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Disability Equality Training (Taxi and Private Hire Vehicle Drivers) Bill

Volume 617: debated on Friday 18 November 2016

Second Reading

Order. I rise to delay the hon. Gentleman for a few seconds in order that the rowdy Members celebrating a victory can leave with discretion and politeness to their colleague.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I want to place on the record my thanks to Guide Dogs UK for its assistance to me in putting this Bill together and those Members across the House who have indicated their support for its measures.

As a Member with, like all Members, disabled constituents specifically affected by discrimination from a minority of taxi hire vehicles, it gives me immense pride to present to the House a Bill designed to settle this issue and ensure all our constituents receive the service the law demands. For too long, this issue has flown under the radar and continues to specifically discriminate against the visually impaired, those with mobility and physical impairments and the more vulnerable in our society.

A minority of taxi and private hire vehicle licence holders frequently discriminate against assistance dog owners and other disabled people by refusing to pick them up. As I am sure Members present are aware, disabled people, including those with assistance dogs, are legally protected under section 29 of the Equality Act 2010. It is unlawful to discriminate against a person because of a protected characteristic or victimise someone when providing a service. This applies to taxis and private hire vehicles as much as any other service. Added to this, numerous disability groups, including Disability Rights UK and Muscular Dystrophy UK, report that their members are being charged higher rates, at times double the standard fare, to accommodate their wheelchairs. This is unethical and cruel.

I interrupt the hon. Gentleman simply because we are short of time and a number of Members may want to contribute and I want to get this on the record. He has done a service to the House in introducing this Bill; there is no doubt about that. He is right about the legality, and he is also right about the ethics, and I want to assure him that I share his view. We should do more and we will do more.

I am grateful to the Minister for that assurance from the Government Front Bench and I am sure the people we all represent will be comforted to hear that, because it is perfectly right that disabled people want to live independent lives and do not want to be a nuisance to anyone, but often constant refusals and abuse are leaving many of them with little hope.

Catherine, a guide dog owner from Birmingham, reported:

“It makes me think if it’s worth getting a taxi at all. I rather struggle to go somewhere because I don’t want grief about my guide dog.”

Although these provisions are in place, it is undeniable that disabled people continue to suffer from severe restrictions in the use of taxis and private hire vehicles. The Law Commission confirmed this in its 2013 review of taxis and private hire vehicles. The reality, however, is worse: in-depth research from Guide Dogs UK shows that three in four assistance dog owners reported that they have been refused entry to private hire vehicles and taxis because of their guide dogs.

I previously contacted my local authority on this matter to establish whether it was aware of the issues the hon. Gentleman will be highlighting here today. It advised that, owing to my letter, it had contacted Guide Dogs UK for further information so it could incorporate that into its training for drivers. Will he join me in calling for other Members to do likewise and encourage the voluntary uptake of training measures from the relevant bodies?

Absolutely, and I commend the hon. Lady for the work that she has done on this in her own constituency. I encourage other Members to do precisely the same in theirs.

We need this law change in England and Wales—the situation is different in Scotland—to introduce training, so that every taxi licence holder is aware of their legal obligations under the Equalities Act 2010. There can be no excuse for refusing someone with disabilities access to a taxi. That is the law, and if taxi drivers currently do not know that it is the law, that is a training issue. That is why I think that my Bill has very many merits.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important for each and every one of us in the House to raise this issue with our local authority and through columns in our local newspapers, to ensure that no one can use ignorance as a defence for refusing services to blind and disabled people?

Absolutely. I thank the hon. Gentleman for sponsoring my Bill; his support is greatly appreciated. He is absolutely right to suggest that there is a lot more on the enforcement side that local authorities could and should be doing. At the moment, taxi licence holders who are brought before the licensing panel can plead ignorance and say that they did not appreciate that this was the law. However, if they have to have training as part of their licence requirements in the first place, or as part of their renewal requirements, they will no longer have that excuse.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, welcome though it is that local authorities are taking more seriously their responsibilities for training and enforcement, the only way to guarantee that people get the respect they deserve and that taxi drivers abide by the law is to put this requirement on to a statutory footing?

