacLeod had alerted him to the barriers that disabled people face. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) again spoke about her experience as her constituents Laurel and Margaret took her on a tour of her constituency to highlight the barriers that visually impaired people face. She also spoke of the essential role of guards on trains. Following all those contributions, there is clearly much to be done.
Communication was a theme in today’s debate. Whether in person, by providing information or through the latest technology, it is important that we are able to communicate with disabled people to enhance their experience of the transport system. We have heard about the different modes of transport that are available, but if we bring modes of transport together at an interchange, we must ensure that those choices are available to everyone, including disabled people. It is vital that we get the maps and apps right and that we extend the opportunity to access transport to everyone. The challenge before us today is to take advantage of all those opportunities and technologies through the work of our dedicated transport workers.
Labour sees transport interchanges as a real opportunity. We have heard how people can be disadvantaged by stations not being accessible, and therefore we need to bring about redress. The historical franchises should employ disabled people and, of course, under our national railway plan we would not have to wait years until franchises run out. We could make those changes and make a difference to disabled people.
We have heard about the impact of different environments, about people who struggle in crowded environments and perhaps require additional support. I was heartened when I met London North Eastern Railway a week ago, as it now employs an access and inclusion manager, Charlie Woodhead. I look forward to working with him, and it shows what can be done by a publicly owned railway service. I hope others will follow that example.
Making transport accessible means that more people can travel. Having more people travelling on public transport is better for our environment, and it is better for everyone economically, for the individual traveller and for the Treasury.
Of course everyone should have the opportunity to book in advance, and it is a positive advance if systems can retain information about a traveller’s support needs. However, everyone must also have the opportunity to turn up and go, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South said. That is clearly where transport is failing, and I trust that, significantly, the strategy will mean that everyone can have equality of access to our transport system.
As I said in my opening speech, 14 million people depend on the Government getting this right. My hon. Friends and I have set out how planes, trains, ferries, buses, cycling, walking and other modes of transport can be accessible. My hon. Friends are determined to see barriers removed, lives transformed and opportunities unleashed for all those who experience barriers today, whether economically, socially or physically. A Labour Government will ensure that they have the opportunities they deserve.
With the leave of the House, I wish to thank the House for the opportunity to discuss this important inclusive transport strategy. The debate has been good natured, and both sides of the House clearly agree that the strategy is a positive and ambitious programme, but of course there is always more to do to help disabled people and older passengers to access our transport system.
I am pleased to note that this might be the first time an Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson has welcomed the Government’s work, and I look forward to working with Members on both sides of the House to deliver the inclusive transport strategy. We have also heard some powerful stories about how passengers have been undermined, have lost their confidence or have been made to feel incredibly small when all they were trying to do was undertake a journey. That is just not acceptable, and we hope the inclusive transport strategy will address that in some part, especially in addressing the level of training that has to be undertaken by so many people involved in our transport network.
Transport is an essential part of our society, especially through its ability to help us to access work and school, and to stay in contact with friends and family. Through those connections, transport reduces feelings of social isolation, anxiety and loneliness. Transport should be easily accessible, and it is essential to helping to build a stronger and fairer society and a stronger economy. I hope Members will agree that the inclusive transport strategy is bold and shows not only my commitment but the commitment of the Department for Transport to building a more inclusive transport system—a transport system that provides good customer service, that gives disabled people the confidence to use it and that provides information in a range of formats to support journey planning and unexpected changes along the route.
I now wish to discuss some of the valid contributions made by Members from across the House. First, let me deal with the points raised by the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), because she asked so many questions. It would be near impossible for me to answer all of them, so I hope she will allow me also to respond in writing. She made a request for further clarity on what the Government will be doing on wheelchair spaces. In my time at the Department, I have always been clear that a wheelchair access space is for wheelchairs, but I accept that further training is required for some people to empower them to ensure that they can deliver that advice and guidance when they undertake their day-to-day job.
An expert stakeholder group was established and has advised Ministers on a combination of amendments to legislation and guidance and in March we accepted those recommendations. We will also bring measures forward by the end of the year. Fundamentally, this involves much better training and understanding, in order to enable people to apply common sense.
