HC Deb 09 April 1984 vol 58 cc80-90
Mr. John Hannam (Exeter)

I beg to move amendment No. 52, in page 28, line 10, at end insert— '( ) include a statement of any action taken during that year by London Regional Transport and any subsidiaries of theirs in relation to, or for the purpose of securing, provision for disabled persons in the public passenger transport services and facilities provided for Greater London (whether by London Regional Transport or any subsidiary of theirs or by any other person);'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Paul Dean)

With this we may take amendment No. 61, in page 28, line 18, at end insert— '(d) provide individual and consolidated statistics relating to all modes of public passenger transport operated by or on behalf of London Regional Transport in respect of this Act, together with all personnel, property and equipment, in no less detail and in such a manner as to be comparable with those published by the predecessor authority.'

Mr. Hannam

This amendment is the result of extensive discussions between the all-party disablement group and representatives of various organisations connected with the transport of disabled people in London. I first say a special thank you to the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation for its help in drafting the amendment, as well as to Peter Large and the Joint Committee on Mobility who put forward various ideas during the Committee stage.

Under clause 33, LRT is required to make a report to the Secretary of State accounting for its functions during that year. The amendment will ensure that LRT includes in its report a statement of any action it or any of its subsidiaries has taken to provide for the transport needs of disabled people either during that year or in the future. It would go a long way towards reassuring the disabled— those who live in London and those who visit—that serious consideration will be given to the provision of transport that suits their special needs.

Although the Government have done much to ensure that LRT will take account of the needs of the disabled, there is still anxiety that the Bill contains no specific commitment to ensure that their needs are not set aside or overlooked. The amendment does not cut across any of the Government's intentions or objectives. Indeed, through the provision that the Secretary of State will have to place a copy of the report before Parliament, we shall be guaranteed the opportunity to debate the provisions that are made for the disabled. My hon. Friend the Minister of State is fully committed to this cause. I therefore hope that she will recognise that the amendment will be of value in her efforts on behalf of the handicapped.

Let me briefly mention some of the representations that I have received as secretary of the all-party disablement group. We held a meeting only last month to discuss transport for the disabled and were told of some of the problems faced by disabled travellers. For example, we heard of the difficulties experienced by blind people when travelling on the underground or on buses. Frequently, there is no oral announcement when a station or bus stop is reached. We were told that most underground trains are fitted with a tannoy system that is rarely used, even though blind people are totally dependent on that kind of oral information.

Conversely, deaf people are totally dependent on visual information. At our meeting, the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) spoke of the difficulty for deaf people changing trains in the middle of a journey, particularly as all British Rail announcements are made over the tannoy. All that is required is a blackboard message on platforms indicating train changes.

In many instances great improvements can be made to our transport system for very little additional cost. For example, the partially sighted would be vastly assisted if a strong white line were painted on the edge of steps leading to a train or bus. Arthritic people or others who have difficulty walking would be helped if sturdy hand rails were installed on buses, and deaf people would be helped by more visual signs.

Many improvements have taken place, especially since the International Year of the Disabled Person. There is a growing awareness of some of the transport needs of the disabled. However, we must not let it stop there. There is still a great need to produce a coherent transport policy for people with disabilities, both in London and across the country.

So far I have spoken only of disabled people who are able to use public transport, but many more are unable to use any form of public transport because of their disability. Only too frequently, the only service that those people can use is a door-to-door service, often by a vehicle that can accommodate a wheel chair. Such a service is provided in many areas, not least in London, by the dial-a-ride system.

I do not wish to go into the pros and cons of that service, but the principle of such a service is most important, because it can enable those who are effectively housebound through their disabilities to get out and about. A recent survey has shown that 80 per cent. of trips were of less than 5 miles, and that the vast majority of them are to carry out normal everyday activities such as shopping.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

The advantages of dial-a-ride schemes are well known, and what the hon. Gentleman said is correct, but is he aware that the 12 or so dial-a-ride schemes now being operated in London would be at some risk were the GLC to be abolished? Therefore, what representations is he making to his colleagues on that matter?

Mr. Hannam

I shall not be drawn into the hon. Gentleman's point about the abolition of the GLC. I am sure that dial-a-ride services will continue to be provided in London and elsewhere. I am sure that the Government will do all they can to assist in the provision of such services, because it has been accepted in principle by the Minister that the dial-a-ride scheme is worth while and should be continued. It is not a service that we can ignore. Great improvements have been made in the accessibility of services to disabled people. We are slowly but surely providing them with opportunities to lead full and fulfilling lives. Therefore, it would be ironic if they could not travel in order to make use of these opportunities because there was no public service accommodating their needs.

