Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, these draft regulations are being made to require audible and visible announcements on local bus and coach services across Great Britain. The powers to make these regulations were conferred by the Equality Act 2010, as amended by the Bus Services Act 2017.
The Government believe that everyone should be able to use their local buses confidently, safely and independently. For many disabled people, however, this can be incredibly difficult. Despite the strides made since the Public Service Vehicle Accessibility Regulations were introduced in 2000, certain stubborn barriers continue to frustrate, deter and in some cases prevent disabled passengers travelling by bus. Not least among these is the lack of information on board some buses. Using the bus might be straightforward enough for many passengers, but if you do not know where you are or where your stop is, your experience can quickly turn into a significant challenge.
Consider visually impaired people, for example. A survey by the charity Guide Dogs found that 70% of visually impaired respondents had missed their stop because the driver forgot to tell them when to get off. Faced with having to guess where to get off or to rely on strangers, many visually impaired people are understandably deterred from using the bus. On the London Underground, London buses and trains across Great Britain, noble Lords will have seen audio-visual announcements in action. This is not new technology: on-board announcements have been required on new trains since 1998. For more than 15 years, most bus services in London have provided on-board information, and certain operators, such as Brighton and Hove Buses and Transdev Blazefield, have led the way in their own areas. However, as noble Lords will be aware, there is still much more to be done.
Despite some good work by the industry, only 25% of vehicles in England outside London have the necessary equipment installed. This figure is 22% for Scotland and 34% for Wales. It cannot be right that from one town to the next the experiences of disabled passengers can be so radically different. Buses support people to lead fuller lives, connecting them to their communities. Unlocking the benefits of buses for everyone is key to this Government’s mission to level up and spread opportunity across the country. We want everyone to travel with confidence, whether they board a bus in London or Leeds, Edinburgh or Elgin, Cardiff or Carmarthen.
This is why we have introduced these draft regulations, which will require operators of local bus and coach services in Great Britain to provide audible and visible information on board the vehicle. They specify that this must include information about the route, the next stop, route termination, diversions and hail-and-ride sections. The regulations will establish a minimum standard of information that passengers should expect across the whole country. The Government’s goal is to see audible and visible information provided on virtually every vehicle used on local services, and we want to see it used to its full potential, not turned down or switched off. With this in mind, the regulations specify minimum requirements for text size and volume.
Since Ofcom research has consistently shown smartphone ownership to be lower among disabled people than non-disabled people, the regulations also prevent operators requiring passengers to use smartphones to access information. For the most part, however, these regulations are broadly “technology neutral” and focus on the information that must be provided. Operators will be able to choose the solutions that suit their services best. The emphasis on outcomes means that the regulations will make a clear and obvious difference to passengers, regardless of the technology used. For disabled people, this will mean the ability to travel much more confidently and independently, no matter where they are in Great Britain or which operator they travel with.
I think noble Lords will agree that all passengers stand to gain from having this information on board. Under the new regulations, any passenger will no longer have to rely on the goodwill or memory of a driver or passenger to tell them whether they are on the right bus or, indeed, when to alight, particularly when they are in unfamiliar territory.
In developing the regulations, we have struck a careful balance between the benefits to passengers and the costs of compliance to operators. Our extensive consultation with representatives of passengers, the industry and the devolved Administrations since 2018 has been vital to achieving this. As a result of this dialogue during the consultation period and subsequently, we have exempted certain types of services and vehicles from the new requirements, which will help keep them on the road and serving their communities. However, these exemptions are very limited.
By October 2026, the vast majority of local buses and coaches will have to provide audio-visual information to comply with these regulations. We have prepared guidance which will help the industry to understand the new requirements and go even further in capitalising on opportunities to enhance and promote upgraded passenger experiences for everybody.
