HL Deb 26 May 1982 vol 430 cc1156-70

2.55 p.m.

Baroness Stedman rose to call attention to the Department of Transport's report Transport without Handicap; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper, and in drawing the attention of the House to the report I should like to congratulate the team at the Department of Transport for their initiative in organising the conference and for the positive results that have flowed from it. In particular, I should like to thank Sir Peter Baldwin, the Permanent Secretary, and Miss Anne Frye, who headed the team which did and are still doing so much of the work. I must declare an interest as a vice-president of National PHAB (which is the organisation which brings together the physically handicapped and the able-bodied young people in clubs all over the country) and also as one who has a temporary slight disability myself, and who has therefore become more interested in what is offered for people with a handicap.

Over 600 people attended the conference in Kensington Town Hall in March of last year. They came from all parts of the United Kingdom and from many other countries, and a great number of them were disabled in one form or another. They included the blind people with their escorts and the deaf with people experienced in sign language and in lip-reading. The arrangements made were such that all present, whatever their disability, were able to participate on a full and equal basis—and believe me, my Lords, they did!

On the platform were the noble Earl, Lord Snowdon, who has asked me to convey his regrets this afternoon that he is abroad and unable to take part in our discussions; the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, as chairman of the National Bus Corporation; Sir Peter Parker, as chairman of British Rail; a speaker from Seattle; a director of engineering production at British Leyland; the director of the National Transport Board for the Handicapped in Stockholm; Sir James Swaffield from the Greater London Council; and a disabled motorist. All these main speakers detailed to the vast audience what was being done in their particular area of transport, and talked of the various projects which were being undertaken.

There was a very lively discussion, and a lot of constructive criticism. Many questions were raised and suggestions made; and the action programme report before the House today draws together the main points to emerge from the conference and looks at what has already been done to meet the problems which were identified on that day in March last year. The Department of Transport published this report in November. I am sure that other speakers in the debate will be speaking about specific parts of the report, and I therefore propose to speak in much more general terms, and about what has happened since the Kensington conference.

Until now, frustration and anxiety have been the lot of disabled people in their efforts to travel. Many of them have not travelled hopefully, and they have lacked the assurance that they will be able to complete any journey which they start. Most of our taxi drivers are wonderful; bus and coach drivers are all so helpful; and rail employees, the porters and the attendants, all do their best to make a journey easier and more comfortable. But there is always in the back of the mind the worry that the disabled person may not manage to get off the bus or coach at the end of the journey, or that the parking spaces for the disabled at the station will have been used by perfectly fit motorists who have just been thoughtless; and if the disabled person cannot walk and cannot park, then they cannot complete their journey. So can we not all educate ourselves to remember the problems of the handicapped in getting even to the start of a journey by public transport, and be more caring, more considerate and much more aware of their difficulties?

The toilet facilities at stations and at air and bus terminals can be exasperating for disabled persons. It is no good having special toilets if they are not properly designed; if you have to go up or down stairs to get to them; if they have doors which are not wide enough for wheelchairs; and if they do not have adequate grab rails for support. There are now some "kneeling" buses but many more still have fairly steep steps and design comes into everything: railway seats with adequate leg room, corridors that are wide enough to take a normal wheelchair, and the difficulties at present in using railway sleeper accommodation. Transport without handicap means so much to the disabled. Their horizons could grow so much wider, social isolation could get less and the opportunities for working and earning could be greater than at present.

Consultation with those who know about the problems is essential. As Sir Peter Parker implied at the conference, every citizen has a right to expect freedom of mobility within a free country and between free countries. This means a real understanding of the problems by everyone associated with public transport, from board level throughout the organisation. Above all, it means the national will to do something positive.

What has been happening to date? The railways, the buses, the airports and the ports have all taken heed of the problems raised about signs and oral announcements in stations, airports and bus depots. The Royal National Institute for the Deaf has provided training in all areas, and the National Bus Corporation, who have a special adviser on improving facilities for the handicapped, have also arranged first-aid courses for their coach drivers to enable them to know how to deal with passengers suffering from epilepsy and other afflictions, and how to lift handicapped persons.

