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Volume 817: debated on Thursday 20 January 2022

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have for further regulating the use of e-scooters given the safety concerns about their use.

My Lords, it is a particular pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Offord of Garvel and to be able to complement him on a powerful and stimulating maiden speech. However, we are here now to ask the Government what plans they have for further regulating the use of e-scooters, given the safety concerns about their use. I feel I have won the jackpot, as this is my first QSD from the Back Benches since 2013.

E-scooters are a recent invention. Like most inventions, they potentially offer some people real advantages. Also like most inventions, they have downsides. The trick, if possible, is to maximise the advantages and minimise the disadvantages.

Unfortunately, developments so far have not been encouraging. There can be no dispute that the law is being widely flouted—never a good place to start. I believe, and the Commons Library note confirms this, that riding e-scooters on public roads is illegal, unless authorised as part of an official experiment. Let us call them Boris scooters so that people listening to the debate can understand that arrangement. I believe that many of the e-scooters that I see on roads are not part of any such experiment. Moreover, unfortunately, it is difficult for the public to identify vehicles that do not qualify—especially on a dark night. In any event, we all know from personal experience that e-scooters are often ridden on pavements, which is illegal in any circumstances. Yet there seem to be limited attempts to enforce the law.

The point, of course, is that heavy objects moving at the equivalent of a fast running speed are potentially dangerous to the public, especially to pedestrians. It is a pity that these problems have been allowed to develop without any attempt by the Government to set appropriate limits and boundaries. Speaking more personally, I live in fear of my life from e-scooters as I walk home from here. If I were disabled, I would be much more worried. The pavements have become a jungle. This has become an urgent matter; something must be done, and done quickly.

I have two possible approaches which I should like us to debate. The first would be radical: namely, to learn from the experience of motorbikes and prohibit the sale of e-scooters in the UK. Arguably, we should have banned motorbikes long ago. They give much pleasure to a small group of people, and my uncle rode one into his 80s. However, they are very dangerous and have been instrumental in the deaths of thousands of young people in the UK. What a waste! If they were invented today, I do not believe we would allow motorbikes to be used on public roads.

For the same reason, although they do not go quite as fast, there is a case for stopping the use of e-scooters on public roads—and doing so now, before more damage is done and more lives lost. There have been 258 collisions in London alone during the first six months of 2021, according to the police, and I am sure this is an underestimate, as many collisions go unreported.

As I said, the risk to the disabled is especially worrying, and I note that organisations representing them, especially the blind, very much agree. I will be particularly interested to see what my noble friends Lord Holmes and Lord Shinkwin have to say on the matter: it is great to see them here today. I add that e-scooters also generate fear for the citizen, both about being injured and being the subject of e-scooter-based mugging.

These are serious disadvantages to e-scooters, and we will hear of others, but we need also to consider the benefits, which might be economic, environmental, or from increased convenience. Taking the economic aspect first, I recognise that new consumer goods can usher in economic growth—think fridges and hoovers in the 1930s, and washing machines and dishwashers in later waves. Bicycles were actually a very early example. So far, the production of e-scooters appears to generate no economic benefit for the UK—they are predominantly manufactured overseas—so benefit must be found, if at all, elsewhere in the economic cycle, and it is difficult to see where it might lie.

We also need to understand what they will replace. There seems very little evidence that they will replace cars. The main users are young people, and they will be substituting for bicycles, including electric bikes, non-electric scooters and public transport. All of these are less dangerous, and cycling is better for your health.

Some have argued that there are environmental advantages. Interestingly, the House of Commons report suggests this may not be the case, at least at present, essentially because there is a high carbon cost in manufacturing, as well as in obtaining the rare minerals increasingly needed in large quantities for batteries. Nor can I see that, overall, there is a net benefit in convenience for society as a whole. Although I am normally free market in my approach, as colleagues will know, I think a ban would be worth considering.

However, there is a second approach, which is to regulate, provide appropriate powers and penalties, and give the police or local and transport authorities the resources needed to enforce the law. The regulations would need to cover the safety and design of the scooters so that they are less dangerous and, in particular, do not catch fire, which has been an issue mentioned in a number of recent media reports. The design might include lights and sounds. The regulations would also need to cover speed limits, mandatory helmet wearing—given their speed—perhaps a simple driving test, and compulsory insurance. We would also need existing laws to be properly enforced. If this approach were chosen, a proper costed impact assessment would be illuminating.

