My Lords, the way people travel should not be determined by their disability, and it is vital that bus services meet the needs of all people who wish to use them. Significant progress has already been made on the physical accessibility of vehicles, with 97% of buses now incorporating a wheelchair space. But we must do more. We are supporting mandatory disability awareness training for bus drivers, improving on-board information, and have announced our intention to develop a package of measures to support access to the designated wheelchair space.
My Lords, it is six years since the courageous Mr Doug Paulley was left off the bus and started legal action, without any legal aid, over wheelchair access. It is 16 months since the Supreme Court judgment in his favour. It is eight months since the department’s task force reported, and now it wants a further consultation. Will the Minister give a date for action? How will the priority of wheelchair users be ensured if a buggy user refuses to move? How will priority legislation be enforced, and how will the public become aware? Has the Minister on her travels not noticed that the purpose of wheelchair and elderly priority seats on London buses and trains is widely ignored?
My Lords, I have indeed noticed that, and I acknowledge absolutely that there is frustration over the time it has taken the Government to respond to the Supreme Court ruling that was given in January last year. We know that wheelchair users continue to face unacceptable barriers when using bus services, and we are taking action to ensure that they get access to the wheelchair space. In March, the Government accepted in principle the expert recommendations of a task and finish group we set up on improving access to the wheelchair space, and we will bring forward a package of measures later this year to address the issue. I acknowledge that it can be difficult for drivers to force someone to give up a space, and that is why we are speaking to drivers, parents and other interested stakeholders on how best to address this. One option we are considering is to amend the conduct regulations, but we are also looking at driver guidance and how best to raise awareness of the behaviours expected from other passengers.
My Lords, I had the privilege of being with Doug Paulley in the Supreme Court to hear that court’s judgment, which made it absolutely plain that the easiest way to resolve this problem was to amend the conduct regulations. The Minister’s predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, said at the Dispatch Box immediately after that judgment that the department would look at bringing forward those regulation changes. Sixteen months on, nothing has happened. To start a consultation when the Supreme Court was so clear seems ridiculous. When will the Government bring forward new draft conduct regulations?
My Lords, again I acknowledge why there is frustration on this. As I said, amending legislation is certainly one of the options we are considering. I am conscious that not only wheelchair users rely on access to wheelchair space, and we must make ensure that the approach works for all passengers. We set up the task and finish group to look at this issue and advise us on what measures to take; those experts were clear that the solution lies in a combined approach, including legislation, so as I said, we are looking to amend guidance and influence passenger behaviour. We are working on this and will have a package of measures later this year, which we think will deliver what we need.
My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, will know, the Oxford Tube bus service has an infallible and excellent system for dealing with wheelchair users, and it operates with complete efficiency. Why cannot other bus companies emulate that service?
My Lords, I am pleased to hear of the provision of the Oxford Tube service. For many disabled people, the quality of their interactions with coach and bus drivers will be as important as physical accessibility. Since March, it has been a mandatory requirement for drivers of local and scheduled buses to complete disability awareness training, and we are working with the industry and enforcement bodies to ensure that that requirement is implemented effectively. As I said, we are working on guidance for this training and will certainly look at what the Oxford Tube is doing.
I agree with my noble friend that community transport operators provide vital services. We are interpreting the exemptions to the EU regulations as widely as legally permissible within the existing legal framework so that as many community transport organisations and operators as possible can continue to provide their important services. There was a recent debate on this matter in the other place, and my honourable friend the Roads Minister has addressed this issue in detail. I will pass on a copy of his letter to my noble friend and place a copy in the Library.
My Lords, I am afraid that I do not have the exact number of members of staff who are working on this issue. As I said, in March my honourable friend Nusrat Ghani agreed in detail the recommendations of the task and finish group. We are working on this and will continue to do so, and, as I said, we will come forward with a package of measures later this year.
My Lords, I declare an interest in that my eldest daughter had to use a wheelchair for over 20 years. Fortunately, her multiple sclerosis has been treated and she does not use it any more. When she worked with London Buses on wheelchair access, she discovered that you have to be quite sure that the vehicle conforms to a certain weight limit. Manufacturers need to know what that limit is so that they can be sure that their wheelchairs will not break the ramp. If a wheelchair is too heavy, as some motorised ones are, it can cause damage. When my daughter first used one, the driver was very unwilling to take her on the bus, until the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, turned up next to her and said, “Get the ramp out, man”, which he did.
My Lords, I am just sorry that all disabled passengers who travel by bus do not have the noble Baroness there to help them out. The size of wheelchair spaces on buses and the specification of the boarding ramps and lifts are based on the dimensions of an internationally recognised reference wheelchair. I recognise that many people use larger or heavier wheelchairs, which might not easily be accommodated. It would be difficult and complicated to amend the standard so we do not have any current plans to review it, but we will definitely ensure that the information is readily available.