British Rail and the NBC welcome visits from disabled groups to help them familiarise themselves with stations and depots and to make travelling less of a nightmare for them. The NBC employ Mrs. Claudia Flanders as their consultant. She has a long experience of voluntary work with handicapped people and organisations, and she has a permanent advisory group working closely with her. British Rail also have Mr. Buchanan as their special advisor who is himself confined to a wheel chair. He has got together a committee covering a multiplicity of handicaps, and they work with the staff and workforce of British Rail to get easier access, aids and help so that the handicapped can use British Rail in spite of their difficulties. British Rail themselves have reason to be grateful for the community interest aroused by their local projects for aids for the disabled and they have had tremendous voluntary help in many parts of the country from the Young Lions, the Round Table, and the Youth Opportunities Programme. I was talking to Mr. Buchanan last week. He had just returned from a European Conference on transport for the handicapped, and his comment was: "British Rail has produced less paper than any other European country but they have done so many good things for the disabled. Only Sweden has done more". Other countries may have many good ideas on paper, but little is happening on the ground, and practical help is what is needed by handicapped people, however good those unfulfilled ideas may be.

The Department of Transport have taken, and are taking, the initiative in many ways. They are helping manufacturers of taxis both with guidance and financial aid, to modify taxis to accommodate wheelchairs. The prototype for the next generation of taxis will be different, not only in being able to accommodate a person in a wheelchair, but because the vehicle will be accessible to disabled and able-bodied passengers alike on equal terms. These new taxis will not be on the road until 1984, but the Department of Transport has bought two prototypes to test the potential more widely and to make sure that the design is right not only for wheelchairs but for people with other mobility problems. It is based on the Range Rover, has a wider door, a lower floor than existing taxis and will carry ramps to allow easy access for wheelchairs, and I am delighted that one of these taxis will he handed over next week and be on trial in my home town of Peterborough until February of next year. The Department of Transport are also revising the regulations for the orange badge in order to cut down on abuse, and no doubt we shall hear more about that as time proceeds. They are also fitting inductive couplers to all motorway telephones in England. These will be of benefit to many drivers who have to wear hearing aids, and will help to reduce the fears that they may have about using motorways because of difficulty in calling for help if they have a breakdown. This work on inductive couplers will be completed this year. In June the department arranged a disabled drivers rally at Silverstone where HRH The Prince of Wales joined the competitors and took part in the tests. At the Road Research Laboratory, a centre is being developed where disabled people who want to drive can be assessed and can try out different vehicles and equipment.

My Lords, some members of your Lordship's House may have seen and visited one of the "Getting There" exhibition buses which were on the road for a 3,000 mile journey over three months in the United Kingdom. Local authorities arranged the exhibition sites, and the buses were fully accessible to able-bodied and disabled persons and stimulated tremendous interest. The department have also issued a guide to help disabled and elderly people to make fuller use of public transport services. Called Door to Door, there were some 3 to 4 million copies in the first print order. It is extremely comprehensive and it is free. I hope that noble Lords who know disabled people and organisations will encourage them to write and ask for this and at the same time put pressure on their local social services departments and voluntary organisations to ensure that local guides are also published to use in conjunction with this.

The conference did not confine itself to transport but also considered the problems of disabled pedestrians. No doubt, someone will say more about the pavement clutter which we find in the centre of our pavements after they have been widened and the cars and vans thoughtlessly parked, possibly in the interests of road safety, but certainly against the interest of disabled pedestrians, especially the blind.

There are problems, too, with local authority spending cutback which have resulted in badly-maintained roads and footpaths which create additional hazards for disabled pedestrians and wheelchair and invalid car users. If facilities are not there, disabled people do not travel, and it would be easy to say then that there is no demand; but I am sure, as were the majority of those who attended the conference in Kensington, that, if we are able to provide the facilities, there will be a massive movement of people wanting to get out and about—and, if that does happen, then the economic viability of providing these facilities will be more reasonable. I believe what came out of the conference was a will to improve services and the need for some extra financial help outside the commercial remit given to operators by the Government.

