HC Deb 12 November 1987 vol 122 cc666-74

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kenneth Carlisle.]

10.55 pm
Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)

I wish to discuss the transport needs of the disabled in Greater London. I should like to say how grateful I am to Mr. Speaker. I know that Mr. Speaker chooses the subject for the Thursday night Adjournment debate, so I am extremely grateful to him. I pay tribute to his interest in the subject. I know of his close involvement, as a constituency Member of Parliament, with Dial-a-Ride in Croydon. I believe that what I have to say will earn support from both sides of the House. Many colleagues representing other constituencies in Greater London have said how much they welcome the debate. In particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) has asked to be associated with what I have to say.

Much has happened in recent years, but that does not mean that we cannot discuss what has to happen with the various schemes and the availability of transport for the disabled. Now is the time to assess what is available for the disabled and what growth in services is feasible and desirable for them.

Why do we need to consider the matter at all? Anybody who has tried to go on a journey, or has been on a journey with a disabled person, particularly a person in a wheelchair, will recognise that preparing for any journey —journeys which most hon. Members would take for granted—is like planning a military exercise. One has to know everything about every aspect of the journey to be undertaken. Taking two trains or two buses is not on the cards for many of our fellow Londoners. Many of those people are still trapped in their houses. If one speaks to the people who have been able to take advantage of Dial-a-Ride, taxi-card or the mobility buses, they will say that they have experienced a sense of freedom that has been absent for them for many years, and for some of them for all their lives. Some of the people who wanted to attend this debate from my constituency and across London cannot do so, not because they could not get in to hear the debate, but because they simply could not guarantee that they would be able to get home afterwards. That is something that any other Londoner would take for granted.

Dial-a-Ride has been with us for only a short time, but it has made a huge impact across London. It was started initially by the Greater London council and is now financed by the Government. I and other Conservative Members have never been slow to point out the dreadful atrocities carried out by the GLC, particularly its rate increases, but it is because of the GLC, especially the then chairman of its transport committee, Mr. Dave Wetzel, that the scheme got off the ground in the first place. We should never be too ungenerous to give credit where it is due.

It is the volunteers who substantially run and organise Dial-a-Ride who deserve the credit, and I hope that the House will pay tribute to them for their work. It is almost entirely because of their efforts that the previously housebound have seen their horizons extended and their lives transformed. Because of that, Dial-a-Ride has become the victim of its own success. It simply cannot keep up with the demand.

Dial-a-Ride has 50,000 members, yet London has about 250,000 disabled. No one can say exactly how many disabled there are. One survey last year even put the number as high as 500,000, and 30,000 Londoners are permanently in a wheelchair. Yet of those, only 38 per cent. of the transport handicapped have even heard of Dial-a-Ride, and only 2 per cent. have used it, according to a 1986 survey. In short, its facilities have been swamped.

The telephone booking system, under which each Dial-a-Ride has only one telephone and tries to take all the bookings for its vehicles, has put people off. In particular —if I may allude to one group that feels itself frozen out of Dial-a-Ride—the elderly frail, having tried and tried to telephone Dial-a-Ride, simply give up in the end and become housebound once again.

Two questions arise. How much money does Dial-a-Ride need to improve its service, and what is the demand? Nobody can answer those questions specifically. One must consider the demand on a regular basis. If we gave Dial-a-Ride in London extra money to buy, say, one vehicle per Dial-a-Ride and to improve the telephone system, how much difference would that make?

The taxi card was also initially the responsibility of the GLC, and it now comes under the local authority. It has come in for a lot of criticism because it is expensive, but I want to make it abundantly clear that it is good value for money. Its maximum subsidy of £6 is only half that of the average subsidy for Dial-a-Ride, yet a 1986 survey showed that only 6 per cent. of London's disabled had a taxi card. In my borough, and I think in most London boroughs, there is a waiting list of the disabled who want the taxi card service.

Why does taxi card have its opponents? It is simply because it is an open-ended financial commitment for the boroughs and it is subject to abuse. Yet, as I have said, it is vital to those who use it. Most people use it sparingly, and less than half use it more than once a month. I urge every London borough council to have patience with taxi card, to recognise what it is doing for the people who live in their boroughs and to recognise that they must continue to make a financial commitment to it.

Some taxi drivers feel that taxi card holders are sometimes more able bodied than they expected when they pick them up. One hears stories of a taxi turning up at a house and a theoretically disabled person bounding out of the house and jumping into the taxi. Whether such stories are far-fetched or true is not for me to say, but those who feed on such stories must recognise that, for instance, multiple sclerosis sufferers have good and bad days. One day a sufferer may be in a wheelchair and the next day be walking fairly satisfactorily. We cannot deny assistance to those people simply because they are better on some days than on others.

