HC Deb 31 October 1995 vol 265 cc152-61

.—(1) The Secretary of State may make regulations ("taxi accessibility regulations") for the purpose of securing that it is possible—

  1. (a) for disabled persons—
    1. (i) to get into and out of taxis in safety;
    2. (ii) to be carried in taxis in safety and in reasonable comfort; and
  2. (b) for disabled persons in wheelchairs—
    1. (i) to be conveyed in safety into and out of taxis while remaining in their wheelchairs; and
    2. (ii) to be carried in taxis in safety and in reasonable comfort while remaining in their wheelchairs.

(2) Taxi accessibility regulations may, in particular—

  1. (a) require any regulated taxi to conform with provisions of the regulations as to—
    1. (i) the size of any door opening which is for the use of passengers;
    2. (ii) the floor area of the passenger compartment;
    3. (iii) the amount of headroom in the passenger compartment;
    4. (iv) the fitting of restraining devices designed to ensure the stability of a wheelchair while the taxi is moving;
  2. (b) require the driver of any regulated taxi which is plying for hire, or which has been hired, to comply with provisions of the regulations as to the carrying of ramps or other devices designed to facilitate the loading and unloading of wheelchairs;
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  4. (c) require the driver of any regulated taxi in which a disabled person who is in a wheelchair is being carried (while remaining in his wheelchair) to comply with provisions of the regulations as to the position in which the wheelchair is to be secured.

(3) The driver of a regulated taxi which is plying for hire, or which has been hired, is guilty of an offence if—

  1. (a) he fails to comply with any requirement imposed on him by the regulations; or
  2. (b) the taxi fails to conform with any provision of the regulations with which it is required to conform.

(4) A person who is guilty of such an offence is liable, on summary conviction, to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.

(5) In this section—

Mr. Tom Clarke

I beg to move amendment (c) to the Lords amendment, after subsection (2)(c), at end insert— '(2A) A taxi access order shall be made in such terms as the Secretary of State considers appropriate and may, in particular—

  1. (a) apply to more than one transport facility or class of transport facility;
  2. (b) authorise the owner of a transport facility to—
    1. (i) charge such fees for the admission of taxis to that transport facility as may be prescribed in the order;
    2. (ii) designate places at that transport facility at which persons may be taken up by or set down from taxis; and
    3. (iii) impose such other conditions for the maintenance of safety or the control of traffic at that transport facility as may be specified in the order;
  3. (c) in relation to a transport facility where, prior to the passing of this Act, the owner has entered into a contract or agreement granting another person the exclusive right to provide taxi or private hire car services at that transport facility, postpone that date on which the order is to apply to that transport facility until—
    1. (i) the day following the date on which that contract or agreement expires; or
    2. (ii) such other date as may be prescribed in the order.'.

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to consider the following: Amendments (d) to (g), Government amendment (i) and amendment (h) to the Lords amendment, Lords amendments Nos. 51 to 64, Lords amendment No. 65 and amendment (a) thereto and Lords amendments Nos. 66, 90, 92 to 94, 96, 102, 103, 107 and 110.

Mr. Clarke

The amendments apply to the issue of transport. I am happy to welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box from the Department of Transport, and assure him that transport was an extremely important issue when we debated disability matters.

The House will recognise that the Government have now accepted the spirit of the amendments on public transport that the Opposition tabled during the early stages of the Bill. Their conversion, as on others matters, did not come easily. On Second Reading, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) argued: The most flexible, sensible and practical way to bring about a radical improvement in accessible transport vehicles was outside the scope of legislative requirements."—[Official Report, 24 January 1995; Vol. 253, c. 153.] At that stage, Ministers seemed reluctant to accept that regulations based on consultations were indeed flexible, sensible and practical and that they could and should be provided for in the Bill, so we had to persuade them to the contrary, which is what Parliament is supposed to be about. We had to show them that flexible and practical regulation was best done within the terms of the legislation designed for that purpose and that the best and most sensible place to pass such legislation was indeed within the Bill. But, no, they said, they would not back down on transport—until they did.

By the time we reached Report, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks took a different view. He said then, and this is a real exercise in the study of empiricism: The Government certainly support the spirit of the new clauses"—[Official Report, 28 March 1995; Vol. 257, c. 859.] which were tabled by the hon. Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) and by me.

I must tell the Minister that the hon. Member for Exeter, who is a distinguished member of the all-party disability group, deserves more than a fig leaf to cover Government inadequacies. He certainly has more respect from Opposition Members than he has from Members on the Government Front Bench. The hon. Member for Exeter and I put forward our views. I will not be churlish: I am glad that the Minister came to the view that we expressed and that we have consequently been able to make progress towards achieving a fully accessible transport system. The Government backed down.

The Lords amendments before us today provide that flexible and sensible timetables should be set within the context of an agreed objective that all vehicles should be accessible to and usable by disabled passengers. We welcome that. Of course we do, having argued for so long to have the principle accepted. We welcome the conversion, no matter how late in the day, because it is better than no conversion at all. That being said, I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity today to put a little more flesh on the bones. It would certainly be helpful to have some further indication that the timetable that the Government have in mind on these matters is made known to the House.

I now come to the specific area covered by the amendments to Lords amendments No. 50 and 65, which address the final anomaly on which the Government were most reluctant to back down: access by taxis to the facilities operated by providers of other forms of public transport. We argued at earlier stages and throughout our discussions that it was ludicrous for the Government to propose new requirements for disabled people to enjoy full and equal access to railway and bus stations while the Bill explicitly exempted transport vehicles. That was conceded, but only up to a point. Disabled people were offered access to trains and to stations but were given no guarantee that an accessible taxi would be available on arrival to take them to their final destination. It is to address that anomaly that we tabled our amendments to Lords amendments Nos. 50 and 65.

I must say to the Minister that I seldom take a taxi anywhere in London—I suspect that he agrees with me on this point—without hearing his name mentioned. We are giving him the opportunity tonight to rescue his reputation. I shall even tell the taxi driver tonight—if we leave the House at a reasonable time with yet another victory—that he is not as bad as he is painted in taxi driver circles, but even that will not save his seat at the next general election. Licensed taxis or hackney cabs are covered by this legislation—this is the kernel of the issue—but private hire vehicles are not. The problem is that operators of transport facilities, such as airports, seaports, railway and bus stations, are free to grant a monopoly to private hire as opposed to taxi firms in providing services to passengers.

If the Bill were passed without further amendments, a private hire firm winning such a monopoly would be under no obligation whatever to provide vehicles that were wheelchair accessible. It would be possible for a disabled person to hail a taxi on the street or join a queue at an ordinary taxi rank, confident in the knowledge that the vehicle would be designed to accommodate a wheelchair user, but it would not be possible to have that confidence at a railway station in those circumstances. That is why we tabled our amendments and welcome the fact that the Government have finally addressed the issue by tabling amendments of their own. But it is truly a last-minute conversion.

The text of the Government's amendment first became available to me at 5.15 yesterday evening.

The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris)

indicated assent.

Mr. Clarke

I am glad that the Minister confirms that point.

My colleagues in another place had raised this question in Committee, on Report and at Third Reading. I am delighted to congratulate those colleagues, those noble Lords and Ladies, on the magnificent job they did.

Amendments were tabled in the other place on Third Reading last week. The Government must have known then that they were in an indefensible position. That certainly seemed clear from the Minister's replies in another place, given by Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, whom I know well from his experience as an elected Member for a Scottish constituency, and the earlier climbdown on my own Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act 1986, which was not dissimilar to this evening's events.

He was at his wits' end to find a convincing reason why car services provided by private hire companies at railway stations and airports should not be brought into the scope of the Bill. A few days ago, in another place, he argued that there was no problem, because owners of transport facilities had a commercial interest in ensuring that such services were adequate to meet the needs of all their customers. If that were a sufficient response, however, there would be no need for any legislation governing vehicles. I suspect that, in his heart, the Minister concedes that.

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The Government have already conceded the principle, which is important. They have recognised that the needs of the minority of the travelling public—wheelchair users—were not necessarily guaranteed by the commercial interests of operators in the maximising of revenue. Yet, for some curious reason, the Government were not prepared to accept that the principle applying to other aspects of transport provision should apply to this aspect as well. Another argument was presented: disabled people, it was said in another place, could book taxis in advance, and there was therefore no need to impose a requirement for accessible taxis to be available on arrival. That is a remarkable view; I know of no disabled people's organisation that would accept it for a second.

It was said that there would be no problem for disabled travellers who booked a taxi and then found that they must pay for the two hours during which the driver waited for an aeroplane that arrived two hours late. In the Minister's experience, there was no problem with planes arriving late—except, he said, those crossing the Atlantic, when there were technical problems with "windage up high". I think that we would find such an expression unacceptable in the present context!

Those are not the arguments of a Government standing firm on a principle that they believe to be right; they are the meanderings of Ministers who discovered that they were creating a legal loophole, and who were reluctant to admit either that they were doing so or that they needed the Opposition to point out the folly of their ways.

The Government have finally admitted the need to act, and—as I have said—the amendments duly arrived in my office at 5.15 pm yesterday. Until then, not even the chairman of the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation—RADAR—who has worked hard to convince the Government, had seen the text. The Minister has presented us today with evidence of an unbelievable conversion, verging on the road to Damascus. In a Bill that is now full to the brim with Government climbdowns and U-turns, this is the latest and most hurried concession of all.

Perhaps the Government decided to hold Christmas at Hallowe'en, and give an unexpected present to all disabled people; but they would not have done so without the pressure exerted on them by the Labour party in Parliament, and by organisations representing disabled people. I congratulate the latter warmly, and invite the Minister to do the same.

We are, I think, entitled to ask the Minister to spell out the intention and effect of his proposals. He must tell us why he believes that his amendments are preferable to ours. If he satisfies us that they remove the legal anomaly to which we have repeatedly drawn attention, we shall be happy to withdraw our proposals, in the excellent spirit of co-operation that we have extended to an unwilling Government—but, I must warn the Minister, with the satisfaction of yet another victory won.

Under the Government's amendments, private hire vehicles with monopoly contracts at stations, ports and airports are to be subject to the taxi provisions in the Bill, but with modifications. The key taxi provision in the Bill is that all taxis are to be wheelchair-accessible. We need to know whether the measure will stand in full, or will be subject to modification. We seek the Minister's assurance that a disabled person alighting from a train or aeroplane will be guaranteed that the first vehicle at the rank will be fully accessible, and that all vehicles providing hire car services at stations will be fully accessible on the same terms as licensed taxis plying for trade on the public highway.

I hope that the Minister's replies will be in the affirmative. I look forward to the day when disabled people will be able to travel in the same way as others—with the same guarantees of access to cars and other vehicles to allow them to complete their journeys.

Extracting concessions from the Government on the Bill has sometimes been a slow and tortuous process, but the day on which all public transport is truly accessible will make that process well worth the effort.

Mr. Norris

Lest I was in any doubt about what "windage up high" actually means, I fear that the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) has given me an ideal illustration in his extraordinary peroration—including an uncharacteristic and appalling slur on my personal reputation among taxi drivers. He should know that my reputation depends entirely on the part of the country that people visit.

When I attended my party's magnificent conference in Blackpool, the first taxi I entered carried a sign facing the passenger seat, reading "Steve Norris must go". I did not like to say that I had already gone; I relied on the fact that junior Ministers are so obscure that there is not the slightest chance of their being recognised by any taxi driver outside the metropolis, and executed a delicate withdrawal.

My reputation has, in fact, recently received a boost here in the capital. It is true to say that because I—alone among Transport Ministers of any party over generations—have insisted on wheelchair accessibility and on redefining the taxi as a modern vehicle capable of taking disabled people, and have never been prepared to compromise that principle, I would not necessarily come top in a poll among taxi drivers to elect the bloke of the month. They have all had the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) in the back of the cab, but, sadly, an increasing number have also had the pleasure of my own company, and I cannot say that I was able to convince all of them of the rightness of my views.

That, however, was before the arrival of the entirely unlamented hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), who for a period—a sadly brief period, from my point of view—was the Opposition's transport spokesman.

Mr. Tom Clarke


Mr. Norris

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to finish my story, because it is very important, and illustrates why the Government are resisting the Opposition amendment and have tabled their own.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West—who knows nothing about taxis—produced a "position paper" on the subject, which he unwisely read only to a couple of his friends in the Transport and General Workers Union—

Mr. Clarke

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Minister is making a good-natured response, but may I ask him whether he informed my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) that he would refer to him?

Mr. Norris

I certainly did not, because I had not seen the unwarranted attack on my reputation of which the hon. Member for Monklands, West gave me no notice. If he is not to rely on spurious points of order to interrupt my speech, let me just say this. The relevance of—

Mr. Clarke

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Is the hon. Gentleman sure that it is a point of order?

Mr. Clarke

I think that it relates to an important principle in the House, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sure that you will confirm that. However light-hearted our exchanges, if an hon. Member wishes to refer to another, he should do that hon. Member the courtesy of giving him notice. That has not been done, and I am sure that you deplore it.

Madam Deputy Speaker

The reference to giving notice operates where a Member intends to make some kind of attack or disparaging remark, within parliamentary rules, about another hon. Member. I am not yet persuaded that it is of that order, but I await to hear whether it is.

Mr. Norris

I acquit myself of the charge of dishonour in respect of the hon. Member for Oldham, West, who produced a position paper on taxis. It was so ludicrous that, far from wishing to attack him, I volunteered to send copies of it to every taxi driver in London. Such was its reception that the headline in the taxi press the following week was, "Come back Norris, all is forgiven." I put that on the record to show that I take no lessons from Opposition Members on how to regulate the taxi industry. Without any political division, the House is prepared to accept that we at least know what we are talking about.

Mr. Tom Clarke

I am glad that the Minister retains his good nature despite his unpopularity among taxi drivers, which is increasing from the north to the south. To give evidence of that I should be glad to go tonight with the Minister to Peckham—as long as he pays the fare and takes the judgment that he perceives. I accept that the Minister has been through a rough time. No politician would suggest that we have not all had that experience but he is being a bit ungrateful to the star, if the press is right, of the Conservative party conference—the Secretary of State for Defence—who claimed that it was he who introduced disability provisions for London taxis.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. Am I right in thinking that this is an intervention?

Mr. Clarke

It is.

Madam Deputy Speaker

It is so long that I am beginning to wonder.

Mr. Norris

My bona fides in this matter require no further underlining. The most cynical group of individuals known to man—the 22,000 members of the London licensed taxi trade—are a shrewd judge in these matters. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Bendall) knows only too well, they tend to speak their mind, and, my goodness, they spoke it on that occasion.

Mr. Tom Clarke

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for a Minister to describe all London's taxi drivers as cynical?

Madam Deputy Speaker

That is not a point of order for the Chair.

Mr. Norris

It is pretty true, in my experience. I think that the number of taxi drivers in my constituency is second only to the number in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North. Many of them are personal friends, and have remained so because they recognise that at least I know one end of a taxi from the other. The hon. Member for Oldham, West clearly did not, but there is hope for any sinner that repenteth on these matters. I am delighted to debate the amendments.

Mr. Alfred Morris

On the matter of the unsolved mystery of the Government's massive conversion, their spectacular change of attitude, am I right in suspecting that that very distinguished official who is respected in all parts of the House, Anne Frye, might have played some part in the change? I suspect that the hon. Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) may share my view that perhaps she is involved somewhere.

Mr. Norris

It is gracious of the right hon. Gentleman to refer to Miss Frye, who is a distinguished official in my Department and who has been recognised for her sterling work on behalf of disabled people in every field of the transport industry. Her whole team is marvellous.

I shall now reply to the substance of the speech by the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke). We started from the proposition that access for the disabled to all forms of transport is wholly desirable, but that what is required to be injected into any legislative programme to require such access is reasonableness as to the speed and extent with which it can be delivered. In the context of taxis, the proposition is relatively straightforward, because by their nature taxis will come to the end of their useful life.

In London, there is a programme for requiring full accessibility, and it will be completed by 31 December 1999. That means that, on 1 January 2000, the whole of London's taxi fleet will be wheelchair-accessible, and the same will be true of taxis in increasing numbers of local authorities.

7.15 pm

Provided that sufficient notice is given to the owner of a vehicle that may not comply to allow him to amortise the useful life of his vehicle and not suffer any unreasonable financial burden as a result, the principle of him ensuring that thereafter he acquires an accessible vehicle is entirely reasonable.

In another place, the noble Lord Gladwin of Clee brought to our attention an issue that I was immediately prepared to acknowledge had some real merits. I shall refer shortly to those merits, but I should first like to refer to the reasons why we cannot accept the Opposition amendment and why the words that we have employed are more helpful. Some doubts about the Opposition amendment are technical. For example, it authorises the owner of a transport facility to do things that he is already entitled to do. However, this is not an occasion for nit-picking.

Our chief worry is about the main thrust of the amendment, which would let taxis in general into a transport facility, rather than allow the owner of that facility to make an exclusive contract with a taxi or private car hire firm. There is general recognition that that is the case at Gatwick airport because the airport authority has a specific contract with a particular company.

The purpose of the contract is clear. If no such contract exists, there is a risk that the local licensing authority could regulate fares only in its own area. Therefore, there should be a proper contract between a company and the airport authority, under which the authority says to the contractor, "You will take passengers on a fixed scale to any destination that they want." As I have no doubt hon. Members will have seen at the airport, those prices are available for inspection.

If there is no such arrangement, there is a danger that some taxi drivers will exploit passengers who wish to travel outside the immediate licensing area, and charge much more than they are entitled to charge. The authorities at Gatwick recognised that in the airport's early days. Of course, the situation at that airport is very different from the one in London, which was specifically brought within the provisions of the Metropolitan police service area for London taxis.

The idea of a contract is good, and offers a genuine measure of protection to all taxi users, irrespective of whether they are disabled. On that basis, it would be unhelpful for the generality of taxi users if an authority was not able to enter into the arrangement that I have described. The amendment moved in the other place was similar to the Opposition amendment, and is certainly right in its spirit, because it seeks to ensure that the taxi service that is available at King's Cross station or any other major station is available to disabled people at airports and other such transport facilities.

The form of words that we have used essentially allows for that. It gives the Secretary of State a regulation-making power to ensure that, when accessibility requirements are in force for taxis generally, equivalent requirements can be imposed on vehicles used under a contract to provide hire car services, so that the Secretary of State is able to solve any of the problems as they arise.

This is not a massive principle, a huge reversal or U-turn. It is, however, a genuine acknowledgment that the point that has been made here, and the spirit behind the amendments, were sensible, and that our amendments will meet that point. I hope that, in that spirit, the hon. Member for Monklands, West will accept that the deficiency in the original amendment wording is sufficient to allow him to withdraw that and to move to support the Government amendment.

Mr. Vivian Bendall (Ilford, North)

First, may I declare an interest? I represent the London Taxi Drivers Association. That interest is registered in the Members' book upstairs.

It is to be welcomed that the Government have brought forward the amendment, which will ensure that wheelchair-accessible licensed taxis are guaranteed free access to transport termini—the very areas where those with disabilities are in most need of such vehicles. I wish to thank my hon. Friends who have shared my concerns that, without the amendment, owners of transport facilities could enter into exclusive contracts with minicab companies, thus excluding wheelchair-accessible licensed taxis from transport facilities. It is important that those people with those disabilities have proper access to the provision of transport in airports, railway stations and other such areas.

Many people do not realise that minicabs do not and cannot give that facility—that is of great importance. Such a position would have driven a coach and horses through the principle of the Bill, and undermined the commitment shown by the licensed taxi industry, to which the Minister has referred, to ensure that, in due course and at considerable cost to itself, all licensed taxis will become wheelchair-accessible.

I would, however, prevail on the Minister to answer a number of points, in view of the fact that this was a late Government amendment, and it has been difficult to ask him to clarify one or two points. First, the new clause will apply only to transport facilities that are designated by the Secretary of State. Which transport facilities are likely to be designated, and on what basis will the choice be made?

Secondly, the new clause provides the Secretary of State with the power to impose the "taxi provisions" in the Bill concerning wheelchair access on the vehicles and drivers used to provide services under a franchise agreement. How will that work in practice, and what provisions are likely to be imposed? Thirdly, the term "hire car" has not been defined in the new clause, but is simply stated to have such meaning as may be prescribed". Why has the term not been defined, and what definition is likely to be prescribed?

Mr. Norris

In order not to detain the House, I think that it is better if I write to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Bendall) on those queries.

Mr. Tom Clarke

I found the Minister's reply unconvincing, but in the interests of progress, I look forward to a further discussion at the back of a taxi to Peckham, and I therefore will not press our amendments. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lords amendment No. 50 and Government amendment (i) thereto agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 51 to 88 agreed to.

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