HL Deb 19 February 1990 vol 516 cc104-29

9.7 p.m.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what further steps they are taking to meet the transport needs of disabled people.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I should like to begin by thanking those who have put down their names to speak in this short debate even at this advanced hour. I have to confess that when I was thinking about what I might say this evening, I felt, to begin with, a trifle discouraged. I could not help recalling that when the Government spent millions and millions of pounds on new headquarters for, of all departments, the Department of Health, they evidently clean forgot to provide any facilities for wheelchair users, as we discovered when some of us took part in a deputation soon after Richmond House was commissioned.

The other day at Question Time, the noble Lord, Lord Hesketh, made it clear that of all the topics in which the Department of the Environment was not interested, the plight of the disabled at Oxford bus and railway stations stood high on the list. But further reflection reminded me that the Department of Transport has quite a good record of endeavour in the topic we are now discussing, especially through its disability unit, which makes up in energy what it lacks in size. The Secretary of State has, for example, a statutory responsibility to issue guidance about making access to public transport vehicles easier for the disabled. He is assisted by the Disabled Persons' Transport Advisory Committee, appointed under the Transport Act 1985. This is an opportunity to pay tribute to the sterling work put in by the committee, many members of which are themselves disabled. It submits excellent reports which are laid before Parliament, though they are not printed and published.

One of the difficulties is that not nearly enough is known to the public about what is done, what is in contemplation and what are the the problems. The inability to make people realise what is possible and to affect public attitudes towards achieving it, and also to instil more confidence into the disabled themselves, is a theme which runs through much of what I have to say.

In this country—and we are not unique in this respect—about 12 per cent. of the population, some 6 million people, can use the available means of transport only with difficulty or not at all. That 12 per cent. has to be seen in the context of there being now only about 36 per cent. of households which are without a car. Modifications to present forms of public transport to make it possible for an appreciable proportion of the 6 million who cannot or dare not use the system would represent a potential source of extra custom on a scale nowhere in sight from any other source. I need not rub in the point that the cost to society of a person who is immobile and who has to be cared for is high, bearing in mind the fact that he or she may have to live and be maintained in a home, or, if housebound, may be dependent upon carers coming in. For the individual, mobility is perhaps the biggest single factor in achieving an independent life.

When we talk about disabled people, we are talking about people with widely varying forms of disability and widely varying needs. One has to be very cautious about talking of the "disabled" as though they were some collective entity of misfortune. The needs of those who cannot walk, who cannot see or hear properly, who cannot grip or lift or who have difficulty in understanding must all be met in different ways.

Perhaps I may now touch upon some of what has been achieved. I begin by recalling that there is a statutory duty on transport authorities, including that in respect of the Channel Tunnel—that is, if one is ever built—to include the needs of the disabled when making their plans. Many local authorities have concessionary bus fares for, among others, the disabled. British Rail has equipped its Inter City service so that it is possible, if you know how to set about it, for a person confined to a wheelchair to travel. A bus service linking the main London stations can take passengers in wheelchairs—that is, again, if you know how to find where it starts—as can the Airbus vehicles plying between London and Heathrow. Moreover, new taxis in London, and in some other places, will not be licensed unless they can take a passenger in a wheelchair. The two British manufacturers now build no other type of taxi, to the benefit, I believe, of their export trade.

The Department of Transport has issued guidance about textured pavements which reduce the risks at pedestrian crossings for the blind and for people in wheelchairs. The British Airways fleet has been equipped to cope with passengers in wheelchairs. Four model buses are on constant show, demonstrating how design changes can help to cope with various forms of handicap. Moreover, London Regional Transport has started a programme of incorporating some of those changes in its fleet. Despite various problems, minibuses with volunteer drivers are used on a large scale to provide door-to-door services for the disabled who would otherwise be housebound.

London Regional Transport is experimenting with the design of Underground trains. It is also making plans about stations on the District and Metropolitan lines so as to make them more accessible.

However, I must confess that the possibility of the disabled coping with the new ticket barriers and the escalators which do not work on the ordinary Underground system is fraught with formidable obstacles. The disability unit of the Department of Transport every other year mounts a roadshow demonstrating how cars can be altered and equipped to meet various types of handicap. An information service is available to give advice about adaptations and driving ability. The department and the AA between them have managed to get the facilities at motorway service stations improved.

I should like to mention the efforts made by the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust to launch a scheme to facilitate access for the disabled to arts venues. A good deal of research is going on, as also is consultation with our Common Market friends; consultation in which this country takes a leading part.