Thirdly, I want to talk about the impact of public transport. London Regional Transport in particular, and British Rail, have worked hard recently to improve access to their services, to promote new services and to publicise what is available. Improving access is extremely important, and only today my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has launched — if that is the right word—the new airbus service that takes five wheelchairs between Victoria station and the airport. The service from Euston to the airport will be available from about next January and will be of tremendous help to many wheelchair-bound people who want to go on holiday.

There are 260 new double-deckers with a lower and easier entrance and exit steps, and existing buses are being altered. There are also better handrails on buses and at underground stations. Visual signs accompany the bell to help the deaf. There are talking bus stops—that sounds like something out of a child's book — but they are extremely important to those who cannot read what is printed at the bus stop. Induction loops at station booking halls help the hard of hearing. Audible door buzzers have been installed on new central line trains. Most interestingly, the docklands light railway has wheelchair access from station to platform at every station.

Why, then, does only one underground station have the same facility? It is essential for London Regional Transport to consider the shallow run lines especially and have a core system of stations so that disabled people know that they can get to the trains at some of the stations, and that they can get off at a selected number of stations. I recognise that the deep lines would be more difficult, and that some of them would be dangerous, but more could he done on the shallow lines than has been done up to now. We must see some progress.

So far as new services are concerned, the mobility buses have made a big impact by taking people from outlying areas to the shopping areas. Equipped with lifts, they now operate in eight boroughs. I should like to see those services running in all boroughs, including in my borough, where people would perhaps like to go to the new shopping centre on a particular day of the week.

Dial-a-ride could work with the new mobility buses. It can and would like to be able to feed the mobility buses. For example, if one knew that on a Thursday, a bus would run from one's estate at 10 o'clock in the morning to the shopping centre and return in the afternoon, Dial-a-Ride could pick up people and take them to that mobility bus and collect them in the evening. Such a service would transform the lives of many people who are now trapped in their own homes. It could be cost-effective and improve the cost-effectiveness of the Dial-a-Ride service.

Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton)

Is my hon. Friend aware of the considerable interest in the debate that he has initiated, not least in the London borough of Ealing, and that Ealing Dial-a-Ride is anxious to try to meet more of the demand that it is facing. Towards the end of his speech, will my hon. Friend make some suggestions about how the voluntary organisations might be able to meet more of the demand if they had more resources?

Mr. Hughes

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. He is my Member of Parliament. I voted for him, and he is a very good Member. His interest in and concern with such matters is well recognised in the area where I live. I hope to deal with the point that he made, and if I do not I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will deal with it in his speech.

There is plenty of scope for new services and an imaginative approach by London Regional Transport, and the voluntary sector could come up with new ideas that would be cost-effective. The advice that London Regional Transport gives to its drivers recognises that there is a big market to be tapped. Its "Information for Drivers" leaflet states: Elderly and disabled people … bring revenue to London buses … Lots of these passengers are regulars; they travel every day, and really are grateful to staff who help them. It is important to recognise that the fact that people are disabled does not mean that they are not customers. They must be dealt with as customers. They are also ratepayers and taxpayers and deserve their share of what is happening in transport.

The other area in which the public transport services have helped is information. There is no point in putting on a service if a customer does not know whether he will be able to use it. There is now a proliferation of information leaflets and large print maps have been produced by London Regional Transport and British Rail. The disabled passenger unit at London Regional Transport encourages input by the customers on what is planned.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton about the voluntary organisations. The big thing about Dial-a-Ride is that it is customer orientated and is run by customers. They have had a huge input into what has been achieved. We must not lose that input in any of the changes that may be sought.

We are seeking a co-ordinated future. Demand will grow and the supply of money must grow with it. We must recognise that, at present, we can see only the tip of the iceberg. As more people are able to use the services, the demand will grow and people will want to use them on a regular basis. In the long term, I hope that the Government and the Department of Transport will accept that we need to increase, in a staged manner, the amount of funding given to the organisations involved and the amount of money put into the services. In that way we will be able to see a real return, not just in terms of value for money, but in the effects on the lives of Londoners.

London Regional Transport and the Department of Transport must co-ordinate all the services, and LRT is in a good position to do that. One service affects the others, and LRT and the Department must take that into account when considering the pressure to bring in different services.