I absolutely agree. Best practice is in place in many areas across the country, but unless there is a statutory requirement for training as part of the licensing regime, we will never be able to weed out any bad practice that still exists.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing his private Member’s Bill and leading the debate today. He mentioned that the law would apply in England and Wales. We already have guidance on this in Wales, and Guide Dogs Campaigns is working with the Welsh Government on it. Will he work with the Welsh Government to ensure that a similar Bill can be enacted in Wales?

Absolutely. I discovered as a result of the discussions I had when preparing my Bill that not all the relevant functions have yet been devolved to Ministers in the Welsh Government and that some of the duties therefore still rest with the Secretary of State for Transport here in Whitehall. That is why some of the provisions in the Bill relate to Wales. But my hon. Friend is absolutely right: we need to get these provisions in place across the whole United Kingdom. There are parts of the UK that have advanced further down this track than England and Wales have done, and my Bill is trying to put that right.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to mention them.

Returning to the measures in the Bill, the Local Government Association is fully on board with my proposals, but we must ensure that local councils have the necessary tools at their disposal, so that they can properly administer the training scheme and ensure that the measures are being adhered to. Out of 297 visually impaired respondents to a Guide Dogs survey, 68% reported that they had not informed the authorities when an individual had refused them service. The most common reason they gave was that they did not believe anything would come of it. A freedom of information request and parliamentary questions that I have asked have made it clear that, since the practice of refusal became illegal in 2010, there were no convictions in 2011, there was one in 2012, one in 2013 and one in 2014. Yet we know that 42% of assistance dog users in any one year are refused a taxi service. There is a big problem here, and ignorance of the law is no justification. That is why training is absolutely crucial.

Let me be clear: those taxi and minicab drivers who are refusing to serve visually impaired and wheelchair passengers are breaking the law. The only exception for refusing someone with an assistance dog is on medical grounds, and for that they have to have a certified medical certificate permanently on display in the taxi. They cannot just turn up at a kerbside and decide that they will not take a dog because of some spurious allergy that they have just decided they have.

I had not intended to speak on the Bill given the time, but I heard the Minister and I want to give my hon. Friend’s Bill good wind. Does he agree that training, which is covered by his Bill, is absolutely essential? Even when people want to assist and they know what their duties are under the law, they can still fall foul of it. For instance, there was a report of a dog that had to travel in the sealed boot of a car. That cannot be right; training is necessary.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. That is precisely why training is necessary. My Bill would put that right on a national setting, rather than basing it on the good will of local authorities in different parts of the country. That is why the Local Government Association and other organisations are calling for precisely this law.

I want to end with a quote from Keri Doyle.

Before the hon. Gentleman ends, may I say something that might surprise him and the House? I hope that it is a welcome surprise. I do not rule out mandatory training as part of some future package. We need to put a package of measures together to support disabled people’s access to these vehicles. He is absolutely right to highlight the state of the application of existing law. Clearly, more needs to be done. I assure him that the debate matters to me and my Department. As I said earlier, it will be done.

I am grateful to the Minister. My only concern is that we have been waiting for the Government’s response to the Law Commission for some time. Notwithstanding the desire of officials and Ministers in the Department for Transport to want to do something, Government legislation and programming time is a matter for others in government. There are some incredibly pressing measures coming before this House in due course, not least on how we renegotiate our terms and conditions and our relationships with our European colleagues as we leave the European Union.

Notwithstanding the Minister’s desire to do something, I am certain that there may not be appropriate time in the near future to change the law. Disabled people need the law to change today. I say to the Minister: let us get the Bill through to the next stages, so that we can discuss how we make that help happen. Disabled people need it today. This matter cannot be something that sits in the long grass of good intentions for the future.