I have read the Committee proceedings in the Official Report and I know that the Committee spent a considerable time discussing the needs of disabled people. I have seen the contributions made by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, and I know the contribution that she has made in general to the transport needs of disabled people. I do not doubt for one moment that she is genuine and wholehearted in that commitment, and I know from personal experience of working with her that she will carry it out. However, I recommend the amendment to the House as one which will help to ensure that the commitment is carried out not only by this Government but by other Ministers and other Governments, not least in respect of London Regional Transport.

We are, after all, talking of providing a transport service to the public, and in doing so we must provide a service to those members of the public who are disabled. Disabled people have special needs, and special efforts must be made to satisfy those needs. A report is being submitted to the Secretary of State suggesting that there should be a statement of the public services available to the disabled. Many people would say that the services do not go far enough, but I believe that they will be seen to go much further than most people imagine.

Similar amendments were made to what is now the Wildlife and Countryside Act, and the Countryside Commission has a duty to make an annual report to the Secretary of State on matters relating to disabled people. The National Heritage Bill was amended in another place to place such duties on the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England. There was a welcome amendment in another place to the Telecommunications Bill which goes even further, setting up an advisory body for disabled people.

In setting up a board to deal with the public transport of London, we cannot ignore the very special and great transport needs of disabled people. I place on record my desire to see those needs given high priority under London Regional Transport. Disabled people, almost more than anyone else, depend on public transport, so I hope that we shall do all we can to ensure that it is accessible to them.

8.15 pm
Mr. Spearing

I endorse in general the remarks of the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) and hope that the Minister will accept his amendment. Clause 33 relates to the annual report of London Regional Transport, and the hon. Gentleman's amendment would add an obligation to report on facilities for disabled people. My amendment No. 61 has been coupled with the hon. Gentleman's amendment.

One of the interesting aspects of the existing London Transport system has been the continuous series of annual reports published by that body and by its predecessors from 1933 onwards. At the end of most of those reports —and, I am glad to say, generally in increasing detail —there has been set out not only the general financial operation required under the various Companies Acts but detailed statistics relating to transport matters. For each mode—bus, tube and, formerly, trolleybus and tram— statistics were set out together with numbers of personnel, numbers of passengers carried, average takings per passenger mile, average costs per passenger mile, contributions to the overheads at 55 Broadway, numbers of vehicles employed, numbers purchased, numbers disposed of, and so on. Anyone reading those statistics could get a very good idea of some of the economics of the operation. I must admit to having perused them to some benefit over the past 30 years or so — and sometimes to the discomfort of people at 55 Broadway.

The importance of the figures is twofold: first, they tell us how the operation is going and, secondly, they provide an invaluable tool to the understanding of how public transport in London has been working over that period. Of course, the reports do not cover all the statistics for public transport, which would have to include British Rail and, indeed, taxicabs, but it is a very good basis. It would be wrong if the successor authority did not maintain an equally comprehensive range of statistics. The statutory responsibility of London Regional Transport, particularly in respect of the rail network, goes beyond the present responsibility of the London Transport Executive. Let there be some additional statistics. But I hope that the operations, which have been run historically by London Transport, will be illustrated by exactly comparable statistics in no less detail.

The Minister of State may say that the transport system will not always be run by LRT — there will be subsidiaries, and sales to private operators and so on. We have just debated them. That may be so, but I hope that part of the conditions, either of disposal or of contract, will be to make returns so that the comprehensive picture can be maintained. I have just realised that the title of the Bill is grossly inadequate, and what is purported or claimed by the Government to be the purposes of the Bill could not be fulfilled.

The Minister of State may say that the inclusion of a statutory provision requiring such statistics is not necessary, in which case I hope that she will give an undertaking to make it a requirement upon the Secretary of State—he certainly has enough powers to do so— because unless the statistical detail is maintained in at least a comparable form we shall not know how public transport in London is progressing, we shall not be able to follow the trends, and we shall not be able to follow the financial twists and turns, which clearly will accelerate. Above all, we should not be able to assess the way in which the LRT is fulfilling its statutory duties and the extent to which the Secretary of State for Transport will be doing the same to the House and to the people of London.

Mr. Simon Hughes

It would perhaps have been wiser to wait for the Minister to respond. All hon. Members respect the view put forward by the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) on behalf of the many people who are disabled, and who have clearly made their views known to many hon. Members, particularly during the stages of this Bill. They find that the present transport system in London gives, often much more than those who are completely sighted and not handicapped, them neither the mobility nor the freedom that they need.