As we look to achieve the aims of the national bus strategy, onboard information will have an important part to play in attracting those with a disability, and indeed those without one, back to buses. On enforcement, we know that operators will want to do the right thing; we will give them the information they need to comply. However, bus passenger groups such as Bus Users UK and London TravelWatch will be involved from day one in arbitrating on passenger complaints and referring them to the Driver & Vehicle Standards Agency where appropriate. If the DVSA identifies sustained, negligent, or intentional cases of non-compliance, the cases will be referred to the traffic commissioner. This measured, proportionate approach will empower passengers to secure and enjoy the benefits of these regulations. This will help to establish accessible information as a staple of the Great British bus user experience.
In summary, these regulations will drive significant improvements to the accessibility of local transport in this country. They will bring us closer to realising our vision of a country where local services truly work for everyone and nobody is left behind. I beg to move.
My Lords, I declare my interests in that I have a son with learning difficulties, and have trusteeships of charities in the register and lots of past interests in the accessibility industry and public transport.
This is an excellent statutory instrument filled with good ideas that will be helpful to a range of people with many different disabilities. However, I gather that consultation for it started in June 2018. Presumably work in the department started some time before that. Can my noble friend tell us when? After consultation, how can it possibly have taken five years to bring this statutory instrument in? Surely, if the consultation confirms that the idea is good, it must become a priority for the department to achieve it.
This is not particularly original technology; as my noble friend mentioned, it is available in many different countries around the world and in London. Yet a mature plan copying the system in other countries has taken five years to bring in. Is not the pride in having done so eclipsed by the shame that it took so long? Does the department consider five years to be reasonable in this matter? Can my noble friend say how many other disability measures are now outstanding? How long does the department expect it to take for them to be brought into action?
My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak in support of these regulations. I congratulate my noble friend the Minister on the manner in which she introduced them. Were it not for her assiduity, we might still be waiting for them. Perhaps, if the regulations were a bus, we might all have chosen to walk by this stage. Having said that, the bus is such a critical part of public transport. Public transport is transport for the totality of the public. As we have already heard, seven in 10 guide-dog users say that they have missed their stop for want of the driver remembering to tell them. It should not be on the driver. This technology could have been in place years ago. Public transport should and must be inclusive.
It is more than just inclusion; it is inclusion as the golden thread to levelling up. Some 98% of buses in London have audio and visible devices, but the figure falls to less than a quarter of that in many other parts of the country. I was privileged to launch the Manchester talking buses, not this year or last year but in 2016, and in London buses had audio and visible displays before then. It cannot be that if you happen to be a person with access needs outside a major metropolitan area and you want to use the bus, it is a case of, “Good luck getting on board and getting off at the correct stop”.
Buses have the potential to connect people and places, but they must be built on inclusive design. Audio and visible displays are a critical part of that. The explanatory notes to these regulations are good—they highlight the benefits for disabled people, but would the Minister agree that these are benefits for all people? The critical point to understand about inclusive by design is that if you make a change that benefits disabled people, everybody benefits.
If you had access needs and you wanted to go to work, the shops or the pub, or to meet a mate, why would you do that if you thought the bus might not stop? You may not have any way of knowing when it is the correct stop to get off at—if you manage to get on board. All that anxiety and stress can and must be taken away by buses being inclusive by design. Audio and visible displays are critical to that.
I have a number of questions for my noble friend the Minister. First, in terms of extent, the regulations cover England, Scotland and Wales. What will the situation be for those with access needs, and indeed for people who may just not know the area, in Northern Ireland? Secondly, can she update the Grand Committee on where the proposed guidance currently is and what progress is being made on that?
Thirdly, will bus companies be able to see how they can go further, beyond the requirements of these regulations, and potentially look at opportunities to give more information to passengers, not by crowding the audio and visible displays but through other allied means, potentially giving more information on history or sites of interest to make the bus journey not only inclusive but more interesting and engaging?
Fourthly, can the Minister inform the Grand Committee what research has been undertaken on the impact of journeys moving from cars, taxis and other modes of transport to the bus? What economic analysis has been undertaken, and what does that mean when one balances those modes of transport with the hopeful increase in bus travel that these regulations will deliver?
Fifthly, the Secretary of State has an obligation to review the regulations within five years. Does the Minister agree that, particularly in that first five-year period, it would be critical to have a review far sooner than that five-year end point?
As we are on the subject of buses, will my noble friend tell the Committee what the Government’s current position is on eradicating the mistake of floating bus stops from our public realm? They are inaccessible, unsafe and a planning disaster.
These are positive regulations. They will make a difference to disabled people and to all people. Does my noble friend agree that all bus companies should be encouraged to get on side with the RNIB’s charter, which simply says “Stop for me. Speak to me”? In so many ways that sums up the right way to start any bus journey. “Stop for me. Speak to me”, and then the potential of the bus can truly be realised. These regulations could be a key part of inclusive buses connecting people and places, unleashing potential, and being part of the next chapter of positive bus travel for all members of our community.
My Lords, I apologise for missing the beginning of my noble friend the Minister’s journey as she introduced her remarks. I very much welcome the regulations before us, which build on the PSV regulations 2000 and use modern technology to bring in improvements for those with a sight or hearing impairment. I particularly commend the department on its very thorough analysis on pages 4 to 42, looking at all the various options. I only wish that every government policy was subjected to the very thorough analysis that the Department for Transport has subjected this proposal to.
Building on what my noble friend Lord Borwick said, I do not propose to chastise the department quite so violently as he did, but page 4 in the department’s defence refers to the high volume of consultation responses and the technical subject matter as reasons for the delay—but there were only 101 responses, apart from the supportive campaign by Guide Dogs, which produced 229. Like my noble friend Lord Borwick, I wonder whether the technical matters needed to preoccupy the department for quite so long. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister could address that.
The document refers to the risk of what is called network contraction due to the cost of implementation impacting on smaller bus operators and thereby services being withdrawn. It goes on to say that the accessible information grant of £3.5 million rising to £4.5 million might mitigate this. Is the grant meant to cover all the installation costs for smaller bus operators or will they have to fund part of it themselves? If it funded all the costs, the network contraction issue would not arise, but it is not quite clear from the document whether the grant will cover all the cost or only part of it.
My noble friend the Minister said that the instrument is technology neutral. It is not quite clear from reading it whether the bus driver simply announcing the next stop would qualify. The regulations state:
“Passengers must be given the following information … at each stopping place on the route”.
It is not clear whether if the driver just announces that over the intercom it would qualify or whether there has to be some technology-based system to make sure that, as my noble friend Lord Holmes said, the driver does not just forget to announce it. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister could clear that up.
I have two final points. First, on enforcement, how would we know whether bus operators have done what they are meant to do? Will the department rely on feedback from customers? Will the traffic commissioners be proactive in going out and making sure that the bus routes in their area have the necessary kit?
Secondly, the regulations will provide information while you are on the bus, but in London at any rate, at many bus stops there is a visible sign telling you when the next bus is going to arrive. That is quite useful and I wonder whether the department has any plans to roll out that information at bus stops, which would again encourage use and build up confidence in the system. At the moment, some bus stops in London have this but not all of them. Does my noble friend the Minister have any strategy for improving the information available at the bus stop, as well as that provided on the bus? Having said that, I very much welcome this as an important step forward and I endorse what my noble friends Lord Borwick and Lord Holmes said in welcoming these regulations.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her explanation, and congratulate the speakers so far on raising a whole range of important information that we really need from her. I strongly welcome these regulations, which flow, as noble Lords have already said, from commitments made in the Bus Services Act 2017—which is, of course, back in ancient history, as the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, made clear to us. It is five years since the consultation. I know we have had Covid in between, which possibly interrupted things, but that did not last five years and it is very unfortunate that we have waited so long, because we have another three years to wait in some cases before full implementation. I recall that there was a Secretary of State recently who had a penchant for complaining about audible announcements on public transport, and I wonder whether that is why it has taken so long for these regulations to come forward.