That is not a complete list but it is not a bad list so far as it goes. The trouble is that it is only starting to touch the edges of the problem. To begin with, not enough about these various enterprises is widely known. Appreciation of the problems is, to put it kindly, somewhat limited. The thoughtless individuals who park on the pavements so that no wheelchair can get past are, I fear, only symptomatic of a general lack of understanding.

For their part, local authorities have been reluctant even to think about adjusting the priorities in their fare concession schemes. British Rail, although it has certainly done quite a lot, has not really solved the problem of letting disabled people know how they can find out what facilities are available to help them. I know from personal experience that Oxford is not the only new station where there are problems. It may be all right if one knows how to set about it, but there are few things more frustrating for the disabled than to contemplate starting on a journey without being sure what will happen when they get to the other end.

There is still quite a bit more to be done at the airports, but I suppose that the most important area of potential improvement is that of the buses. As I have said, demonstration buses are available which have been adapted or designed to meet the needs of the disabled. In view of the importance of the buses, it is perhaps worth spending a moment on what some of those needs are, especially as quite a number of accidents occur during the stopping and starting of the vehicle. The step height may be too great. The hand-rails may be difficult to grip. For lack of colour contrast, steps or rails cannot easily be seen. The bell push may be out of reach. There may be no visual guidance for the benefit of a deaf person that the bus is stopping and no spoken guidance for the benefit of a blind person.

To design a new bus with the necessary features does not add much to the cost. Adaptation may not be all that expensive either. Whatever extra expense is incurred can well be recovered in a couple of years from the additional passengers attracted to the buses when the handicapped find they can cope with them.

Although there are exceptions, sadly, operators and local authorities continue to be reluctant to use some of these ideas. As the Department of Transport itself puts it, a change in attitude and an increase in understanding are needed to demonstrate to transport operators in a deregulated and commercial climate that providing for the needs of people with mobility handicaps is not a matter of loss-making or charitable activities but can make good business sense.

Then there are the coaches. With the increasing numbers of elderly people these could well be used more and more, but the industry has not been quick to adapt its vehicles to attract more disabled people. As for facilities at bus stations, I can only say that the disabled suffer even more than ordinary passengers, and that is saying something.

I recognise that good things do not make for news, but I wish that the press could find more scope for drawing attention to those providers of public transport who are taking seriously the prospect of enabling at any rate some of the 6 million to enjoy a mobility which has hitherto been denied to them, and who, by persuading them that times are changing, are taking seriously the prospect of doing something to spread confidence among those who have so far been kept away from public transport.

I wish, too, that highway authorities would do more to provide dropped kerbs, to install audible and tactile signs at crossing places and to remove or resite obstructive street furniture. I wish that those concerned with buses could do more to specify vehicles with low floors and other equipment to help the disabled of the type that I have outlined. I wish that local authorities could look at their fare concessionary schemes and consider a wider use of their financial resources, including their statutory powers to make capital grants towards improving public transport vehicles. I wish that local authorities and British Rail could do more to give clear information about the facilities which are being made available on public transport. Finally, I wish that the Department of Transport could be even more vigorous in giving a lead to transport authorities and private operators in carrying out research, in familiarising themselves with the best practices in other countries and in securing more publicity for what is being done, what could be done and why it ought to be done.

I fear that in a short speech on an Unstarred Question it is possible only to dip into some aspects of a far-reaching and complicated subject. I am conscious that I have not, for example, touched on the orange badge scheme, or on facilities at petrol filling stations, or on the design of wheelchairs and other devices, or on the possible effect of the EC Handynet scheme, or on the mobility allowance. The latter topic deserves a speech of its own. I hope that one day it will receive that speech.

I am glad at any rate to have had the chance of raising a topic which is of great concern to some millions of our fellow citizens who because of handicaps of one kind or another have difficulty in leading the independent life which in our civilised society they should be able to enjoy.

9.28 p.m.

Baroness Darcy (de Knayth)

My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, has given us the chance to discuss this subject which is of such importance to people with disabilities. I congratulate him on his masterly and panoramic portrayal of the situation. I should say at this point that my noble friend Lady Kinloss very much wanted to take part in this debate but she is unable to be here.