The telephone system for Dial-a-Ride is inadequate. Currently there are 1,724 members per telephone, and what we need is a sub-regional exchange system so that members can ring more easily and get their call answered. We must price the improvements schemes and ensure that staged growth takes place. When considering the different Dial-a-Ride schemes, we must not be too limited in setting the ground rules. Traffic speed and density influence the cost of each service, and we must not be too rigid.

We must set a date by which new taxis are able to take wheelchairs, and we must urge taxi and mini-cab operators to grasp the commercial opportunities that are available, by buying suitable vehicles. We must ask voluntary organisations—as the Harrow Association for Voluntary Services is doing — to raise money to convert taxis so that we can increase the number of taxis available locally.

I do not ask my hon. Friend for answers to all these matters tonight, but I hope that he will consider them in the long term. No one must assume that what has been achieved is enough. No one must assume that he can assess what the real need is or will be. I hope that my hon. Friend will show his customary open-mindness to future developments and recognise that we have only scratched the surface of the problems. If the Government recognise that and act upon my recommendations, they will transform the lives of Londoners in a tremendous way.

11.12 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Peter Bottomley)

First, may I congratulate you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on being here for this important debate. We are aware that in your service to your constituents you would echo many of the things that have been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes).

I recognise the support that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West has had from colleagues on the Conservative Benches. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. Carlisle) is interested in the subject even though he represents an out-of-London constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) has been here throughout the debate and my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis), although he is not contributing to the debate, has a keen interest in the matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) has contributed. I also acknowledge the help that has been given by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson), who has a keen concern about all transport issues also and who has the interests of the disabled at heart. I would list the hon. Members on the other side of the House if they were present.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West has done a great job in continuing his services to Londoners, formerly as a member of the Greater London council, and now in this House. He has raised a subject that is seriously considered and supported by most hon. Members who have either the eyes to see or the personal experience to know what it is like to be immobile because of some physical or mental attribute. Such mobility handicap does not apply only to those who are conventionally recognised as disabled. It can be argued that 10 per cent. of us suffer from a mobility handicap at some stage in our lives. It may be because they have children, or have a physical disability —permanent or temporary—or it may be due to fraility or age. There are many reasons why many of us pass through a stage of difficulty with moving around. So, making sensible and greater provision for that is important.

I propose to start by discussing Dial-a-Ride, and then cover other issues if there is time. Perhaps we can cover more of the subject during another debate in the future, because it deserves more than the half hour that it is now receiving through the good offices of my hon. Friend. The Department of Transport has been well served by Sir Peter Baldwin's committee, which now has a statutory responsibility to advise the Secretary of State. My hon. Friend paid tribute to the work of London Regional Transport's unit for disability, and I am sure he will not mind my adding the disability unit of the Department of Transport itself, which could be described as the sometimes unseen link between all of us with an interest in the subject.

I also pay tribute to the work of the people who established Dial-a-Ride, and to London Regional Transport, which, through its specialised unit, is promoting the effective development of Dial-a-Ride services throughout London. I do not want to spend too much time tonight on the one-trip-a-week campaign. Those who read the London Regional Transport report —issued last month—will see that there are almost 10 times as many journeys as there are people registered for the scheme. I do not rest any case on that, as, obviously, more people could be registered, and we could probably discover, as the LRT report on taxi card shows, that if one culls through the list of those who are registered, one may also discover a fair number who have dropped off. We should not play the numbers game if we are trying to meet and increase the demand, because information is important to meeting people's needs in a cost-effective way. No one would wish to pretend that the level of Dial-a-Ride services that is currently available is sufficient to meet all the transport needs of the people who depend on them, let alone the growing number who are likely to become members.

It is worth noting that, besides asking for more money, we must go for improved efficiency. If I had been able to announce an increase in Dial-a-Ride funding of 10 per cent. a year ago, with a further 10 per cent. this year, most people who support or use Dial-a-Ride, would have said that that was welcome. The Government did better than that ; they provided a 20 per cent. increase a year ago, and that accelerated funding has made it possible to obtain extra vehicles and put money towards the capital investment in the communications system to which my hon. Friend referred. The LRT report shows that there are six Dial-a-Rides whose cost per trip is less than £10, and three whose cost per trip is more than £15. That scatter is not fully explained by the different geographical location or history of the organisations. There are substantial efficiency gains to come, and I hope that all those who work for Dial-a-Ride, in the management committees and for LRT, will work together for continued efficiency improvements. That is the best way of getting the best value for money now and of justifying future increases. We want to approach Dial-a-Ride development in an incremental way, so that at each stage we can ensure that the best possible service has been provided for the greatest number of people.