On the days that we have had lobbies here on behalf of the disabled groups, they have been addressed by the Secretary of State, by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) and by others who have met them. The all-party disablement group has met them and listened to their needs. It is clear that although the Minister said in Committee that she will make it her responsibility to ensure that one member of the LRT board will have a particular interest, although not exclusive responsibility, for the needs of the disabled, their needs would best be met if they could be monitored year by year so that the House, and the public, could see what had been achieved and decide what still needed to be donè.

There are three groups in our community about which we have been particularly concerned as the Bill has gone through its stages. The largest group are the pensioners, and we have already had debates about that. The second largest group of particular significance is that made up of the handicapped and the disabled. For them, public transport should be a lifeline, and even though it needs considerable planning and expenditure, if the public transport system will not provide that lifeline, nobody else will. It is vital that we take this opportunity to do what, as the hon. Member for Exeter said, has been done with other legislation— ensure that we respond to the call from the disabled that the needs for which the public sector provides are met through the legislation that we make.

The third group are the young. Again the Minister responded positively by saying that she recognised that they have particular transport needs, have a voice and wish to be heard. It is important that the disabled can be sure that we have taken on board their strong appeal to us.

For me, and I suspect that it was the same for the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East, one of the most depressing moments since the Bill was introduced came when we went with the Secretary of State to a meeting in a Committee Room at which he addressed disabled people. I am sad to say—none of us would wish to say this— that it appeared then that he did not understand the difficulties and problems that so many have in getting on and off buses and tubes, with there not being enough space for wheelchairs, in having access to the system and in being able to be users of the public transport system. I hope that that was a false impression, and I hope that that experience has chastened the Secretary of State, as much as he needed to be, to make sure that he will respond positively.

I hope, too, that the Minister can give some positive reassurance. Her first step should be to respond to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Exeter on behalf of all parties by saying that the Government will accept it, and do their duty to the disabled. The Government must provide for the disabled more than has been provided in the past, and they must see what we are doing.

Sir Hugh Rossi (Hornsey and Wood Green)

I strongly support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam). During the two years when I had the privilege to serve the disabled as a Minister, I became deeply aware of their problems in integrating and participating in ordinary everyday life, and of how transport was so fundamental to their not becoming prisoners of their environment, within the four walls of their homes. Contrary to what the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said, I found the greatest goodwill in the Department of Transport, a realisation of this problem and the desire to do whatever is within its power, and that of Ministers, to help to resolve the problems of disabled people.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister, although I am sure that she does not require much urging on this matter, because I know her views as we worked closely together in the Department of Health and Social Security, to accept the amendment. However, the disabled desire not to be treated as separate from the rest of society, for example through special provisions for their transport made through the social services. My constituents have told me that they are tired of special handouts and special provisions. They want the transport authorities to bear in mind their needs when they are running their services and to make provision within those services so that the disabled can use them as ordinary members of the public.

My hon. Friend the Member for Exeter was right to draw attention to such small matters as intelligible tannoy systems that blind people can hear and understand on station platforms, and provision for notices so that the deaf can see where they are going. Such small matters require only a little forethought by planners in the authority, but can make a world of difference to those suffering from disabilities and who need a little extra help to use the ordinary facilities that the rest of us can enjoy.

I hope that this is the direction in which we shall go, and I hope that the LRT board will make it part of its responsibility to ensure that there is provision so that the disabled can regularly use, without difficulty, the services provided for the community as a whole.

Mrs. Chalker

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) for moving the amendment. I welcome it and urge the House to accept it. No hon. Member can be in any doubt that I have always believed that transport provision for the disabled is among the most important ways in which we can help them. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) gave so much to them when he was Minister with responsibility for the disabled. He was right to say that careful thought is needed when providing for them, but they also wish to be provided for in line with able-bodied people where that is practicable. While that may not always be practicable, we should do all that we can to achieve that aim.

During the passage of the Bill, as at all other times, I have consulted a large number of representatives of disabled people, including my own advisory panel, on the transport of disabled persons. I have been very appreciative of the understanding that they have given me. Naturally I had a good deal of understanding about this from the outset, having made my maiden speech in the House on the subject.

8.30 pm

There are many comments that I could make, but I know that time is short. However, there are a few matters that I should outline.

I have believed for a long time that to impose a statutory duty would not be practicable and appropriate in all cases, but I have always wished to see public transport made accessible where it reasonably could be. The matters that my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter mentioned as illustrations, including visual displays to help the deaf and verbal announcements to assist the blind and partially sighted, are all matters on which research is going on and which we are seeking to support through the Transport and Road Research Laboratory.