I wish to home in on one specific aspect of mobility. I am afraid it is not the mobility allowance but the orange badge scheme. That latter topic will receive a speech all of its own from me tonight. It is not really a question of what to do but of when the Government will implement their proposals that were announced last year in Traffic Topics 3. On 25th April 1989 Peter Bottomley, who was then the Minister responsible for roads and traffic, set out the proposals in a Written Answer to Alf Morris. The Minister said that the rate of issue of orange badges had increased rapidly since 1986 from about 800,000 in March 1986 to about I million in March 1988. He commented: The scheme is losing the respect of the general public, who see apparently able-bodied people using cars bearing badges. Without changes the scheme will become unworkable". That statement was made nearly 10 months ago but there have been no changes as yet.

The Department of Transport's proposals would go a long way towards resolving the situation. In particular, the department proposes to tighten up the criteria for eligibility in line with the recommendation of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee that eligibility for badges should be more closely related to eligiblity for mobility allowance. That would concentrate badges on the most severely disabled people who need them most. Much of the problem is caused by too loose an interpretation of the, unable to walk or have very considerable difficulty in walking criterion under which at least 73 per cent. of orange badges are issued.

Another most useful proposal from the DoT is to issue a new-style badge with a photograph of the user. I am pleased to hear that it will not be on open display. The photograph will be folded under so that identity can be checked when the user appears. That will help clamp down on abuse of the badge and the use of parking facilities when the badge holder is not in the car.

I also urge the Government to set up an appeal procedure which the Joint Committee on Mobility for the Disabled, of which I am a member, thinks will be essential to ensure that those who really need badges are issued with them once the eligibility criteria are more strictly applied. One should be able to have one's appeal heard locally. Therefore a regional appeal committee would be needed, consisting of disabled orange badge holders and an officer from the DVLC.

I also hope that the Government will consider making it an offence even to display the orange badge when the holder is not using the car as well as when parking. That would further help to combat abuse. I reiterate my perennial plea to the Government to do all that they can to encourage the four central London boroughs to recognise the orange badge scheme.

Mushrooming pedestrianisation has made it particularly urgent to ensure that the scheme works well and that it is directed at those who most need it. I suspect that pedestrianisation is spawned rather haphazardly, bit by bit, until one finishes up with a vast pedestrianised area with very limited parking nearby. Some local authorities have resorted to issuing their own badges to various sub-groups to cut down the number of badge holders allowed access. That is a backward step towards the old days when local authorities used to issue their own badges which were valid only for that area. The solution is to tighten the orange badge scheme and issue badges only to those with severe mobility problems, for whom the badge is the essential passport to an otherwise no-go area.

I should like to give a recent example of my own experiences in trying to shop in my local town. I hope that I shall not bore your Lordships, but I believe that my experience is typical of the problem. A second slice of the high street has been pedestrianised. There is very limited parking for orange badge holders at both ends of quite a long street which runs behind the shops parallel to the pedestrianised area. I got a parking ticket before Christmas because I became so desperate waiting for one of the parking spaces to be cleared. Admittedly, I parked with my front wheels in front of the unloading bay of the local chain store. I reckoned that that was a fair cop because although my car was not obstructing the bay it was slightly over the lines marking the bay. The reaction of the van drivers was interesting. They said, "You are not in our way. Most of the people who park in those spaces are not disabled anyway".

On the next occasion the only available space was at the other end of the street. I dutifully parked, got out of the car and into my wheelchair, pushed myself down the street, left a trolley of shopping for collection in my car, and pushed myself back up the street. I then drove back up the street only to find that I could not park near enough to the shop to attract attention. I could not park, so I could not get out of the car. In the end I was so harassed by a man trying to drive down the street behind me that I had to park on the pavement and he yelled, "Try using the car park next time".

Your Lordships may have heard the story of the man who claimed exemption from paying to cross the Severn Bridge. When his attention was drawn to the fact that the name on the orange badge on his car appeared to be that of a female and he was a lone male in the car, he pointed to the back seat on which an urn was resting. He said, "It's all right, it's my wife. She is in there". The story of Mrs. X's last journey is probably apocryphal, but I believe that we need rapid action to restore the good reputation of the scheme, whose value is beyond price to those who really need it.

The DoT's proposals are most welcome. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to say something both positive and encouraging when he comes to reply.

9.35 p.m.