What this conference proved and what the report shows is a greater awareness that transport is not just concerned with tight schedules, services and time tables, but it is, and should be, concerned with people; and those people who have to use public transport are not always, young, alert and agile. The kind of help and consideration that we are seeking also make problems for the operators. Coaches, trains and planes have schedules to maintain, and the needs of the disabled must make extra demands on both their services and their time. This we all appreciate. But if our public transport really copes with the problems of disability in its many forms, so many more people will be able to have a new window on the world, will not be prisoners within four walls and need not be apprehensive about going on a journey. In his address to the conference last year the noble Earl, Lord Snowdon, posed the question: "Why is it that transport, getting from place to place, whether for work or pleasure, can be anything from a nightmare to an obstacle race for anyone who is disabled? "There are between five and six million people in the United Kingdom who are afflicted with a greater or lesser degree of disability or handicap and they all passionately want to have freedom of mobility. If the International Year for Disabled People did nothing else, I believe it produced a national will for our transport operators to be clear and accountable for their plans for transport without handicap. But that also implies a clear Government will and policy to provide some money to allow operators to work within their commercial remits and yet allow for concessions for the handicapped. It is easy to build in aids at new railway stations, bus stations and air terminals at the design stage. It is much more difficult and more expensive to adapt old premises and still achieve a set financial target.

The International Year for Disabled People played a tremendous part in educating the disabled and able bodied to live together. The more that we can ensure that able bodied people appreciate that the disabled and handicapped are like them—they have the same feelings, the same interests, the same desire to be part of the community—then the easier it will be to get the necessary provisions to meet all kinds of disabilities built into all projects at the design stage. The Secretary of State has pledged the continuing support of the aims of the International Year for Disabled People as an integral part of transport policy, and the department are looking forward to further initiatives and improvements in public transport and in providing special devices to meet the needs of disabled and able bodied people alike. I commend this aim to your Lordships and offer my thanks and appreciation for the practical interest shown to date, and ask the House to consider the Action Programme before us. I beg to move for Papers.

3.13 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I am certain all noble Lords are very grateful to the noble Baroness for putting this Motion before the House and for the very thoughtful and constructive way in which she opened the subject. As she said, the Action Programme arose out of the special conference held in March last year. I did not attend the conference but the Action Programme caused me to re-read the proceedings of the conference and, as the noble Baroness said, it was full of practical proposals and it was one of the successful events in the International Year for Disabled People.

In a recent debate in your Lordships' House on transport policy, I referred to the isolation of those in rural areas who have neither access to private transport nor public transport available. For the aged and disabled this can be the situation that confronts some of them in the conurbations, even where there is adequate public transport. I read with interest the Department of Transport's guide to transport for disabled people, Door to Door, which was published at the end of April. The noble Baroness referred to this.

I want to congratulate the department and those responsible for the production of this report. I was going to say that I would be interested to know the views of the noble Baronesses, Lady Lane-Fox and Lady Masham, as to whether it fulfilled their needs. Although we have been told three-quarters of a million copies have been issued, I was surprised that neither of the two noble Baronesses had seen the document. I hope that this document meets the needs of the disabled and handicapped because I understand that advice was given to the department in the production of this excellent guide by the organisations representing the disabled.

Does this national guide meet the point made by Sir Peter Parker, chairman of British Rail, when at the conference he referred to the separate guides that are already issued by British Rail, London Transport and the airports authorities? These guides are also referred to in the Action Programme. Sir Peter said: Should we not be co-operating more closely to see that there is proper coverage of transport in the country and town guides which are being produced to ensure that they cover all aspects of disabled people? Are we satisfied that the national guide that has been produced achieves that end?

The Under-Secretary of State has said that a number of local authorities have produced a local guide to supplement this national one. I do not know whether the Minister can tell us the number of authorities which have issued local guides and how the department promotes this type of consideration by local authorities. The same suggestion in the Action Programme stresses the need for operators to think of the journey door-to-door. This point was made by the noble Baroness.