The point I am making in relation to Covid is that if these regulations had been in place more quickly, I think we would have attracted people back on to the buses much more quickly. We have to attract new passengers to deal with congestion and emissions. It is easy, of course, to take what is in the regulations for granted, if you spend a lot of time in London—as the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, said, 98% of buses and all Tubes have notification of this nature—but there is a failure rate, and I will come to that point later on. Outside London, it is only 25%, and in some areas there is nothing at all.
I draw attention to Regulation 7(3), which specifies what information should be provided, and I am very pleased to see details on volume. Noble Lords may not be aware, but I wear two hearing aids and actually I have very little residual hearing. Without the hearing aids, I would not understand a word anyone was saying here today: even with them, I often miss things. I know the Minister often thinks I do not listen to what she says, but it is not for lack of trying. I am also pleased to see details on hearing loop in priority seats and the wheelchair space, and I am very pleased to see specification on character height for visible information.
I have one point though: the issue of contrast is specified in Regulation 14(5)(b) on page 7. There are good practice guidelines on contrast, which organisations representing people with visual loss are very well aware of, and I am hoping that the Government will take advice and pass it on in terms of the use of the best possible contrast for written information.
There is clearly a public information job to be done as well as training for drivers on these issues, and I would be grateful if the Minister could give us some details about what the Government plan to do to spread this information and good news and raise public awareness of things such as priority seats on buses. We take that for granted on the Tube in London, but that would not necessarily be the case in every part of the country, especially because you cannot see the hearing loop. For someone to have to sit in those seats, public information would need to be available.
I am pleased to see the support from the Scottish and Welsh Governments. It is good to see something on which the Governments across the UK can agree wholeheartedly. It is logical that these regulations exclude demand-responsive transport, but my question to the Minister is about ensuring that any vehicle used on a variable basis—in other words, sometimes for scheduled work and sometimes for demand-responsive work—would have the capacity to provide that information.
My final question relates to something raised by the noble Lord, Lord Young. What happens if the system breaks down, and what happens about the failure by the driver to switch on the information system or to update it from one route to another? What are the penalties for non-compliance and what are the mechanisms to ensure that all bus companies do comply and, if the system has broken down, that the driver makes the announcement? What is the process by which passengers can make complaints if they believe that this is not being implemented properly? Having said all that, the sooner this is introduced, the better.
My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for introducing this SI. For 10 years, I was managing director of the Underground and, as such, was part of the top team in LT. It is nice to see my former boss smiling at that point rather than frown. For two years, I was chief executive of LT and chairman of London Buses, and programmes from that period resulted in the 98%, of which I am personally proud and proud on behalf of the institution.
I want to introduce an idea of how to make these things happen. The reason why we were so successful is that we would have rules, standards and all that sort of stuff, but we also had a cultural issue. I will get the title wrong, but essentially we had a disability tsar, which meant that whenever hard-nosed people were trying to do things, they were asked whether they had taken account of all sorts of disabilities. It was not just about audio-visual disabilities; it was about things such as stairs, handrails and so on. If you can do that activity from a customer-focused point of view, you get to a cultural difference.
I hope that, insomuch as the department can have some influence in this, it will encourage operators to try to think from the point of view of the customer because there are things that can be done beyond this. One of the most difficult things that we found was the invisible disabilities. The most obvious one is deafness, but you also have intellectual capacity and mental health problems. The more you think from the customer’s point of view, the better results you get .
So I am not going to criticise this too much but I have two little question areas. One is the issue of marginal non-compliance. Regulation 14(4) states that the letters must be a minimum of 22 millimetres high, which sounds to me awfully like just under an inch. If a fleet happens to have a good working system but the letters are only 20 millimetres high, do we tear it out or is there a mechanism for discretion? Is there some way in which common-sense solutions to inherited equipment can be catered for?
The second question is can operators add to the elements of information in this package? I think that the answer is yes but I should like that to be confirmed. In other words, if operators think that they want something else—perhaps to do with emergency situations or whatever; I am not going to guess what they may be—it would be useful if it were clear that the information that operators would like to use in the audio-visual systems is allowable. I think that it is. If some area over time is found to be valuable, is there a mechanism for introducing a new element into the information and making it mandatory?