Perhaps my noble friend could advise on what basis current e-scooter provision has been permitted under law and whether we presently have the subordinate powers to make legislation of the sort I have outlined—or something like it—or whether a new Bill would be needed for that purpose.

I have called this debate today because I am very worried by the present situation. We are drifting into a bad place and failing to act as scooter numbers mushroom, making action needed to control them much more difficult. There are various trials going on, of course, and I look forward to an update on the results.

I am grateful to so many fellow Peers for speaking today in last business. It is because we are all looking to the Government for a response and for action on this matter. I very much look forward to the reply from my noble friend, and I hope she will surprise me.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe, and I congratulate her on securing this timely and incredibly important debate. I echo her congratulations to our noble friend Lord Offord on his excellent maiden speech as well.

How can e-scooters be part of a public realm of transport which is inclusive by design? How can they fit within anything which could be seen as safe? Just today, a report mentioned the fire risks and trip hazards when they are abandoned on pavements. The riders themselves, often young men or boys from lower socioeconomic groups, can be injured and sometimes tragically killed. How is this something that any Government would seek to support in any of our key policy areas?

We are told that e-scooters are part of micro-mobility, and I can see some potential use cases there. But I ask my noble friend how e-scooters can help with people’s health? How can they help other pedestrians, who—as is suggested by the word “pedestrian”—are trying to walk on the pavement? For me, that is an impossibility and a clear and present danger, but they would be a trip hazard for anybody. The bays. often sited on pavements, take up crucial pedestrian space as well.

E-scooters are often seen as a piece of fun equipment or something to enjoy. As my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe said, there are many analogies to the motorbike when it first emerged. But when we look at the engineering, is it not possible that even at that primary production level, e-scooters are dangerous by design? They are seen as a bit of fun, yet our A&E departments up and down the country tell a very different story. A&E doctors and nurses are having to deal with the consequences of e-scooter accidents at a time when they are already exhausted and under pressure, not least through the pandemic.

When we go to the international comparator, why would we push forward on e-scooters when nations such as Denmark, Spain, France and Israel, and the state of Texas and others, are looking to retreat, if not heavily regulate, control and withdraw from the e-scooter experiment? The law is clear, but it is not being enforced. What advice are police forces being given, and have they the resources to enforce the current legal situation?

I agree with my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe that, if not an outright ban, this is certainly time for serious consideration and a pause in what is happening. I say that for myself, as a blind person, but I say it also for all people who could become casualties of this e-scooter free-for-all. At least we need the current law to be fully enforced; we then absolutely need to look at further and closer regulation. If something is not safe, if it is not inclusive design, what part can it possibly have in a society for everybody? If we truly believe in levelling up and building back better, what place the e-scooter?

My Lords, I am delighted to follow my noble friend, who spoke so eloquently, and I congratulate my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe on securing this debate. Can the Minister confirm at the outset that, in fact, e-scooters are banned on public land unless they are part of the control trial? If they are part of the control trial, we are told by the Met Office—sorry, by the Metropolitan Police; the Met Office is for forecasting of a different kind—that e-scooters are classed as a motor vehicle under the Road Traffic Act 1988. Can she tell us how many driving licences for this motorised vehicle have been issued as part of the control trials, since their commencement?

In the Minister’s view, and that of the department, does she consider that perhaps those driving an e-scooter need to realise that they have to be over the age of 16, in possession of a driving licence, and should not be riding one without insurance cover, which would lead to a £100 fine? Can she tell us how many e-scooters have been confiscated that are privately owned but being driven on public land, and how many fines have been imposed? I am sure that my noble friend shares my concern at the statistics on the sheer volume of accidents provided in the Library note. Her own department, in November 2021, records 882 accidents involving e-scooters, with 173 involving other vehicles, and 931 casualties in accidents involving e-scooters, of which there were three deaths, all of whom were e-scooter drivers. In that, 253 were seriously injured, while 675 were slightly injured.