What are the Government doing to promote this other than saying that it is something that ought to be done? Surely, it is not a matter which can be left just for the operators to undertake. As Sir Peter Parker said at the conference: It is no use British Rail providing improved facilities on trains and stations, if the aged and disabled are unable to get on or off a bus, tube or taxi to make the journey to or from a railway station". What happens if a disabled person has facilities at the departure station, but at the end of the journey has to surmount stairs or escalators and there is no lift? We all know the problems at many London Underground stations. We are pleased to learn from a spokesman of the conference that the Tyne and Wear Council decided that facilities for wheelchair users should be provided throughout their new Metro. This was possible because it is a new railway, and a new enterprise. The local authority was alive to the needs of the disabled and there were adequate consultations with the relevant organisations before they proceeded with the Metro contruction.

As the noble Baroness said, it is very heartening to learn that British Rail and the National Bus Company have engaged special advisers or consultants on facilities for the disabled, and that London Transport, and some other undertakings, have regular consultations with the appropriate organisations. Can the Minister say how far these are successful? How many other transport undertakings have this degree of consultation and advice? Where it is not practicable for an individual operator to undertake this themselves, what help can be given by the department?

It is also encouraging to learn from spokesmen at the conference that British Rail, the National Bus Company and London Transport in particular have special staff training programmes with an emphasis on the disabled customers. How far are these progressing, and is this training adequate? How is this particular work being co-ordinated by the department? The noble Baroness also referred to the important point about toilets at railway stations and elsewhere. While we understand that British Rail are giving consideration to what might be done before they can undertake major schemes, which will be costly, I do not know what our disabled friends will think of this suggestion—or whether the department will think it practicable—but surely it should be possible for quickly constructed temporary Porta-Loos to be built to be used only by the disabled? That could be not only at railway stations but anywhere else where there is not adequate provision at the moment. That ought to be handled through the department and not by one particular transport undertaking.

The Action Programme pointed out that there is scope for voluntary involvement in making facilities accessible. The programme gives, as an example, the Oxfordshire bus helper scheme. This is just one of a number of interesting developments by regional subsidiaries of the National Bus Company which are all set out in a very interesting national report brochure called, Making Travel Easier.

Of course, the voluntary organisations can and do play a very useful part in transport for the disabled and the handicapped. It opens up the question as to how far transport facilities for the handicapped and disabled can or should be provided by social service schemes, or whether it can usually be done best by public transport undertakings who have the expertise and personnel available, and also whether it is desirable that they should be included in the normal travelling facilities and not put in as something special. The suggestion is also included in the Action Programme that there should be a re-examination of the Dial-a-ride service. I knew a little about that scheme at Harlow, though at the moment I have not the time to go into the contribution made by Mr. Mike Gerrard at the conference about the time when he was chairman of the transport committee of Harlow Council when it carried out a very useful scheme at Harlow. The important question arises: Should Dial-a-ride schemes come within the transport supplementary grant in order to make them viable? If so, they would need to be additional to the present schemes, because one should not do anything to upset the contribution to the normal transport facilities.

An allied point is that, although it is not possible to provide that all buses go from door to door, surely more arrangements should be made for bus stops at the actual station entrances and as close as possible to shops, and particularly shopping precincts. In addition to the noble Baroness, many of your Lordships will understand that many disabled persons will often prefer to use their own transport. Could the Minister say what co-ordination there is and what success has been achieved over the interesting contribution by the British Leyland representative at the special conference on the proposals being considered? Is there any possibility of an economically-priced car suitable for the disabled which would enable them to travel accompanied by someone and not on their own? For the disabled who prefer their own transport, there must be special parking facilities at stations and other public buildings even if there are no parking facilities for the ordinary traveller.

The Action Programme refers to the height of emergency telephones on motorways and also refers to the new "help" pennant. I have never seen one of these, and the noble Baroness has told us that she has never seen the new guide. In addition, I had not seen any publicity about the "help" pennant until I received a press notice issued by the Department of Transport.

There is one important point here. Your Lordships may recall an incident mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, during a previous debate when she told us that she had broken down on the motorway and it was only the fact that she had a "disabled" sign on the back of her car which caused a motorist eventually to stop and help her. If the pennants are to be used so as to avoid the disabled having to get out of their car and on to the motorway, which the Action Programme has said is dangerous, there must be some way of showing this on the back of the car because it is the headlamps of the car behind which need to pick up the sign and not those of advancing cars in the opposite lane.

If there is to be legislation and if it is thought to be desirable to have legislation to make compulsory provision for the disabled—the noble Baroness referred to the contribution by the lady from Seattle, and I should love to go into that because it does open up the question as to whether legislation is desirable and what would be the reaction of the operators—but if legislation is to be introduced surely it must be accompanied by adequate Government grants so that major developments can be carried out. I would suggest that even if legislation is not thought to be desirable and special provision is not be to made compulsory, if we want the schemes to be undertaken there needs to be adequate Government finance made available.

3.25 p.m.

Lord Tanlaw

My Lords, we from these Benches are most grateful to the noble Baroness for the way she has introduced this debate. Her presentation really reflected the spirit of the conference at which I was present, and which to me indicated just a beginning of the recognition by public and private carriers of the problems of carrying disabled passengers. I think the attitude of public and private carriers to disabled passengers must be dependent, rather in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, spoke about just now, on the extra facilities required and at what cost, in social and commercial terms. In the final analysis the question must be asked: if these requirements are met, will the extra service tap a new source of travelling public which will be commercially viable, or will it require Government funds to satisfy a social need? The answer must lie somewhere between these two requirements, and that is confirmed in the information given in the document before us.

My intervention from these Benches concerns two aspects of these problems. The first is the general attitude towards the disabled traveller and the other is a technical one concerning the specification of battery-powered road vehicles for the disabled. Here I have to declare an interest, as a volume manufacturer and designer. At first glance, the report—which I think is rather a flimsy document—merely gives a check-list of the action taken and to be taken in the areas discussed at that conference. I do not want to be critical, but I think it could have gone much further in widening some of the points covered. Above all, it could have given some indication of the problems of inter-departmental co-operation that are involved between the DHSS and the Department of Transport, which every disabled person or every disabled vehicle manufacturer comes across at one time or another.

I think there is another omission, and one which has been raised by me on other occasions in your Lordships' House. It refers to the attitude of the public and private carriers towards the mentally disabled. I feel that in this document, as indeed in other documents prepared by British Rail and other organisations, although they are very well motivated, the problems have not been really looked at as they would apply to mentally disabled people. I mean by this mentally disabled children, in particular between the ages of 14 and 16, who require an adult to accompany them on a train or bus journey.

I was disappointed and I have been in correspondence with British Rail on their first document to assist the disabled, which covered guide-dogs and various other facilities for the physically disabled but made no mention of assistance to mentally disabled children in this group who might wish to use British Rail to go on holiday. I am very pleased to see that the family railcard scheme produced by British Rail is very nearly what is required, and I should like the Minister perhaps to open up further discussions with British Rail regarding the family railcard scheme. I will not go into the scheme itself now because of shortage of time, but I believe it could be quite easily adapted to cover adult escorts or passengers with mentally handicapped children, even though the children may not be part of the family. That would bring in a whole new category of passenger which at the moment is not using British Rail simply because it is far too expensive. I would add one further point in this connection. It is much easier to carry a large number of mentally handicapped children in a railway train than in a motor car, for obvious safety reasons; and it requires less supervision during the course of the journey.

The other aspect which I should like to touch on briefly concerns the problems of those of us who design and manufacture vehicles for the disabled. There are some interesting and very special technical problems, and it might be worth while reminding your Lordships about these. First, is the fact that there is no such thing as a standard form of disablement and therefore the vehicle cannot be a standard vehicle. Yet on the other hand, if the vehicle is to be properly priced, it must be one which is capable of volume production. Furthermore, though specifications look very simple, a road vehicle not only has to travel along the road but also has to climb a kerb—often 5½ inches, and sometimes appallingly steep—without spilling the customer on the road. The ones that I make also have to travel along the pavement. It requires considerable technical expertise to produce at a reasonable price a vehicle that covers all these requirements.