Having attended the event earlier this week with Guide Dogs in Parliament, does my hon. Friend share my surprise at learning that two thirds of guide dog owners have experienced problems taking their guide dogs somewhere, whether in a taxi or into a shop?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

The best thing about being promoted to the shadow Cabinet—I thank the Whips for allowing me to speak from the Back Benches on this one occasion—is that I will not for the foreseeable future have to enter the private Members’ Bills ballot. Some Members come to this House and put in every year and never get drawn. I have been here for 11 years and this is my third. When an MP gets drawn in the ballot, they get inundated with every good cause and by every charity under the sun, urging them to take on their case. I was already receptive to Guide Dogs UK and had already promised to do this piece of legislation for them if I was drawn. However, it was not until the Bill’s First Reading that I appreciated just how widespread the issue is. I was inundated with correspondence from guide dog and assistance dog owners who have been refused access. It is only when we listen to their stories that we realise just how widespread the problem is.

I have had some dealings with visually impaired people—friends and constituents—and can only reiterate everything that my hon. Friend has said. They tell me that taxis are essential to disabled people’s independence because many are unable to drive or use public transport. The emotional impact of facing discrimination and confrontation when trying to carry out everyday activities takes a significant toll on disabled people, leading to a loss of confidence and independence anyway.

I absolutely agree. That is precisely why I am so pleased that Members stayed on after the previous private Member’s Bill to support this one. It is a worthy cause.

I want to give the last word to my constituent Keri Doyle, who lives in Reddish. She told me:

“I’ve been refused access to taxis because of my guide dog. It’s not my choice to have sight loss and my guide dog is essential for me being able to get around. It’s inconvenient, I’ve been late for appointments and it makes me angry that it’s still happening.”

Out there today, a minority of people in our society are looking to this place to support their rights and enforce the law. It is time to make them proud.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). He is a doughty campaigner in this place, and I wish him all the best in his new role on the shadow Front Bench.

I pay tribute to Guide Dogs UK for its remarkable and fantastic campaign work on behalf of people affected by sight loss and other serious issues. There is much worthy sentiment behind today’s Bill.

I was horrified by the stories recounted by the hon. Gentleman—individual testimonies from people who have been treated appallingly. I was concerned when I read the “Access All Areas” survey results and found it striking that 42% of assistance dog owners have been turned away and that 38% have been asked to pay extra for their dogs to be carried in taxis. That is completely unacceptable, but the law is clear. The Equality Act 2010 states that people must not charge extra to carry a wheelchair and that it is a criminal offence to refuse to carry an assistance dog or to charge for doing so. My experience of taxi drivers has always been positive, and taxi drivers in Corby and east Northamptonshire will be troubled by what we have heard today. They are proud of their work and proud to provide an excellent service, so they will share our horror at some of the stories and at how individuals have been treated.

It is right that fines are levied when the law has been breached. I understand that the standard fine is £1,000, and I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether the level of the fine is kept under constant review to ensure that as time moves it continues to be appropriate on and meets the scale of what happened in any particular circumstance.

Is my hon. Friend aware of North West Leicestershire District Council’s approach, whereby it is a condition of a driver’s licence that all drivers undergo disability awareness training during the first year of their licence and a failure to do so results in the renewal of their badge being refused? Does he agree that that might be one thing we could consider introducing?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, as I was not aware of that example. I want to return later in my remarks to trying to spread best practice, wherever it is found, to ensure that we see improvements throughout the country. Where we see good examples of this work being done, we should not be afraid to embrace and promote them. They ought to be rolled out across the country to other local authorities.

My hon. Friend is right about that, as was the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). On the practical application of my good intentions—I am pleased at least that the hon. Gentleman thinks they are good—I therefore want to be clear that we need an accessibility action plan, to take account of what he said today and other measures such as those my hon. Friend and other Members have raised. We need to do this quickly. We need to consult quickly, as these consultations must not go on forever, and we then need to act quickly. We will do all those things.

I am grateful to the Minister, who, once again, has been clear about the direction of travel he wants on this issue. This is a short Bill. I have studied it in detail, and it has raised a few questions in my mind. I am sure that if it were to go into Committee or be part of any consultation process the Government were looking to undertake, these particular questions would be addressed.