We are seeking already in the Department to give support, and what I said in Committee and at all meetings about these issues was that I believed that LRT should have clear instructions to work towards the same end— access to the same transport systems as used by everyone else wherever possible. LRT will have clear instructions to work towards the development of its own vehicles and infrastructure with the needs of the disabled fully in mind.

Mention was made of special services, such as dial-a-ride schemes for some severely disabled people who are unable to use conventional public transport. I shall comment further on them in a moment. I am certain that we must make flexible provision because there is a wide variety of disablement for which we wish to provide mobility.

Some right hon. and hon. Members know already that we have been carrying out research and development in the Department, and from this we now have the possibility of a new generation of London taxis which will be able to make a major contribution to the carriage of many disabled people wishing to make use of them. These vehicles will provide a truly door-to-door service in the way that even the most accessible bus cannot hope to achieve, although that door-to-door service may not be necessary for everyone.

I do not pretend that there are unlimited resources for funding all that we would like to do—I believe that we have to be cost-conscious and remember the need for cost- effectiveness and value for money in providing the system —but we want to expand the services so that they are solidly based financially and conceptually to continue and, where possible, extend the provision of transport for disabled people.

Mr. Martin Stevens

Will the London Regional Transport Board be able to make available to local branches of dial-a-ride, "handicab", and the rest, advice on how to operate their schemes in the most efficient way, because that would be welcomed?

Mrs. Chalker

If my hon. Friend will bear with me for a moment, I shall be coming to the need for advice.

While the responsibility for funding special services remains with local boroughs, there are ways in which we can help. I wish LRT to work closely with the specialist services and also to make sure that through its contacts not only with the Department but with the London Regional Passenger Committee and other representatives of the disabled they have as much information as they need. I made it clear in Committee that one member of the London Regional Transport Board would be required to provide a focal point for the interests of the disabled, but that I should expect all members of the board to take an active interest. I shall also ensure that at least one member of the LRPC is specifically there to represent the needs of the disabled, and I hope that there will be more.

There is real concern among disabled people that assurances might not be carried into action. That is why I was delighted to see my hon. Friend's amendment, which I can accept, because that will require the LRT annual report to contain a statement of what it has done to improve services for the disabled—the very thing that LRT, with its provision of public transport, can do to help disabled people to enjoy the transport that the rest of us take so much for granted. I want it also to include what it has done to help those responsible for funding the special services as well as the improvement of its own services. I think that that partially meets the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Stevens). That will be a useful way of focusing the attention of LRT at the highest levels on the continuing need year by year to make progress to bring additional mobility to the disabled.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter for moving his amendment, because it has allowed these matters to come back to the attention of the House.

Whilst I am discussing the need for the provision of mobility for the disabled, I take the opportunity to remind the House of a development which I announced last week and which I believe will make a major contribution to ensuring that the special services in London are sensibly and properly developed in future. These are the services for those who might not be able to enjoy public transport even as it is improved for the disabled in the years ahead.

My Department is funding the setting up and running of a London section of the national advisory unit for community transport for a period initially of three years. The grant will cover 100 per cent. of the capital and running costs of that organisation and, I hope, will go a long way to giving the sort of advice so often sought by dial-a-ride schemes and others seeking to provide mobility for disabled people who cannot benefit from public transport.

The national advisory unit has been in action for more than two years. It was set up and funded with the support of my Department, and it is well known and respected in other parts of the country. It provides a national source of expertise and advice on a wide range of community transport, including schemes for the elderly and for the disabled. Above all, it has achieved a major success in providing the most effective services within the resources available. It has the experience of some 70 dial-a-ride schemes round the country and many more at the planning and development stage. The advice of the unit is already in great demand.

I have thought for some time that London needed closer and more concentrated help of this kind over the next few years of transition and development. That is why I have asked the NAU to set up a special section to help take this forward. It will be starting work in the course of this summer, and I hope that it will make a significant impact on the London scene within a very few months.

The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) mentioned the meeting in the House a few weeks ago. I was very sorry to miss it. Unfortunately, I had influenza at the time.

Mr. Prescott

I bet the Secretary of State wished the hon. Lady could have been there.

Mrs. Chalker

At that meeting, a number of the people present were rather unhappy at the way that it was conducted by the Federation of Dial-a-Ride, and the Joint Committee for the Mobility of the Disabled and others have written saying that they do not believe the rather rowdy meeting and the tactics operated during it were representative of disabled people as a whole.

I believe that most disabled people recognise that there are limits to what can be done, however willing and determined a Minister may be about the provision to be made. I believe that it is right that we are going ahead in a sensible and organised manner to help the dial-a-ride schemes, which is what the London branch of the national advisory unit will do.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that she is trying to get the LRT to do as much as is physically and financially possible to help the categories of disabled people whom she mentioned?