There is a further requirement, in that we have been asked whether it is possible for these vehicles to exceed 4 mph on the main road, which they are limited by statute to do. It is this aspect which I should like the noble Earl the Minister to put his mind to. In December, 1970, the report of the Joint Committee on Mobility for the Disabled clearly described the position of powered wheelchairs for use on pavements. This seems to be a direct extract from the road traffic statutory instrument for disabled persons, covering the Use of Invalid Carriages on Highways Regulations 1970.

These regulations clearly state that an invalid carriage must not travel at more than 4 mph and must weigh less than 250 1b. A vehicle for the disabled which is capable of more than 4 mph, and which is driven on the highway, appears, therefore, to be a motor vehicle covered by the Motor Vehicles (Construction and Use Regulations) 1978. This is a particularly difficult document to comprehend, even for technical people.

The only reference which I feel is important is to invalid carriages—it presumably refers to petrol driven ones—in Section H, where it states only that they must not exceed 2.2 metres in width and must carry brakes and be equipped with mudguards. That is the only help that we manufacturers have in conforming with the 1aw. I do not think that this is really adequate. So that a high-speed invalid carriage, which is capable of going on the road and exceeding 4 mph, will come under the land tractor category. This is another matter which clearly needs looking at.

I have had correspondence with the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, and I believe that there is a requirement for disabled people to travel on the highway at vehicle speeds of up to 10 mph, which is, after all, the speed of a fit marathon runner or a cyclist. In Germany, they approach the problem through the TUV, which is their technical inspectorate. Instead of trying to create regulations to cover the requirements of disabled people and manufacturers, they have a vehicle specification rather like the British Standards Institute, which can be passed as safe and fit for the job for which it is intended.

Therefore, the Department of Transport has two ways in which to go in order to satisfy the requirements of disabled people who want to use a vehicle which is not a road vehicle. First, they can go ahead and create special regulations similar to the ones that I have described, though I have a feeling that this will end in it being impossible to build a vehicle which will satisfy both the regulations and the disabled person. The second way is to create an inspectorate and have a transport testing station, which can issue a licence for vehicles of certain specifications. This would save a lot of work and avoid many problems.

This debate is an opportunity for all parties who are interested in the disabled and transport fields to get together and try to form something practical, which will satisfy the needs of the disabled. But if after this debate there is to be an inter-departmental argument about regulations, the end result will be great dissatisfaction for the disabled traveller in terms of road vehicles and regulations which it is almost impossible for manufacturers—who always try to please their customers—to conform with. Therefore, I hope that in his reply the noble Earl will be able to confirm that interested parties of all kinds may meet and discuss these matters, in order to get a commonsense answer to this problem, rather than a whole list of new regulations which would be impractical and unworkable.

3.35 p.m.

Baroness Lane-Fox

My Lords, those Members of the House with a special interest in this subject are particularly indebted to the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, for initiating this debate. If anyone has had to be hauled up into a bus onto his seat and then found his caliper splint firmly fixed in the hinge of the door, putting the driver off schedule by 20 minutes, he will know too well, as I do, the crying need for the adaptations which are referred to in the report.

May I tell your Lordships of our drill for boarding a train in past years? Two kind porters would gently carefully pick me up and throw me on to the train, rather like a mailbag, to be caught in the doorway by my mother. Together, somehow, we hobbled round into the compartment where another porter came to help us sit down. One day, I regret to say that we left it a bit late and I sat on top of the porter, who had to travel with us to the next station before he could get free. Travelling in the guard's van was, at least, a means of staying with one's wheelchair, but the rigmarole of having to visit the station 48 hours before, in order to book—admittedly, for security reasons—placed an extra burden on an already overworked helper. With these experiences, it was especially pleasing to read Transport without Handicap. The suggested adaptations and provisions must obviously be made within the limits of the present day's restricted finances. Since passenger revenue is all-important, our needs must not upset the balance for the fare-paying public. The aim should be to integrate—not to obliterate.