The issue of community transport was raised, including by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis). I agree that community transport is vital, especially in the most rural constituencies; we have fantastic volunteers doing phenomenal work, be it with younger or older people, across the spread of community transport provision up and down the country. A consultation has indeed taken place and we are aiming to publish our response as soon as we can—I hope it will be in the next couple of months. It is vital to remember that clear guidance has been given by the Department to ensure that local authorities are not stopping taking contracts, and I am having as many conversations as I can to ensure that. Community transport is incredibly valuable and we need to make sure that any guidance we give lands appropriately; sometimes we may not fully calculate the language we use, but our motivations are to ensure that local community transport groups can continue to provide a service for the communities they wish to serve.
The hon. Members for Nottingham South and for York Central (Rachael Maskell) raised an important point about joined-up travelling, because people can set off on a journey only to find that things do not work out. They want to be able to ensure that their next mode of transport is available. Through the inclusive transport strategy, we are going to set up a transport leaders scheme that enables all the modes of transport to communicate with each other. One of my ambitions is for passengers to be fully up to date. Any piece of equipment, app or whatever this becomes has to be linked up. Whatever journey someone is taking and whoever is taking care of them, they should be able to communicate with the next person on that journey and with the person who may or may not be receiving them at the end of that journey. That is the challenge I have set the sector and that is what I am going to be working towards the sector delivering.
The hon. Member for Nottingham South also asked how often we discuss various modes of transport at the inter-ministerial group on disability and society, especially in respect of looking at community transport, and at transport to and from hospital and medical appointments. I assure her that I raise all these issues, including with the planning department that sits on the group, which discusses where bus stops are allocated, whether they are on the wrong side of the road for people who are getting off, whether they are near hospitals and so on. I also talk to the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that it fully understands how these services should be procured, taking into account the needs of passengers at all times.
The hon. Lady also asked for statistics on Access for All. We have allocated £300 million and we hope that we can do as much work as we can, as swiftly as we can. Figures to the end of 2017 suggest that more than £85 million has already been spent on Access for All projects, and we have £300 million in place now. All those projects that were deferred previously will now be assessed for the new Access for All funding.
The hon. Lady also referred to pavement parking, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury—[Interruption.] Forgive me, it was the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist). The issue has been tackled by the Department, and one of our Ministers is gathering evidence on the effectiveness of the current pavement parking laws. We are considering changes to the law and listening carefully to concerns raised by campaigners. There is a commitment to ensuring that we can put out the review by the end of the year. In all the decisions that we make, we have to make sure that we reflect everyone’s concerns and do not make fast decisions that might cause adverse reactions in local communities.
An important and valid point was made about parking meters that require people to use their phones, so I shall take that away and ensure that we pick up on it. We will see what we can do with the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee and other disability groups that we work with, and ask whether people not having an app, or being unable to use an app or to do whatever they need to do, is causing an issue with parking. We must make sure that parking is accessible for everybody, so I am grateful that that point was made and will make sure that it is tackled.
Let me respond to some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Inverdale—
I am awful at reading and writing, aren’t I?
We have assigned £2 million to public awareness campaigns and we will ensure that we can tackle not only the sector that has to deliver the service, but the public. It is not right that we hear stories of people’s inappropriate behaviour, or of individuals—whether they are bus or train drivers—who are employed to deliver a service but just make really poor decisions. I hope that the inclusive transport strategy can deliver confidence among people who are disabled so that they can undertake journeys and are not deterred by one bad journey. We do not want to put anybody off, so I am really pleased that the debate was not negative at all and was about making sure that people can feel positive about leaving their home and undertaking journeys.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury started her speech by saying that lavatories and lifts are not celebrated enough. I am keen to hear how she will continue to celebrate them throughout her tenure as a Member of Parliament. She spoke about the wonderful community transport work that is being done in Wendlebury and the bus routes in her constituency. As I said, we will undertake a review of pavement parking. She spoke about the importance of the blue badge scheme going beyond what we accept as disabilities in the traditional sense and accepting lots of other disabilities, as well as about the importance of Changing Places facilities. Such facilities are something that we do not come across until we need them or become a carer for someone who does, but they are vital. We hope to have facilities in place in most service stations in the country. My ambition is for them to be in place in all service stations, but unfortunately ministerial ambitions and budgets have to sit side by side. With that programme of work, it is important that the decisions are not made within the Department; we are working with Muscular Dystrophy UK to make sure that the right decisions are made.