Mrs. Chalker

Indeed, I am certainly seeking to do as my hon. Friend said.

The hon. Member for Kingston ùpon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) seems to think that this is a waste of time. I believe that the mobility of the disabled is most important. In Committee I expressed clearly my determination to provide for that.

Mr. Prescott

Window dressing.

Mrs. Chalker

There is no such thing in my book on this score as window dressing. The hon. Gentleman would do well to withdraw his remark.

Mr. Tony Banks

Will the Minister clarify a point? It is all very well to offer advice on facilities for the disabled and the efficient use of the dial-a-ride scheme, but will she also provide the resources? In the final analysis it is resources that the Minister needs to guarantee, not advice. Advice usually comes a lot cheaper than resources.

Mrs. Chalker

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern about this matter. That is why I said earlier that the provision of such services should be through the local authority. I have already undertaken to discuss this with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment because I am deeply concerned about the way in which money is already being spent. It should be spent to the best possible effect for the mobility of the disabled. The hon. Gentleman will take a different line from me on many things, but I am determined to see a better provision of mobility for the disabled, whether it be through local authorities or LRT.

The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) has been waiting patiently for me to deal with amendment No. 61. He asked for more information in the annual report. He will know that that matter was raised in Committee. As I told the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East, there will be the maximum statistical and performance information in LRT's reports, but I do not think that it is necessary to spell that out in statute. I undertake to tell the LRT chairman and board that such information is required in the annual report. I hope that that will meet at least the spirit of amendment No. 61, which I advise my hon. Friends not to support if the hon. Gentleman presses it to a Divsion.

Whatever the mutterings that we have heard during the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter has done the House a service by moving this amendment. I hope that the House will receive it with acclamation.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

It would be churlish not to express some pleasure at the Government's acceptance of amendment No. 52. I understand from my Front Bench colleagues, to whose labours on the Bill I pay warm tribute, that concessions by the Government have been rare. For their part, they have made a number of extremely important propositions which, if accepted, would much have helped disabled people. Any concession is welcome, but this is not an occasion for self-congratulation by the Government since, as the Minister knows full well, much more was hoped for from the Bill by disabled people and their organisations.

The clause is a lineal descendant of one that we enacted in section 22 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. We included in that Act the request for an annual report on action taken by Departments of State to improve the outdoor mobility of the disabled, not for the purpose merely of reporting progress, but to excite progress in improving that mobility. Section 22 has led to much practical progress over the years. Yet there has not been as much progress as we looked for in 1970 and there is much more to do, both in London and throughout the country.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) on winning approval for his amendment, but feel sure he will agree that it is only a small consolation prize when considered against what many disabled people are still actively seeking in terms of improved mobility. When we talk about the disabled in the context of public transport, we must think not only of people who are unable to walk, but of those who are unable to see or to hear, among many other kinds of disabled people. As the hon. Gentleman said, while many people can walk, they are still severely handicapped as to outdoor mobility. In particular, we must not ignore the claims of people who are blind or deaf and I am glad that was emphasised in more than one speech tonight.

8.45 pm

Many disabled people wanted much more from the Bill than they have so far been offered. Their concern is not just for concessionary passes or even dial-a-ride, taxi-card or accessible buses and trains. They need a complete and integrated public transport system that will take into account the transport needs of people with disabilities along with those of all other passengers.

When the Minister speaks about integration, she must be challenged to match precept with practice. All hon. Members know that there are considerable unmet claims among disabled people, and this debate provides a brief opportunity for the House to consider them tonight. I hope that the Government will be more receptive to those claims in the other place than they have been in the House of Commons.

Recently, I heard a Conservative Member say to disabled people that the main hope for strengthening the Bill in the interests of disabled people lay with the House of Lords, not with the House of Commons. That was a disturbing statement for any hon. Member to have made. Yet we must hope that as the Bill is in need of further improvement, in the view of disabled people, there will be serious efforts in another place to effect some of the amendments that have been unsuccessfully pressed on the Government.

We are talking here of well in excess of half a million people in the capital city who are disabled in one way or another. The disabled are not a tiny minority and they are fully entitled to the time of this House for the fullest possible consideration of their claims. If disabled people are to be a part of society, and not apart from society, talk about integration must be matched with purposeful action. Much more action is necessary than the Government are prepared to take. While we welcome the clause, I hope that the Government will be more responsive to amendments in another place than they have been in the House of Commons in the proceedings on the Bill so far.

Amendment agreed to.

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