With buses in particular, it has been a matter of gradually pushing back the barriers. I have been checking up with the National Bus Company's consultant on disability, Claudia Flanders, whose late husband, as many of your Lordships know, was the chair-bound, but illustrious, Michael Flanders. She realises that all types of disabled people must be considered, whether they have physical difficulty in moving about, in seeing, in hearing or in speaking clearly. Of these, it appears that on the buses about 93 per cent. of disabled passengers at present are elderly, and it is believed that better lighting will help them and the partially-sighted and everyone else.

New coaches are equipped with retractable entrance steps operated by the driver, and I believe that Southdown Motor Services run these vehicles. These experiments have had to be made cautiously, in the knowledge that a very large fleet of kneeling buses were tried out in Boston, Massachusetts, but had to be scrapped as unworkable. It is good to read of the special help given to people with sight difficulties who travel on Metro-National buses in West Yorkshire, where braille is used at the entrance to buses to indicate the seating layout of the vehicle. Then, for five Oxfordshire villages, there are special bus helpers who travel on the buses on two days a week to see that the elderly and disabled get safely on board, with their shopping stowed suitably.

But the provision of extensive mechanical devices and special equipment is more problematical. However, at least four operators run vehicles with special facilities—fully flexible coaches. The model used in the Alder Valley will accommodate nine wheelchairs by taking seats out as necessary, and there is plenty of room for helpers as well. The chairs can be properly anchored and the entry is up an easy ramp. Such vehicles also run, I believe, in Chester, Kent and Chelmsford, and reports are that they prove popular and are very well booked. The Alder Valley, by the way, started on these conversions with a bus which was going to be scrapped, but now it is successfully reconditioned as a private line to help disabled groups in the area.

There are still lots of difficulties for the National Bus Company to tackle, and it has set up a number of forums at which the general public can pass on their worries. It is important that disabled people should try to make use of the services to point out the need. What, for instance, is the use of an elderly lady receiving a special fare concession if she then cannot get into the bus because the step is too high? Attention is focused on the difficulties and the rate of improvement is, I believe, gathering momentum. But at least at this incomplete stage it seems that there is a case for small adapted vans being made available for certainly those with wheelchairs, perhaps under the joint control of the companies and the voluntary organisations.

Other noble Lords have referred to Mr. Buchanan as the special adviser to the British Railways Board on transportation and employment of disabled people. He has certainly got first hand experience of travelling by train in his wheelchair. He tells me it is possible now to travel by rail in a wheelchair from London to Aberdeen in the North, across to Swansea in Wales and South to Penzance. In the Eastern region there is now rolling stock which will take wheelchairs, and this same stock is being built for the Gatwick to Victoria line. British Rail, I believe, is aiming to provide first class unisex loos at all main-line stations, knowing that it is not yet practical, as has already been said, to provide these on the trains.

The depressing aspect is the track, which proves unsuitable to take the rolling stock designed for us. The Dover to London line, for instance, cannot accommodate the helpful Inter-City type stock, and Birmingham to London is the same. Here we must travel still in the guards van. But guards vans are, I understand, being revamped for us—in lighting, heating and chair anchorage. Mr. Buchanan is chairman of the British Rail panel consisting of representatives of different forms of disablement organisations, disabled people and officers of British Rail. In this way the many remaining problems can be faced fairly and squarely. At least it is apparent that, apart from Swedish rail, we are leading the world in our travelling arrangements for disabled people.

It has been realised that many disabled people are often very hard up. On the Inter-City 125 it has been arranged that one wheelchair can travel in every first class compartment for half the second class fare, and their companions can do likewise. The fact is that normally to transport the ungainliness of disabled people is costly, yet the general wish is that we should be better integrated—and that generally means transport. Those who cannot make it on trains or buses, especially if they can do a useful and rewarding job, have to try for specialised transport vehicles; but even with Motability and the mobility allowance, the cost of replacing or buying such a vehicle and then running it is ruinous. What is more, there are still legions of disabled people who qualify for the mobility allowance but who are disqualified by age. Their case is the worst of the lot. I mention these continuing problems so that my noble friend the Minister and his colleagues shall not forget that while great starts have been made, for many the subject is still fraught with hardship and sorrow.

3.45 p.m.