How are the Government going to respond to the recommendations of the Association of British Insurers, which sides with my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe? If there is going to be a regulatory framework for e-scooters, it said:

“We strongly oppose the implementation of any regulatory framework that could result in liabilities falling onto the Motor Insurers’ Bureau (MIB) and premium-paying motorists without a corresponding insurance requirement for these vehicles; or some form of contribution towards the MIB’s liabilities from users of”

e-scooters and related devices. Without such a recommendation being implemented, we will all have to pay extra insurance premiums to cover the third-party liability. Do the Government intend to ensure mandatory use of helmets for e-scooter users?

My noble friend told me in reply to a Question last year that the current framework is that a person can be fined up to £300, or get six points on their licence, or their e-scooters could be impounded. I end where I began by asking her to tell us who is responsible for enforcement, how many e-scooters have been seized and how many driving licences have been endorsed and fines have been issued? What expectation can we have of better enforcement in future?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for calling this debate. I hope noble Lords will forgive me for taking part not as an expert but as someone who lives in London and has become concerned and, to be honest, bemused by the rise of e-scooters on our streets. What a meteoric rise it is; having been properly introduced only in 2018, the companies that make these vehicles are now raising millions of pounds in venture capital, a clear indication that the market for e-scooters is not slowing down any time soon.

Despite their envisaged popularity, I am still unclear whom these scooters are aimed at or what they are for. The argument you hear most is about the environmental benefits—how they will contribute to greener, cleaner spaces in our towns and cities—but is this really the case? As my noble friend just said, and according to the Royal Society of Chemistry, unless e-scooters are used daily for many years and replace a car, their impact on the environment is ultimately damaging, with high carbon costs in manufacture and mining of raw materials.

Is it realistic to suppose that e-scooters can and will replace a private car? According to recent figures by Lime, one of the companies taking part in the Government’s trial, the average journey is two kilometres—a journey that would take about 20 minutes to walk. Is it not more likely that, far from replacing car journeys, e-scooters are in fact replacing walking or cycling, both of which are far more environmentally friendly? The evidence on this is still sketchy, but the Government’s evaluation is looking at usage. If it shows that e-scooters are replacing not car journeys but active travel—a key aim of the Department for Transport—can my noble friend the Minister say whether this will be a consideration in deciding how and whether to regulate further usage? When the House of Commons Transport Committee recommended legalising their use, it also said

“it would be counter-productive if an uptake in e-scooters … primarily replaced people undertaking more active and healthy forms of travel.”

The evaluation report will also look at the user demographic of e-scooters, which will make interesting reading. The 2020 Kantar report into public attitudes revealed that there was no obvious target market for e-scooters. Some people did not feel that they were relevant for their personal transport needs. Others thought that they were not suitable for their age or stage in life—for example, because they had children. In that case, why are there so many of them?

I refer today only to London, as that is my experience. In my area, where e-scooters are supposedly banned, they seem to be the exclusive preserve, as mentioned, of 20-something men, used at all hours of the day and night, often without much care and attention. Invariably, they tend to be illegally ridden private scooters. As one online writer said when test-driving the legally trialled version:

“At a tenner an hour, or a fiver for a 25-minute run, they’re hardly a cheap commute … but restricted to the roads and banned from most parks, they’re not much of a leisure activity either.”

If we are not sure who or what they are for and the green argument is by no means clear, are these scooters really worth all the associated risks—the many rider accidents and the danger to pedestrians? I would say no. However, as I suspect they are here to stay, can my noble friend say whether the Government will take account of the experience of other European cities? Stockholm is now halving its number of e-scooters from 23,000 to 12,000, Copenhagen has banned them in the city centre and Oslo has capped the number at 8,000. Arguably, these cities are all far more suited to their use than London but, having let the genie out of the bottle, even they are having to grapple with the consequences. I fear it will not be long before we have to do the same.

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe for giving us the opportunity to debate such an important subject. I also thank her for her empathy: something which has been notably lacking from the Government’s approach.

The primary duty of the state is to protect the citizen. I take no pleasure in saying that that fundamental duty has not been honoured by the Government in respect of the introduction of e-scooters, and the scant regard they have shown for the safety of the UK’s 14.1 million disabled people.

Perhaps I could illustrate the point. Just over two hours ago, a wheelchair user was propelling themselves over a zebra crossing not a mile from your Lordships’ House. A cyclist was approaching from a distance, so the wheelchair user stopped to allow time for the cyclist to stop. They did not stop. Instead, they swerved at the last moment, within inches of hitting me, leaving me feeling very unsafe in my wheelchair. I made it to the House in one piece—just. Sadly, that is not a rare incident. Barely a day goes by when I do not feel threatened by e-scooter users, e-cyclists or pedal cyclists, sometimes all three and often as not on the pavement.

I know that the incident I described is not specific to the regulation of e-scooters, but it is symptomatic of the culture of impunity that this Government have allowed to take hold and, sadly, seem to be doing nothing to prevent. About 23,000 pedestrians are killed or injured in police-reported road accidents every year in Britain. Of course, disabled people are at greater risk—as I explained from my experience this afternoon. The problem is that the laws designed to protect us are not being abided by; nor are e-scooter users, cyclists or e-cyclists being required to abide by them.

My noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond mentioned A&E cases. Just this Tuesday, a pedestrian was struck by an e-scooter in Hackney; she may be left with life-changing injuries. Freedom of information requests have shown that ambulance call-outs to incidents involving e-scooters jumped from 75 in 2019 to 480 in the first eight months of 2021, an increase of 540%. Yet the Metropolitan Police will reportedly now no longer routinely seize e-scooters being ridden illegally on public roads, instead confiscating them only from repeat offenders.

The UK’s disabled citizens need to hear that the Government recognise that their primary duty to protect the citizen applies equally to them. The Government have a duty to ensure that those who break the law by cycling on the pavement, going through red lights, failing to stop at zebra crossings or breaking the speed limit, outside your Lordships’ House, are punished—fined and named and shamed—so that disabled pedestrians can leave their homes without fear of being injured, whether by an e-scooter, e-bike or bicycle.

My Lords, I was rather taken with my noble friend Lady Sanderson’s questions: what are e-scooters for and who are they for? In the absence of answers to those questions, I am even more inspired by my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe’s bold desire for a complete ban. But my starting position is that, if the Government want to retain and expand a commercial e-scooter rental scheme, they must ensure that the current rules and regulations are enforced and be prepared to regulate yet further.

Like other noble Lords who have spoken this afternoon, I am very concerned by the evidence of accidents provided in the Library briefing note, and indeed other anecdotal evidence supplied by correspondence to those of us taking part today. Please do not take my pragmatic approach to the continuation of commercial schemes as support for them; I just find it hard to imagine that the Government are going to revoke them. Because of that, my bigger concern is if they are to relax the law and make e-scooters permissible on public roads. As we have already heard from my noble friends this afternoon, I fear that is happening by stealth because of inertia in enforcing the current laws. As my noble friends have said, people are using these e-scooters with impunity and doing so in a reckless and often unsafe way.

I would be grateful if my noble friend the Minister could provide an update today on police enforcement, as my noble friend Lady McIntosh has already requested, around things such as confiscation. I would also be grateful if she were able, after today’s debate, to provide us in writing with what guidance has been provided to the police to inform how they enforce the law. I hope she will forgive my scepticism on the police’s enthusiasm to do what is required of them.

To illustrate my scepticism, the other week I observed a police officer open a gate to the Parliamentary Estate to allow a private e-scooter rider to exit. On seeing this, I said to the police officer, “That’s illegal; why didn’t you stop him?”, and the response I received was, “You’d think I could”. I said, “You’re the police; I think you should”. That was the end of the conversation.

It is bad enough when pedestrians and other road users see e-scooters flouting the law, but it provokes anger when the same e-scooters travel at speeds that exceed the limits or breach traffic lights. So the Government also need to bear in mind the frustrations of road users for whom driving is critical to their job or direct source of income, such as black cab or taxi drivers, delivery drivers and tradesmen such as plumbers, electricians and so on—the people who are struggling to enter cities to provide essential services to the people who live here or to other businesses because of increasing traffic regulations or traffic schemes. Beyond what I have already asked, my question to the Minister is: what is the department doing actively to consult the kind of users I have just described about the current e-scooter pilot schemes and the way in which private users are flouting the law? It is worth bearing in mind that the people I have just described are not the sort of people who respond to consultations, so are the Government in contact with trade bodies and firms—Pimlico Plumbers, or whatever? Can the Minister also provide us with an update on the evidence of the involvement of e-scooters in other crimes?

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on introducing this debate, which has been monopolised by seven Conservative Back-Benchers. It is a very timely debate because, as we have discovered, we are trying to identify the correct new regime for e-scooters. I will take a slightly more nuanced view than some of my noble friends—and I do so as a former Secretary of State for Transport.

Where I entirely agree with everything that has been said is that we need to minimise this interregnum where there is widespread illegal use of e-scooters, alongside legal use of rented e-scooters. We have listened to the questions. What do the police do? Do they intervene only if an e-scooter is being driven dangerously? Do they stop somebody and warn them that it is illegal? Do they confiscate the e-bike? Or do they simply turn a blind eye, in which case the law is brought into disrepute? We need clarity on the final regime as soon as possible, and then enforcement.

On 24 December, the Government said they were extending several trial areas to November this year. They then have to evaluate the scheme and legislate, so what is the earliest date by which we can have a final regime, which we can then begin to enforce? What is the target date?

As for what the regime should look like, I have travelled to Westminster on two wheels for the best part of 50 years—although the wheels have a longer circumference than those on an e-scooter—so I am aware of both the benefits and the hazards of two wheels. The benefits are the speed, the certainty of the length of journey, the flexibility, the economy and the scope for replacing car use. Nottingham launched a trial zone for e-scooters in October, which saw 1 million rides in the first 12 months. The latest citizen research by the TIER project showed that 17.3% of rides replaced car journeys.

On the other hand, we have heard about the risks and hazards, not just to the rider, which can be reduced by high-visibility clothing and observing the Highway Code, but, more importantly, to other road users and pedestrians. There is no excuse whatever for riding on pavements or for anti-social behaviour.

Looking ahead, my view is that we should live with the e-scooter. While I understand all the problems outlined by my noble friends, I am not in favour of banning them. If we are to ban activities—something deeply un-Conservative—I would choose smoking before e-scootering. A ban would be an unnecessary barrier to the promotion of an individual and popular mobility scheme, which can complement public and private transport.

Having said that, I agree with my noble friends that we need parameters. I have been overtaken by someone on an e-scooter going twice as fast as the 15 mph that I do on my bike. The Dualtron e-scooter has an advertised top speed of 68 mph. I favour a maximum speed limit, as with e-bikes.

On licensing, at the moment you do not need a driving licence for an e-bike; you just have to be 14. But you do need one, even if provisional, to ride a rented e-scooter legally, as my noble friend Lady McIntosh said. If we have licences for one, we should have them for the other, and on balance I am not in favour of driving licences for either e-scooters or e-bikes. If you need a licence for an e-bike with a top speed of 15 mph, what about bicycles that go twice as fast? If we are to make it compulsory for e-scooter riders, capped at 15 mph, to wear helmets, what is the logic of exempting cyclists, who can go much faster?

Finally, I think you should be able to buy e-scooters and not have to rent them—but why are nearly all of them made in China? I understand why the trials are restricted to rental projects, but I see no reason for subsequent restrictions, which would constrain the beginning and end point of each journey because you have to dock the scooter. Owned scooters are less likely to be left around, and are likely to be ridden more carefully. I hope that these points might be taken on board.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving us this excellent opportunity, and I am surprised to find that I agree with most of the views that have been put forward. In my view, the Department for Transport is treating the 31 pilot projects rather as the Prime Minister is treating the Sue Gray report—as an excuse for lack of action, while the evidence mounts and everyone can see there is a big problem.

I start from a position of positively welcoming e-scooters, as another potential alternative to cars. They are not exactly active travel because they require very little effort, but they are emission-free at the point of use. Evidence shows that they tend to be used by young people for short journeys and are often used just for fun. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

One problem is that the Government have set up so many very long-term pilot projects that a large number of people think that all e-scooters are now legal. Another is that there is virtually no police enforcement for illegally used e-scooters outside the pilot areas, while retailers are selling hundreds of thousands of them—mostly with no warning that they are illegal on roads and pavements. It is estimated that there are now at least 1 million privately owned e-scooters across the UK. In addition, there are 23,000 available to rent.

That is a very large experiment from which to draw conclusions, and there is now plenty of evidence of the damage that the current wild west approach is doing. Nine e-scooter riders died last year, and a study in Bristol showed that only 7% of riders were wearing helmets. Indeed, the pilot schemes do not require helmet wearing. There were 951 casualties involving e-scooters, 732 of which were the riders—one as young as four—and 253 seriously injured people.

The Government seem paralysed into inaction while the rest of the world is taking this issue on. To give a snapshot of good ideas, in Germany, for instance, you have to be insured, with an annual insurance sticker; you must have lights, brakes, reflectors and a bell; and there is a 20 kilometre per hour maximum speed. France, Austria, Belgium, Finland, Portugal and Sweden have all based their rules on those that apply to cycling. Spain, the Netherlands, Ireland, Italy and Australia all seem to have rules. There are a host of ways in which sensible regulations can be introduced and technology can come to the rescue—for example, using geo-fencing to exclude them.

Despite all that regulation, however, very serious issues remain. The impact on people with disabilities has been very well outlined. I have lost more than 70% of my hearing, and I am told that they make a swishing sound as they come along, but I cannot hear that. The hire and charging model for e-scooters is not as environmentally friendly as you might think, because the batteries have a very short lifespan, and a time-based hiring system encourages people to speed to get to the end of their journey by the end of their hire time. There is also a serious and major fire risk, which has been revealed only this week, with a house destroyed by a fire due to the combustion of an e-scooter battery. So, I ask the Minister to please address that issue if she does not do anything else.

My Lords, as has been pointed out, this is one debate where the Minister gets more grief from behind her than from in front of her. I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, for securing and opening this debate.

As has been said, there are concerns about the use of e-scooters and the safety implications. I do not know whether the figures I have are anywhere near accurate, but as I understand it, in London there were 258 reported collisions in the first six months of last year, and no doubt a very much larger number of near-misses, which will have caused distress and fear for other road users—but, more concerningly, for pedestrians and wheelchair users, who do not expect to be mown down while on our pavements.

The Royal National Institute of Blind People has warned that e-scooters could pose dangers for blind people and has asked the Government whether they should each make a recognisable sound to alert pedestrians. E-scooters may be used on public roads in the UK only if they are part of a trial in a select number of areas. As part of these trials, e-scooters may be unlocked using a smartphone app and are limited, as I understand it, to 15 miles per hour and certain geographical locations. As the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, said, it has been reported that these trials are to be extended to late 2022.

Despite being currently illegal to use outside of private land, the Times estimates that there may be 750,000 personally owned e-scooters, which suggests either a lot of illegal use or a lot of suitable private land, or both. Due to reports of fires and the obvious threat to safety, e-scooters have been banned from Transport for London services and premises. Some 3,600 e-scooters were apparently seized by the Met police between January and November of last year, and any owners wanting to retrieve them must pay £150 and a £10 daily storage charge. I am not quite sure what else happens to them.

As I understand it—I am sure I will be corrected if I am wrong—in October 2020, the House of Commons Transport Select Committee recommended the legalisation of e-scooters. We cannot uninvent the technology, but as the question asked by this debate indicates, we need to ensure that there are relevant and appropriate regulations in place to address the safety concerns over the use of e-scooters if their general use is to be given the go-ahead. If they can provide a safe, relatively cheap and environmentally friendly method of transport, e-scooters could have much to offer, particularly if they encourage some people who use their car for shorter journeys in our towns and cities to switch their mode of transport.

I certainly hope that, in their response today, the Government will be able to update us on the progress with the trials and any emerging findings, particularly in relation to safety, and any initial thoughts they have on the scope of regulations that would be required in connection with the use of e-scooters. It would also be helpful to know whether they are or are not contemplating their legal use on pavements, and if they are satisfied that enough is being done—taking into account the cuts in police numbers over the past decade—to enforce the current law in relation to the illegal use of personally owned e-scooters on our public roads and pavements. Finally, what engagement do the Government currently have with the RNIB and other relevant organisations representing disabled people as part of the e-scooter trials?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe for securing this debate, and I thank all my Conservative colleagues for turning up as well. In my five years as a Minister, I think this is the strongest showing, proportionately, that I have ever had. There were many valuable contributions from all Benches, and I am truly grateful.

Transport is always changing and, as my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe noted, battery e-scooters are a relatively recent invention, although there was an internal combustion engine scooter around 100 years ago—there is a fantastic photograph of one—so maybe they will just be a fad. Who knows? But the Government believe that, with the right regulations, there is potential for significant economic, social and environmental benefits from light, zero-emission vehicles such as e-scooters. E-scooters can help to reduce emissions, as noted by a number of noble Lords. They can reduce carbon, of course, and nitrogen oxide emissions and particulates, which both contribute to poor air quality. If users switch from cars, there will be environmental benefits—but if they switch from cycling or walking, I agree that there will not be, although there may be other benefits.

Mode shift will be a key part of our considerations going forward, as was asked about by my noble friend Lady Sanderson. Based on examples from across Europe, in a pre-Covid context, we could expect modal shift to e-scooters to be around one-third from walking, one-third from public transport, 15% to 20% from car, and 10% from cycling, with around 2% for new trips. As with all emerging technologies, however, we must be mindful of the risks, and noble Lords have set out many valid concerns today. We want to ensure a measured and evidence-based approach to our policy decisions, which is of course why we are running controlled trials. They are trials, not experiments.

Let me share a few facts about the trials from the period from July 2020 to the end of November. More than 66,000 e-scooters have been approved in 31 trials across 54 areas. At the end of November, there were 23,141 e-scooters available to rent across all areas. Roughly 13 million trips had been taken, over 18.5 million miles travelled, and roughly 3 million hours ridden in total across the rental trials. To date, around a million individual users have rented an e-scooter as part of the trials.

The current regulations for trials limit e-scooters to a maximum speed of 15 and a half miles an hour and a maximum power of 5 watts. Users must have a full or provisional driving licence, and the licence is confirmed by the trial operator. While helmets are not mandatory, we, local areas and trial operators recommend that people use them. E-scooters are able to use cycle lanes, but I can confirm that it is absolutely illegal to use them on pavements. All trial e-scooters have insurance, provided by the rental operator and confirmed by the department.

The department also sets out minimum vehicle standards, including a requirement to have lights and a horn or bell to warn other road users, plus there are data-sharing requirements. All users in trials are provided with training via apps, and in some cases in person, to instruct them on safe and considerate riding. Most trial areas have dedicated parking bays and/or docking stations to help to reduce the risks caused by additional street clutter, a point made by my noble friend Lord Shinkwin.

Where problems with trials have arisen—and I agree that there have been issues—we have worked very quickly to nip them in the bud. For example, we increased the level of driving-licence checks that trial operators must perform when a new user signs up and put systems in place to ensure that you cannot get multiple sign-ups from a single driving licence.

In October 2021, the trials were extended to the end of this November. This will allow us to continue to fill data gaps and make some small changes; for example, we have introduced uniform ID plates to ensure that we can recognise e-scooters and make sure that the trials are as safe and well run as possible. We have been monitoring and evaluating the trials all the way through. It is a very fast-moving area; substantial additional data has been generated since we received an interim report last June. This has come from direct data feeds from the trial operators and survey data from, and interviews and focus groups with, e-scooter users and residents, including those whose income derives from being able to get out and about—that might be local tradespeople or taxi drivers. The final report for the trials is due relatively soon and will include all this information; we are just figuring out how to compile and present it to provide a comprehensive picture of the evidence. We hope to publish it in spring.

I have heard from many noble Lords—and, to a certain extent, I agree—that enforcement is absolutely essential. We know there are occasions where trial e-scooters are not used as they should be. We also know there are similar offences and penalties we can use for privately owned e-scooters in the public arena. For the avoidance of doubt, for my noble friend Lady McIntosh and all noble Lords, it is absolutely illegal to use a private e-scooter on public land or a public highway. These offences are available to both trial and private e-scooter users and derived from the same offences as for motor vehicles. This means they might include driving on the pavement, which applies to those using a trial e-scooter and those naughtily using a private one; not having insurance or a driving licence—this would mostly apply to people with a private e-scooter; dangerous driving, which applies to everyone; and drink-driving. E-scooter users either illegally using a private scooter in the public domain or committing an offence on a rented e-scooter, such as riding on a pavement, can be fined up to £300 and have six points put on their driving licence, and the e-scooter can be impounded.