I cannot let the debate end without talking about our passion for buses and for doing what we can to make sure that bus patronage goes up. There are variations up and down the country. There are fantastic places, from Liverpool to Brighton, where bus patronage is up. That is mostly down to the services provided, with up-to-date information and journey times that are sort of guaranteed. People are able to use technology on buses, and there are concessionary fares or cheaper fares for younger people. It is really about understanding the customer base. We have around £1 billion for local authorities to support concessionary fares, whether for disabled people or older pass holders. I am always campaigning for more funding for buses. It is vital that we have one place, one direction and one strategy, so I am keen to work with my Department to put together an investment strategy that focuses on bus services today and tomorrow.
Hon. Members’ references to taxis and private hire vehicles ranged from the illegal behaviour of not allowing guide dogs into cabs to the question of how we raise standards. Reference was also made to the task and finish group, which did indeed produce its recommendations in the summer. I am in the process of putting together the Government’s response, but Members can rest assured that issues relating to what is already illegal are fully understood and that standards throughout the country will be good and not varied, as they are currently. There is not too long to wait for that.
Some comments were made about aviation. We all hear dreadful stories of wheelchairs being broken or not arriving on time, and of passengers not being dealt with. The Department has been working hard with not only the aviation sector, but the disability groups that we work with, take evidence from and consult. An aviation strategy consultation will be produced by the end of 2018.
Cracked pavements were also mentioned. I am surprised that my constituency was not mentioned, because this matter comes up quite a bit, even in Wealden. The Department has a substantial amount of funding for highways maintenance. I believe that an investment of £3.8 billion between 2016-17 and 2020-21 will address the matter, but the point is absolutely valid.
We heard that bus drivers were turning off audio-visual information. We are investing £2 million to make sure that that information is available, especially among smaller bus companies, because it is absolutely key for all people who use buses, not only those who are disabled. It makes no sense whatsoever to turn off that information. Once again, training is absolutely key in this area.
A number of comments were made about driver-operated-only and driver-controlled-only trains and levels of staffing. First, we must be aware that where those issues have been raised, such as on the Southern lines, there has been an increase in staff, not a reduction. We must also understand that driver-operated-only and driver-controlled-only trains have been operating for a substantial amount of time. It is not always about having more people available; it is also about having the right people with the right training. It does not help if more people are available but they do not do the right thing by supporting passengers who have concerns about disability and accessibility. As this matter is often raised, it is important that people know that the motivation behind the inclusive transport strategy is to ensure that disabled passengers have a good-quality service. That is the primary goal of the strategy. Opposition Front Benchers need to decide whether to prioritise passenger experience, or whatever a union wishes to push. We need to establish whether we look at training across the rail network, including for drivers, or support union practices that may or may not get in the way of providing a better service for passengers. I believe that we need to focus on passengers, instead of on what the unions might be arguing for at any one point.
The inclusive transport strategy has not only a very ambitious plan, which will obviously continue to be in place, but a substantial amount of money behind it. We have £300 million for Access for All, which is about not just steps, but anything that a train operating company, in conjunction with the local community and the local authority, believes needs to be amended at a station or on a platform to make it more accessible. There is also £2 million of new funding for the Changing Places scheme, as well as £2 million for audio-visual information for smaller bus operators, which is backed up with training so that drivers do not switch it off when it is meant to be working. A substantial amount is also available for awareness.
I have set out what is happening today but, if I may, I will take a moment to talk about the future. Throughout the Government’s industrial strategy and in all our major transport infrastructure projects, technology is absolutely key. We want to make sure that transport is at the front of absorbing any new technology that will enable us to provide the most efficient service possible. New developments such as autonomous vehicles and mobility as a service offer benefits to our economy and have a great potential to improve the options available to disabled people. It is important that we are always abreast of new products and services to ensure that we design the most inclusive transport system.
We also have in place the future of mobility call for evidence, which is focusing on technology’s potential to help people to access and use transport. It is essential, as has been noted, that the designs developed are within the reach of all people, regardless of their disability. There is no point our running ahead and using technology from which people already feel excluded.
I thank the House for this opportunity to consider the important issues highlighted by the inclusive transport strategy. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members have been persuaded of not only my commitment, but the commitment of the Department, to improving accessibility for everyone on our transport network. I hope that that will not only make people’s journeys easier but, fundamentally, increase their confidence to go about their lives in the same way as the rest of us.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the inclusive transport strategy.