Let us examine the future development of the other services that are available in London. London has the best overall provision for people with mobility handicaps of any capital city in the world, not only because of the LRT introduction of the airbus service, which has been adapted so that people in wheelchairs and frail people can now travel from Victoria to Heathrow on the ordinary buses —although that is important. However, I shall use that example to demonstrate how value for money can play an important part. Alder Valley sensibly introduced a Careline service so that people in wheelchairs could go from London railway stations to Heathrow. It found that it was not possible to continue the service, which was costing £7,000 a week. There were calls for that service to be funded directly by central Government. I pay tribute to people in British Airways, in the British Airports Authority and in British Rail and to the many groups of people, including the Baldwin committee, who came together on the problem.

It was discovered that London Regional Transport could adapt the ordinary airbus fleet to enable people in wheelchairs to travel in integrated transport. That bus conversion takes eight seconds and in that time the lift can be opened and the stair lowered. I pay tribute to LRT for Mr. David Lightbown.its training and for the positive way that its drivers are carrying on the work pioneered by Alder Valley. That kind of service helps.

The work that the Department of Transport has done towards adapting the conventional London taxi means that not only is a reasonably low-cost conversion available for the FX4, but that the Metro-Cammell taxi is now available. This means that the converted FX4 and the Metro-Cammell can now take wheelchairs. It is not just a matter of trying to concentrate all the demand on Dial-a-Ride. We must also try to make the ordinary services more easily available to those in wheelchairs.

My hon. Friend spoke about the adaptations to the London buses. New London buses have many simple changes — differences that may not he noticed by everyone comparing the new buses with those made 10 years ago. On the new buses there is a lower step and the grab rails are in the right place and in distinctive colours. There are some other changes, but I do not have time to go into them in detail. These things show that those who hold the stewardship of transport for Londoners are trying as far as possible to make it available to all Londoners rather than just to those who are fit and able.

My hon. Friend spoke about the difficulties of converting the London underground, or at least the trains on the deep-line services. He recognised, for example, that the docklands light railway has such adaptations. They are built in. It is always better to build things in than bolt them on, but where things are not built in, perhaps we can bolt them on.

More changes are coming and we must praise those who have brought them about, as well as look for better ways of moving forward. The fundamental change is the recognition in London, throughout the rest of the United Kingdom and, indeed, throughout Europe, that people with disabilities are a legitimate part of the travelling public. That applies not just to them as passengers but to them as customers. More taxi drivers are seeing the benefits of the taxi card service.

It is also worth recognising, as the number of taxis to take wheelchairs increases, that the average cost of a taxi card ride is less than £6 and the average cost of the Dial-a-Ride service is, I think, getting on for £12. Perhaps we can move some of the demand presently met by Dial-a-Ride to a cheaper and more effective service that can overcome the limitations of 1,000 people trying to ring the same telephone number—even if more telephones are installed. We must try to get the pattern dictated by the customer rather than have the service dictated by the form of provision often set up by disparate groups. The present levels of provision are a tribute to the people who have been working in this area for longer than I have.

I have said that when we talk about disabled people we are not talking about a small minority or exclusively about people confined to wheelchairs. Anyone who has used a bus or the London underground while carrying luggage or heavy shopping or with small children with prams or pushchairs, knows what it means to be mobility handicapped. Transport providers have now recognised that getting it right for people with disabilities means that they are getting it right for a larger group of people with mobility handicaps.

Some people need more specialised provision and, of course, Dial-a-Ride is important in that respect. I suspect that we shall meet a growing demand every time that we make more forms of transport available to people with a mobility or a disability handicap. We will find that Dial-a-Ride's places will be more than taken up by people who have not yet had the information or the confidence or are not yet within reach of Dial-a-Ride.

Having put Dial-a-Ride into the broader context, I now look forward not only to growing use of previous innovations but to further innovations. There may be many things that we do not yet know how to achieve, but the opportunity will come and, if we take it, we will find that we have done our job better and that more people will have opportunities to move around.

I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West. I can tell the House that we intend to circulate information on self-propulsion to millions of people. MAVIS is not one of my girl friends but our advice centre at Crowthorne, Berkshire, for people who want to be able to drive. Many disabled people who have the ability to drive have not yet found a centre. MAVIS is not the only centre that can provide assessment, because there is a centre in Banstead and centres in other places. However, MAVIS is probably the best-known one.

People can come to those centres for assessment to see whether they will be able to drive themselves. Using either their own money or mobility allowance, they can go for self-propulsion. That option is not open to everyone, but it is possible for more people.

I hope that we shall be able to return to this subject and have more time to cover it in more detail so that we can carry out our responsibilities better and spread knowledge of what is already available. I am glad that London is doing better.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock.