HC Deb 14 April 1999 vol 329 cc181-8 12.30 pm
Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter that is of enormous concern to my constituents and to those of other hon. Members with constituencies along the routes operated by the railway company, Connex.

In south London, there is some of the oldest railway infrastructure in the country. We have Victorian and Edwardian stations where there are high footbridges over the track, enabling people to get from one side to the other. Of course, they can do that only if they are able-bodied. When those structures were built, no consideration was given to access for those who might be less able or disabled.

The Royal National Institute for Deaf People spotted the title of today's debate and wrote to me, thinking that I would speak about improved access. I wish I were. The purpose of the debate is not to call for much-needed improved access, but to draw the attention of the House and my hon. Friend the Minister to the action of Connex in taking away existing access for travellers with disabilities.

The matter was first raised with me in a series of letters from my constituents, complaining about the closure of side and rear entrances. That might seem a trivial issue, but it has had serious effects on the travelling public in my constituency, and has profound implications for the railway regulation and franchising authorities. It also provides the clearest evidence of institutional discrimination against people with disabilities.

In early February, I received the first letters about the closure of the entrances to the level platforms at Catford Bridge station. Susan Ford wrote to me in the following terms: On Monday 8 February I and a few hundred other passengers who travel from Catford Bridge railway station each day, were suddenly confronted with the locking of the gate which is the entrance to platform 1 (London bound). We had no prior warning". The letter continues: Apart from the extreme inconvenience this has caused to passengers … it has now become an absolute no-go travelling area for the disabled, parents with babies in buggies and those carrying heavy bags or cases. There is no way of reaching platform I without negotiating at least two flights of stairs. Mrs. Ford went on to say: There is of course the safety of passengers in general, particularly women. If a passenger felt compromised there was an alternative route of escape, but now on the side of the platform, where there is unlikely to be any passers-by … they have effectively locked in a potential victim. That letter was followed by one from J. T. Jefferies to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd), who I am glad to see is in his seat, and who, I know, supports me in everything that I shall say on the matter today. Mr. Jefferies wrote of his experiences at Catford Bridge station: People approaching the station past the old booking office have to walk all down one side of the station, up a flight of stairs to the street, along the pavement, past the 'down' side platform, down a side street and across a car park to the 'down' side ticket office, along the 'down' side platform, up the footbridge stairs, across the bridge, down the stairs to the `up' platform and along the platform to wherever they join the train. Of course, people travelling in the opposite direction must reverse all those movements.

Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

The hon. Lady may be interested to know that I have a similar problem in my constituency at Wallington station, where passengers have to go down a deep underpass because Connex South Central has chosen to lock one of the entrances to the station. I am sure the hon. Lady would agree that that affects not only people with disabilities, but every passenger who travels by Connex South Central.

Joan Ruddock

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, which I hope has been heard.

The letters from which I quoted were soon followed by one from Ruby Lescott, who wrote: Connex has simply locked out anyone with a disability. It also makes waiting on the 'up' platform at the non-peak times much more worrying as there is now only one way out of the station — and that is on to the track. There are clearly great issues of security at stake. Naturally, I contacted Connex and sent copies of the letters. I expected a reply stating that the closures were a temporary measure, soon to be revised, and at least an apology, but none was forthcoming. The chief operating officer, Mr. Geoffrey Harrison-Mee, wrote ominously:

"Side and rear entrances at a number of locations have been closed to help us control and monitor access to stations… Where we have closed side and rear entrances, we have found that vandalism and graffiti have been markedly reduced, and by concentrating access at main entrances we have been able to tackle ticketless travel which has helped us provide a more secure travelling environment. These are issues I know your constituents feel strongly about."
Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East)

As my hon. Friend knows, Hither Green station in my constituency has recently received a safety award, presented by the Minister. It is a Connex South Eastern station with entirely open access. There is no vandalism there now, so the idea that closures are a way of making stations more secure clearly does not marry up with what Connex South Eastern is doing at other stations.

Joan Ruddock

My hon. Friend is right. Many of my constituents and hers have raised the matter with the operating company.

Mr. Harrison-Mee went on to state in his letter: Where customers have special needs, we will do our best to help by opening gates, and special assistance can be arranged by contacting our Customer Services team". I was offered a meeting, but no attempt was made to answer constituents' claims that measures at Catford Bridge made for greater danger, not security. However, there was an assurance that gates could be opened, and we could contact customer services—more of that in a moment.

Meanwhile, M. Coulston wrote to me about Lewisham station and the evening closure of the platform 4 exit, which leads to the main residential area and Tesco, which stays open till midnight. He pointed out not only the inconvenience, but the need for anyone elderly or disabled, or anyone with children or shopping, to walk several hundred yards further than they used to and to negotiate two staircases. He also pointed out that the low fence next to the locked gate was easily negotiated by anyone able-bodied, including "muggers and vandals".

Again I wrote to Mr. Harrison-Mee, who replied in similar vein to his previous letter. However, this time he acknowledged the specific complaint and stated: I have noted Mr. Coulston's concerns about this gate being closed, and I hope that he will now understand why we have taken this course of action. I am sure that he did not, and neither did I.

Clearly, neither my constituents nor I were being listened to. I decided to follow up the offer of a meeting and made contact with Connex customer services. The staff at customer services were extremely helpful, but they said that they needed 48 hours' notice, as frequently the only staff member on a station was the person in the ticket office selling the tickets, who could not leave. Therefore customer services would have to arrange for someone else to go to a station to unlock the gates for a disabled person.

I asked about shorter notice. I was told that that could be arranged, but that certain people took advantage and claimed that there was an emergency every time. I asked about a commuter who goes to work every morning and comes back every evening. I was told that that would have to be taken up with the relevant commercial manager.

At one level, that is hilarious, but it represents the most profound discrimination against people with disabilities—not by the individuals who work for customer services, I am sure, but by the institution. The problem affects not only wheelchair users, but anyone who is less able to walk, all families with babies and buggies, and people who have heavy luggage, as they may well do at a railway station. For those who could not negotiate stairs in any circumstances, Connex's policy meant a profound restriction of their freedom to travel, whether for pleasure or to earn a living. Disabled people were offered a second-class service.

Scope, Britain's largest disability charity, said as much and took up the cause. The local newspapers—the South London Press, The Mercury and the News Shopper—all championed the passengers, as did BBC Radio 4's hard-hitting programme "You and Yours", but still Connex did not budge.

Then I received letters about Ladywell, which is my local station. It serves the district hospital and is adjacent to a school for children with special needs. It has a particularly high footbridge spanning the tracks. In the most bizarre exercise to date, Connex locked the side gates when the station was staffed—by one person, who could not open the gates because he was serving tickets—but unlocked them, giving free access to vandals, when the ticket office staff left in the early evening. Sara Peat wrote to me in exasperation, saying that she used the station every day, but suffered from a painful arthritic condition that made it dangerous and difficult for her to use the stairs. June Broom summed the situation up when she wrote: Disabled people can no longer use the station. The elderly now find it difficult. Watergate special school … can no longer go on school outings by train. … The direct route to Lewisham Hospital is no longer possible. I wrote to my hon. Friend the Minister and Scope wrote formally to Connex, arguing that its policy was a possible breach of its licence and asking for a review.

Throughout the sorry saga, Connex maintained that the closures were in the interests of passengers—enhancing security, reducing vandalism and raising revenue. Those are laudable objectives that we all support. Of course we want our railway to be a success, but no railway operator should justify buying station security on the backs of disabled people. Everything that Connex did discouraged and prevented people from travelling, and soured relations between staff and customers.

When I finally organised a site meeting of my constituents and Connex representatives to allow people to explain how they were affected at Ladywell station, it became clear that the people running the railway had not thought through the consequences of their strategy of, as they put it, reclaiming the railway from the vandals. The situation continued from the beginning of February until the middle of March. In the last week of March, I was finally told that the stations in my area would have their side and rear accesses reopened and left open for 24 hours a day while a review was being carried out.

That may seem like a great success. It is, but the situation should never have arisen. More importantly, my constituent Sandra den Hertog was told in a recent letter that consideration was being given to individual needs and that there was an on-going review. I cannot be confident that the recent reversal of policy will hold. That is why I have raised this important debate.

I want to ensure action. I also want lessons to be learned and questions to be answered. Who made the decision? Who left it to local station staff to implement a policy of shutting out their customers? In the briefing for today's debate, which no doubt my hon. Friend the Minister has seen, Connex says that it consulted about the changes by advertising the closures two weeks in advance. That is no consultation. The company even acknowledges that it did not happen at every station. It says that it has in place an effective policy for assisting people with disabilities to travel. That is patently not true. Another constituent has written at length about what happens when people try to get help from customer services. The company says that it is proud of the fact that 25 per cent. of customers with mobility problems use its customer services. I am concerned that 75 per cent. do not and I wonder why. How could the situation have arisen?

Connex's disabled people's protection policy makes a commitment to improve ease of access and egress from station platforms and trains. Compliance with the DPPP is a requirement of Connex's operator's licence. Its action is a clear breach of the licence. I am delighted that the accesses have been reopened, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will make it clear that the situation is unacceptable, that there must be no repeats and that if there are any remaining closures—I am not aware of any; I think that 10 stations had accesses reopened—they must be reopened immediately. My hon. Friend must tell us that steps will be taken to ensure that the situation does not recur and to ensure proper compliance with DPPPs. I very much hope that he is already discussing with railway operators the need for them to be prepared to meet the terms of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which will come into effect for the railways in October this year.

I hope that Connex has learned a hard lesson and I hope that other railway companies will take note. I have been told today that South West Trains may be in the process of instituting such a policy or may have already adopted one. I hope that my hon. Friend will make inquiries into such behaviour. There must be no repetition. It must be made clear that people with disabilities—profound and permanent or less severe and temporary—and those of us who are burdened in our normal way of life must have equal access to our public services, including our railways. Nothing less than that will satisfy me, my hon. Friends who are here today and my constituents. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will make that clear to our local train operating companies and to all the others, and that there will be a clear improvement.

Despite my criticisms of Connex, my hon. Friends and I will be more than willing to work with the company to ensure greater security for our stations—as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice) did at Hither Green—less evasion of fares and a reduction in vandalism. However, that must be done by other means. We shall be happy to explore all those issues with the company, as well as better access for people with disabilities.

12.47 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Alan Meale)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) on securing this debate and providing an opportunity for the House to discuss access for disabled people to railways. She has a fine record in this place. She was the Government spokesman on women and in opposition, she was a lead spokesman on transport and on London. She has always been at the forefront on issues relating to transport, London and the rights of the individual.

I understand my hon. Friend's concern about the restriction of access to stations in Lewisham. Her intervention has persuaded Connex that its action was precipitate and that it should reinstate the accesses where alterations caused unacceptable difficulties for passengers with disabilities. Connex is reviewing how it might pursue security enhancement of its stations without disadvantaging disabled people and other passengers with particular needs, such as mothers with child carriages or shopping bags.

The Rail Regulator's office is actively involved in reviewing the issues with Connex to ensure that the company's actions are consistent with its licence requirements to protect the interests of disabled people and with the statutory provisions that require the regulator's approval for the closure of stations or parts of stations.

I trust that that process will produce an outcome at Lewisham and other Connex stations that is satisfactory to my hon. Friend and her constituents, and that any further measures that Connex may propose to enhance security at Lewisham stations and more generally will be the subject of extensive consultation before decisions or actions are taken. Measures should be introduced in a meaningful way, rather than be a paper exercise, as my hon. Friend has described.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government have stressed to the railway industry the importance that they place on listening to passengers and on responding to their needs. That includes, but is not exclusively about, passengers with disabilities.

As my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London said at the rail summit on 25 February, between 12 per cent. and 14 per cent. of the population have some type of disability. Over the next 50 years, the proportion of older people in the population will increase from present levels of between 10 and 15 per cent. to between 20 and 30 per cent. The correlation between age and disability is well established; two thirds of disabled people are elderly. That substantial passengers' voice must be listened to by operators.

It is notable that improvements that are designed to help disabled and older people will almost invariably help the larger number of people who travel with small children, with baby buggies or who are laden with heavy suitcases or shopping. Accessibility improves patronage, as accessible buses have shown.

At the February rail summit, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport made it clear that proposals from train operating companies for renegotiation of their franchises would be considered against criteria that included the track record of the franchisee, on which he would consult widely, including via rail users' consultative committees, individual users and local groups; and the extent to which the franchisee was prepared to give passengers a greater voice in the level and standard of services.

Turning to security for rail users, I appreciate Connex's objective, but I repeat: I do not appreciate its style. Its objective in restricting access to stations in Lewisham and elsewhere in its south-eastern and south-central franchise areas is to improve security for passengers. That is in line with Government policy to reduce crime and the perception of crime on the railway, as elsewhere in society. Greater personal security will encourage use of the railway, which is one of the Government's key transport objectives.

Despite the low level of recorded crime on trains and at railway stations, fear of crime has a real impact on many people's lives. That is particularly true for women and older people. Fear of crime contributes to people being deterred from using public transport, particularly at night. It means that those people who can afford it travel by car, with all the resulting effects on congestion and pollution, and that those who cannot afford it are prevented from travelling.

Among other initiatives, the Government have developed, with a national steering group that includes rail organisations, passenger groups, British Transport police, Crime Concern and the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, the secure stations scheme—an accreditation scheme that was launched in 1998 to give public recognition to stations that work to create a safe environment for passengers and staff.

To gain accreditation, operators of individual stations must work with the British Transport police and other local partners to implement a range of security measures. Those must cover four main areas. The first is the design of the station, which must conform to standards that are judged by British Transport police to prevent and reduce crime, and to improve passenger perceptions. The second is management of the stations. Management must take steps to prevent crime, to respond to incidents and to communicate effectively with passengers.

The third area is managing crime. Statistics of crime must be maintained and show, over 12 months before accreditation is considered, that crime is being controlled. The fourth area is passenger perceptions. Passengers must be surveyed to establish that they feel secure in using the station. The national rail survey that was announced at the February rail summit will include questions on perceptions of security.

Many train operating companies have already prioritised improving security by installing closed circuit television and help points, improving lighting and introducing rapid response arrangements. A secure station accreditation will prove to passengers that their local station is taking their security seriously.

A number of stations throughout the country have been accredited under the scheme and it is hoped that many more will become accredited. Hither Green, which Connex South Eastern operates in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice), is one of those currently accredited; the London termini of Victoria and King's Cross have also been accredited.

The Government have focused on railway stations because that is what passengers want. Research by Crime Concern on behalf of my Department revealed that the part of the journey that is spent on the vehicle is perceived as more secure than the beginning and end of the journey. Waiting at railway stations was a particular concern for many passengers; both men and women were less concerned about waiting at bus stops.

Research shows that, although each individual journey has a number of constituent parts, a passenger perceives the journey as a whole and the worst part of the journey colours the experience of the whole. Therefore, it is essential that transport operators, local authorities and other interested groups work together to improve passenger perceptions of the whole journey. If passengers feel unsafe waiting at the bus stop, or walking to and from the station, they may be deterred from using that mode of public transport at all.

The objectives, instructions and guidance that the Government issued to the franchising director in November 1997—a copy is in the Library—included a requirement for him to promote the personal security of passengers travelling by rail". Since franchises were awarded, the franchising director has taken the opportunities for renegotiation that have arisen—when there has been a proposed change of control of a train operating company, or a breach of the franchise—to obtain further commitments to security improvements. As my hon. Friend the Member for Deptford will be interested to learn, companies involved to date include Thames Trains, First North Western, Chiltern Railways and LTS Rail.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are committed to comprehensive civil rights for disabled people. Accessible public transport, within the framework of our integrated transport policy, is fundamental to delivering that commitment.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 placed duties on those providing goods, facilities or services to the public and those selling, letting or managing premises. Since 2 December 1996, it has been unlawful for service providers, landlords and others to treat disabled people less favourably for a reason related to their disability. For service providers, the Act included further stages for "later rights" to be met where reasonable to enable use by disabled people.

From October 1999, service providers have to make "reasonable adjustments" for disabled people, such as providing extra help, or making changes to the way in which they provide their services. From 2004, it is intended that service providers will have to make "reasonable adjustments" to the physical features of their premises to overcome physical barriers to access. That could include, for example, installing a ramp to enable wheelchair users to gain access that was previously available only by steps.

Railtrack and train operating companies were informed about those requirements by my Department and the Department for Education and Employment at the end of last year. The consultation included details of proposals for regulations and a new code of practice by the National Disability Council. The regulations and draft code will soon be laid before Parliament.

There are several other areas in which action has been, or is about to be taken by the Government. Under the Disability Discrimination Act, as of 1 January this year, all new classes of rail vehicles that come into service have to comply with the Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations 1998. Those include detailed specifications for wheelchair access, as well as requirements for clear colour contrast, for audible and visual announcements and for a range of other features to help people—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. We must now turn to the next debate.

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