My noble friend Lord Holmes asked whether police forces have had advice. We have issued guidelines to the National Police Chiefs’ Council on general safety and rules for trial e-scooter users. We have also made sure that, before local authorities apply to set up for a trial, we need to see evidence that they have engaged with the local police to ensure that they are well aware of what is about to happen in the area. However, the level of enforcement within each local police force is an operational matter for that police force—I suggest, in consultation with the police and crime commissioner. Many noble Lords in London may wish to write to the Mayor of London about that. Local authorities and trial operators are also required to demonstrate that the vehicles used are distinctive so that you can tell they are legal, trial e-scooters that are allowed rather than privately owned e-scooters that are not.

My noble friend Lady McIntosh asked for further information on confiscations and fines and the use of e-scooters in other crimes. I will follow up with whatever I can find in a letter. We are aware that a large number of people have purchased an e-scooter in recent years. That is why we believe it is so important that we conduct these very large trials to gather evidence so that we can inform future policy and any legislative basis for e-scooter users in future.

It is not illegal to sell an e-scooter. However, there are protections for the general public: under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, retailers need to give sufficient information about goods and services to consumers. These regulations carry criminal penalties, so they can be used against individual retailers. Ministers from my department have written to retailers twice, in December 2018 and again in July 2021, to set out their concerns that retailers were not providing this clear, visible and consistent information that we need.

On the safety of e-scooters themselves—are these things actually safe?—at the moment there is not enough reliable international evidence on e-scooter safety to compare them accurately with other modes. Evidence to date suggests that the rates of injuries are broadly similar when compared with pedal cycles. The overall change in safety risk will depend on the mode shift. If we see a mode shift from cars, that would of course be a positive thing, because cars can be a significantly more dangerous mode, particularly for other road users. We will look at the impact on safety overall and in the context of the sorts of journeys that are carried out on e-scooters.

We are aware that a small number of fire incidents have involved e-scooters in recent months and we are liaising with the trial operators and participating local authorities. We are also co-ordinating with a number of government departments, including the Office for Product Safety & Standards, to ensure that such matters are considered as part of regulations around any electric vehicle entering the UK.

My noble friends Lord Holmes and Lord Shinkwin both eloquently raised the challenge of e-scooters to disabled people, and of course we are well aware that there can be challenges, although to some other disabled people they may be of benefit. We particularly take the point about those who are blind or visually impaired and therefore unable to see the scooters coming. We have had numerous discussions with disability groups and we require that all e-scooters have a horn or bell so that they can make others aware. We will continue to engage with groups that we have good relationships with, including the RNIB. We want e-scooters to be as inclusive by design as possible. Indeed, all transport should be inclusive by design. I was horrified to hear about what happened to my noble friend Lord Shinkwin earlier today.

We have looked at other European countries and we will take heed of the way that they have taken forward e-scooters. For the time being we have a regulatory landscape that we put in in June 2020 following a consultation. What does that look like for the future? I know that noble Lords are looking for certainty from me but I cannot provide that today. We are still gathering and analysing the data. We want a safe, proportionate and flexible regulatory framework if we decide that is our way forward. We have been gathering plenty of evidence: we have responses to the future of transport regulatory review, and there is further stakeholder engagement to do, including state engagement with the insurance industry. No decision has been taken about the future legal status of e-scooters. Much as I would like to give a response to my noble friend Lord Young about timelines, I cannot at this moment in time. However, if they are to be legalised, we would consider removing them from the motor vehicle category and instead creating a new bespoke category of vehicles with the appropriate regulatory regime in place.

I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords—

Before my noble friend sits down, to go back to her answer on the legislative framework, would that require primary legislation to ban or regulate? Would it be necessary to have another Bill? I am very sorry that we cannot have a timeline, but it would be good to know the legislative framework.

Of course, that will depend on what we decide to do. One might assume that there would be a route with a primary framework that would set out this new type of vehicle. We have to remember that this stuff moves quickly, and one could have a system where you would have a framework from which you would then regulate to ensure that things can be adjusted as technology moves on. As I say, that is just one of many options, as I am sure the noble Baroness understands.

Committee adjourned at 4.59 pm.