May I say something gently to the hon. Gentleman? Is he aware that if he sits down quickly and the Minister then gets up and does the same, we can get this Bill through today? We now have nine minutes left and I just want to bring that to the House’s attention. If we support the Bill, our contributions need to be short.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. I am very conscious of what she says, but it is important that when we have votes in this House we have had proper scrutiny of the measures put before us, and I wish to draw out some important points before sitting down.

I note what has been said about consultation, and it is important that that is done correctly. I would be interested to know what consultation there has been, not only with local authorities but with taxi operators and the professional bodies that represent them. I would also be keen to understand a little more about who would be expected to deliver this training. Does sufficient capacity already exist?

The hon. Gentleman talks about consulting, but has he consulted disabled people in his constituency? That is what all the Labour Members here are concerned about. Time is short, but we have a chance to get this Bill through. There is time for all the scrutiny measures that he is talking about later, so will he bear in mind the time and let the Minister speak?

I am very grateful for the intervention and I am going to wrap up my remarks, but I have a final few points that I want to ask about.

I appreciate what the Minister said about best practice, so I am content with that. I am interested to know how the Bill’s provisions would apply to other providers, such as Uber. That is an important point. Black taxis would fall within the scope of the Bill, as drafted, but how does the Bill apply to Uber?

When the Minister responds, I would be keen for him to say a little about the Department’s thinking on taking the Bill’s provisions forward in any particular guise. It raises incredibly important issues. I am very impressed by the tenacity of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish in introducing it, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, because wherever discrimination occurs it must be stamped out—it is completely unacceptable. The law is very clear about this discrimination, and anything we can do to help spread best practice to try to improve awareness and enforcement can only be a good thing.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) on his success in securing this private Member’s Bill. I will not dwell on the two Bills that I took through this place in the previous Parliament. I strongly agree with the noble intentions behind this Bill, but I have a few genuine queries about it that I hope the Minister and the hon. Gentleman will pay attention to. The hon. Gentleman and I have not agreed across the Chamber in the past, and we have been opponents in an animal competition in which our cats had a little spat a while back.

I note that in the Bill a lot of emphasis is placed on the fact that not all local authorities have been able to impose inspections. I have a few suggestions for the Minister about how he might work with local authorities and the measures that he might introduce. I mentioned the policy of North West Leicestershire District Council. Its website explains:

“Taxis are an invaluable means of door to door transport. For many people, including the elderly and disabled people, taxis are literally a lifeline to the community.”

In my own constituency that is very true. We have so many villages where many elderly and disabled people rely on taxis to go to the doctor’s, the shops or even the post office. Taxis are the only means of transport and the most flexible mode of transport available. Sometimes in some of my villages people have a doctor’s appointment at, say, 11 am and there is only bus a day that leaves at 8.30 am, so they need a taxi to transport them instead. The attitude of drivers and their understanding of disabled people is vital.

The local authority that I mentioned says that it is likely that mystery shoppers will be employed to monitor industry performance. That is a good way of checking to make sure—

With reference to monitoring, will my hon. Friend take into account the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove) about Uber? There must be some degree of equalisation between licensed taxi drivers and others who are not.

Indeed. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and with my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove). Employing mystery shoppers would be one way of ensuring that checks are carried out. Suspending the licences of drivers who have not undergone the mandatory training, as North West Leicestershire District Council has, is a good idea.

Given the time, I will have to say this now as I have no other means of doing so: whatever happens today, this cause will not die. I will make sure that it does not die. I invite the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) to come and see me next week to take it further. This discrimination cannot be allowed to continue. I am sorry to intervene on my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray), but that is the only way I can make that point.

It was a pleasure to receive that assurance from my right hon. Friend the Minister. I am grateful to him for giving the House that reassurance. [Hon. Members: “Disgraceful.”] From my own personal knowledge, he is extremely concerned to make sure that people are treated equally. I hope the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish, who introduced the Bill, listened carefully to that reassurance. [Hon. Members: “ Shameful.”] I strongly agree with, and have no doubt about, the intentions behind the Bill, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing it forward.

I would also like to take the opportunity to congratulate—

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 25 November.