I am getting old and I have done literally hundreds of SIs. I do not know what the number is, but I shall tell noble Lords one number that I know—the number where I have made any impact. It is zero. It has often been a painful zero because I have struggled with the paperwork and poorly written Explanatory Memorandums. While it is attractive to leap on the bandwagon of know-all Ministers’ friends and bash Ministers about the head regarding delays and all that, I praise the paperwork associated with this SI. It is well written, comprehensive and sets a standard—I say this loudly to the Minister—that in future I will expect all DfT SIs to meet.
My Lords, I am extraordinarily grateful for all the comments from my noble friends and all other noble Lords. They mostly welcome this SI because there is nothing in it that cannot be welcomed. I also welcome the enormous experience of the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, and his description of the time when he was working at TfL and the Tube. I agree with him; it is about culture, and one of our challenges is to inculcate that culture onto the buses. I do not know how many bus operators there are—the number 140 is in my head but I cannot remember—but it is a lot. Some operators are extremely small with fewer than 20 vehicles. This is about making sure that we bring everyone along with us, although I have to say that I expect some of the big operators in the larger metropolitan areas to be very much on the front foot with this. I expect that disability campaigners and representative groups will be on their cases— I hope that they are—to get dates for implementation from those companies that, frankly, have the wherewithal to do so quickly and set an example that others might follow.
I turn to some of the comments from my noble friends. The first was from my noble friend Lord Borwick. He was duffing me up a little. The “violent chastisement” of my noble friend Lord Borwick were the words of my noble friend Lord Young. I should like to say in mitigation that I was the Buses Minister for a vast period when we as the Government were considering this SI. I was pushing for improvements and to move things faster. It was disappointing every time when, as a Minister, I had to decide whether to reprioritise and re-timeline various things.
Covid has faded into the rear-view mirror, but it is extraordinary to me how, for more than two years of my life, it was all-consuming. For that time, as Buses Minister, saving the bus at all was my absolute priority, and it was a priority for the sector. I think there were two issues why the delay due to Covid happened. First, there was reprioritisation within my department as we were coming out of Covid—and we could potentially see the endgame—and we tried to get the national bus strategy out there to help in that recovery and to provide that strategic framework that we needed. Secondly, there was the ability of the operators to be able to give headspace to the very technical and detailed arrangements that they needed to consider to make these regulations right. Frankly, they were more concerned about keeping the buses on the road, keeping the drivers trained and recruiting drivers—all of the challenges that have either happened during Covid or subsequently.
While it is always regrettable when one has to deprioritise anything because there are other more pressing issues, having a stable bus network was the right priority at the time. I wish that we had been able to do everything at once but sometimes in Government, one just cannot. When it comes to these regulations and the technicality around them, it is because buses are not standard, and they can come from all sorts of manufacturers in various parts of the world. Therefore, there had to be a reassurance that whatever we put in the regulations worked on the buses that were available. Of course, the older buses are not particularly standard at all—some of them have very random seat configurations —and they often operate on the rural routes, the less profitable routes, or sometimes the supported routes by local transport authorities. They are the ones with the greatest vulnerabilities—so it is about getting that balance right between implementing those very important changes while making sure that we maintain all the benefits of buses which all noble Lords have already discussed today.
This was particularly reflected in the comments by my noble friend Lord Holmes in the way that buses can be the most inclusive form of transport and they are the best-loved form of public transport in our country. I thank my noble friend Lord Holmes for his positive remarks; he has been an assiduous campaigner in this area for many years. I completely agree that these benefits are for all people. There cannot be a noble Lord in this room who has not forgotten to get off the bus at some point or another. Our reflections in our analysis show that we do believe this will encourage more people on to buses—not just those with disabilities, but other people too as they feel reassured about the information provided on their journey. This is part of the mitigation for the cost of putting it in place in the first place.