Lady Kinloss

My Lords, the Government are to be congratulated on the tremendous—

Several noble Lords


Lady Kinloss

My Lords, I understood that I was to speak first.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Young)

My Lords, my understanding is that the usual channels have agreed that the noble Lady, Lady Kinloss, should speak before we take the Statement. Therefore I think it would be right for the noble Lady now to make her speech. If it is the wish of the House, the Statement will be taken immediately afterwards.

Lady Kinloss

My Lords, let me begin again. The Government are to be congratulated on the tremendous amount of work that the Department of Transport has done since the conference held in London in March 1981 for the mobility of disabled people. It is a pleasure to learn that so many of the suggestions which were made at the conference have been implemented and that the department is continuing to discuss further suggestions. The department's "Transport without Handicap" Action Programme shows clearly what action it has taken and is hoping to take in the future. I must thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, for her excellent explanation of the report, and not least for initiating this debate.

There are several points that I should like to make. The orange badge scheme, which has been under review by the Department of Transport, has proved very difficult to administer fairly for several successive Governments. We all know that it is easy to abuse the existing scheme. I am very pleased that it is now an offence under the Disabled Persons Act 1981 for a person who is not entitled to use one to do so. A suggestion was made at an all-party parliamentary group meeting for the disabled, of which I am a member, for a plastic slot into which the badge could be easily slipped in and taken out and which would be stuck in the windscreen only when in use by a disabled person. In their Action Programme the Government have not mentioned this as part of the action to be taken, for which I am sorry.

The Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation, RADAR, has heard a suggestion that one local council in London is thinking of using clamps on illegally parked cars. I do not expect an answer today, but could the Minister say whether cars with orange badges will be exempted from the clamps, and perhaps a warning attached to the car? RADAR is hoping that if this is done there will be fewer cars parked illegally and that there may be some hope for the orange badge users. RADAR also hopes that two hours only parking discs for parking on yellow lines for disabled drivers may be abolished—hoping but not too hopeful!

Another problem for disabled car drivers are the self-service petrol stations. They account for between 50 and 60 per cent. of petrol sales in the United Kingdom. Would it not be possible for a lever, which would be easily accessible to a motorist from his or her car to call the attention of the attendant to his or her need? It would have to be within reach of the disabled driver.

Another matter to which I wish to refer is the availabiltiy of lavatories on stations and in our cities and towns. Because of vandalism or other social misuse, many lavatories for the disabled are locked. There is a national key scheme which is used by some district and borough councils. It would be nice to think that they need not be locked, but where this is necessary, if a national key scheme could be operated, the disabled person who is unable to use the ordinary facilities could buy a key which would enable that person to unlock the door when needed. As things are, in the case of one officer of RADAR recently, on arrival at Charing Cross he had to wait between 25 and 30 minutes for a porter to be found, and while he obtained a key to unlock the lavatory. I understand that British Rail are planning to reduce the number of stations which have lavatories. For a disabled person who is unable to use one on a train this can be a disaster and can lead to distress and discomfort, possibly making some would-be travellers feel that they cannot do so. I do not think I need say more.

Mr. Massey of RADAR has recently visited France to see a train which has special facilities for the disabled. A compartment in one carriage of the train has been converted for disabled passengers. I do not know whether it is yet in operation. The seats have been removed to enable wheelchairs to be accommodated. They also have full lavatory and washing facilities, so they are able to travel some considerable distance knowing that their needs are provided for. I wonder whether this would not be a possible thought for future designs of our own long distance trains where passengers are on them for a considerable time?

I should like to congratulate British Rail on some of the ways in which they have helped and are helping disabled travellers. Between King's Cross and York, on the line to Edinburgh, they have a ramp at each station which enables wheelchairs to be pushed into a first-class carriage from which a seat is removed at one end and the wheelchair placed there instead. This can be done only on the 125 high speed train in a Mark III carriage which has a sufficiently wide door and removeable seats. Certainly between York and King's Cross, passengers are put on the train and met the other end, where they are wheeled off in the most efficient, kindly and indeed cheerful manner. All these are small points but they are points which can make a great deal of difference to the comfort, wellbeing and morale of disabled travellers. It is these things that this debate is really about.