My noble friend Lord Holmes also mentioned Northern Ireland. The matter of equalities is devolved to Northern Ireland. However, Translink, the bus operator there, has got audio-visual equipment widely deployed on its buses. I would encourage anybody to go to Northern Ireland, because it is a fantastic place for a holiday. Extra information can be added, but that is up to the discretion of operators. As I said previously, we expect some sort of increase in patronage as a result of this. It is difficult, obviously, to put a firm figure on it, but we do think it will be a positive outcome.
On floating bus stops, the Department for Transport is undertaking some research to ensure that they do the job they are intended to and can be operated safely. My noble friend Lord Holmes also mentioned bringing forward the review of the regulations. It is our intention to review them after five years, but noble Lords will be able to see our progress due to the annual bus statistics. This is a key document issued by the department, which collates all sorts of interesting information about buses, whether they are zero emission et cetera. One of the stats that we will put in that will be the extent to which this is being rolled out. I think that will enable the Government to think about whether it is going quickly enough.
My noble friend Lord Young mentioned support for smaller bus services. It is envisaged that the roughly £4.5 million will cover all the costs of implementation for those operators with fewer than 20 vehicles, which is incredibly welcome. He asked whether the bus driver could just shout, but visual information needs to be provided as well and the two often go hand in hand, so I do not think it would fulfil the requirements in the regulations for the bus driver just to shout.
I am looking at Regulation 13, which is entitled “Requirements regarding audio information”. There is a lot about the volume, but it does not say that the information must come from a machine; it seems that it could come from the driver. I do not see where Regulation 13 excludes the driver providing the information.
This might be one of those grey areas. My officials say that it is right that the driver could provide the information, but there is a minimum and a maximum volume for that information. I suppose that the driver could provide it, but I do not think this would be widespread across the bus industry, given that much of the technology links audio and visual together and the computers behind it project that information at the same time.
Information at bus stops is a key part of the national bus strategy. It is not the responsibility of the operators; they provide the information that is used for those real-time scoreboards at bus stops, but bus stops are operated by local transport authorities, as I am sure my noble friend knows. The BODS is the DfT’s means of collating as much real-time information as is available and making it available to local transport authorities, which can then put it into bus stops. Some of the BSIP funding we issued to successful local transport authorities recently will go into boosting the information at bus stops. I agree that it is very helpful to know when your bus will arrive.
The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, mentioned contrast. There will be further information on that; we have discussed it with campaigners and representative groups in this area. It will be in the guidance, which will come out this summer. There will be training for drivers; it will not be centralised as such, but the operators will be encouraged to make use of the REAL training syllabus and can sign up to the inclusive transport leaders scheme to make sure that staff have the knowledge and skills to support all disabled passengers.
The regulations apply to a service and not a vehicle. Therefore, if a vehicle is being used in different services—it might sometimes be running a scheduled service and sometimes be doing something else—it would still have to provide the information set out in the regulations.
I shall finish on enforcement, as I am conscious that I have spoken a fair amount. There are two main ways of enforcement. First, the Government will be able to check progress via the annual bus statistics, which come from industry, so we can chivvy people along as such. However, if elements go wrong for a certain customer or there is persistent non-compliance on a particular route or vehicle or by a particular operator, we would expect that passenger to escalate a concern to Bus Users UK outside London and to London TravelWatch inside London. That is the standard method; in my experience, passengers are very good at escalating concerns, particularly as this is such an important issue. We expect that bus operators will want to make their passengers aware of when they have fitted this technology in their area.
It can then get bumped up the chain from Bus Users UK and London TravelWatch to go through alternative dispute resolution or a complaints handling process. Eventually it gets bumped up to DVSA and if it thinks it is serious enough, it goes to the traffic commissioner. If it gets to the traffic commissioner, that is probably a bad thing for the operator, and I imagine that that will not happen very often because the traffic commissioner has the ability to take away its operator licence or to put other sanctions in place. It is not the Government’s ambition to enforce this heavily. We want operators to comply so that this does not have to be heavily enforced because at the end of the day, if you end up with traffic commissioners taking licences away, essentially they are taking buses away, and we do not want that.
I will conclude now, but I will write with any further information that I have.