Lord Teviot

My Lords, I am sure that the excellent comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy (de Knayth), on the important subject of the orange badge have set the pace for us all to follow. However, I should like to mention three areas of concern raised by the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale. I am delighted that he has finally obtained this debate on an Unstarred Question, although it clearly should have been a two-and-a-half hour debate. I should like to have presented my comments in a happier frame of mind. I hope that the noble Lord will not think it a criticism if I say that I found him rather gloomy with regard to a situation which is not all that gloomy.

First, I should like to draw noble Lords' attention to the progress being made to modify our ordinary buses to meet the sensible specifications proposed by the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Council which was established as a result of amendments tabled in this House to the Transport Bill 1985. The Act provides for maximum step heights, adequate handrails, easy access to bell pushes and the like. The best time to incorporate those features into a bus—I am talking only about buses—is when it is built as they cost relatively little at that stage. Some enlightened companies—for example, Northumbria Bus, formerly called United Auto, which operates in Northumbria and Tyne and Wear—are among those which buy vehicles that meet or exceed those standards. Some tendering authorities—for instance, London Regional Transport, which has recently won a prize, and Tyne and Wear Passenger Transport Executive—make it a condition of the contract that operators provide vehicles to DPTAC standards. I hope that noble Lords will not mind me repeating those points.

It is to be regretted that some operators still buy new vehicles without those modifications. They save small sums of money but condemn those with any form of mobility handicap to a less comfortable and harder journey for the next 15 or 20 years. Why they do so I do not know. I am sure that other noble Lords do not know either. However, the remedy is in the hands of the Government or, more specifically, of the Department of Transport. The DPTAC requirements can be easily incorporated in the construction and use standards which all new vehicles must meet. No primary legislation is involved, it can be done by order. I am sure that noble Lords would like to know why the department is so slow to move on that point.

Secondly, it has been drawn to my attention that with the approach of 1992 the European Community has more and more influence over vehicle design and standards. One area to which it is turning its attention is step heights. I understand that its proposed standards would result in higher steps than we now have, let alone should have, if DPTAC standards were met. I should be interested to know the Government's views on that issue. After all, if we can have adequate standards without subsidy, I do not see why European laws should not be the same standard as ours. That is a valid point.

Thirdly, there is the question of new investment. The light rail schemes of which we have heard a great deal recently must strive to be accessible to those with mobility handicaps. Where they run on-street, that is difficult, but I hope that other authorities will follow Manchester's lead in providing for that. Manchester has ingeniously achieved level access with street running. The department has taken that expenditure into account in giving its grant towards the cost of the project. I am sure that we are all grateful to it for that. It is to be hoped that that will be repeated on all light rail schemes.

However, there is the question of improving access to the conventional rail network which involves access to stations and from stations to trains. British Rail is making progress in providing facilities inside the trains with its new rolling stock. At main-line stations, assistance is made available to help people into the stations and on to the trains, but less is being done at local stations because there are tight restrictions on British Rail, passenger transport authorities and shire counties with regard to capital spending. When that type of expenditure must compete with other expenditure which has a financial return, there is a danger that it will be squeezed out. It is hoped that my noble friend will be able to tell the House that the department is making progress with quantifying the benefits from this important venture in making the capital available for a sustained programme of investment.

In concluding I should like to remind noble Lords that the benefits of improving access to public transport for the disabled are not confined to those with severe mobility handicaps. There are plenty of schemes in other authorities which are doing very well in that area that I should like to have mentioned. The benefits extend to those with less severe handicaps and those who are temporarily handicapped. Moreover, people in charge of young children and those with heavy shopping also benefit from more accessible public transport, especially on vehicles that have a low step. Buses should have low steps. If not, entering them can be very tiresome. Buses should be built with low steps. One might have to go up at the back axle but often able bodied people can climb up. One can get over that problem. That is a very valid point.

Our best practice is ahead of that in many other countries, particularly so far as concerns buses. I hope that by acting on the measures that we have suggested this evening the Government will play their part in keeping us ahead. To sum up, so far as public transport and the disabled are concerned, in schoolmasters' terms on a scale of 10 or whatever we are doing very well but there is probably room for improvement. We must keep ahead and indeed hope that others will catch up with us. One does not want to feel terribly nationalistic. However, we believe that the EC is lagging behind, that this country is ahead and that we must encourage others to follow our lead.

9.42 p.m.

Lord Mountevans

My Lords, the final point of the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, appealed to me very much. Like all noble Lords who have spoken, I am grateful to my colleague the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, for raising this issue. The subject seems to fall into two sections: infrastructure and awareness. At the end of my remarks I shall come back to the subject of awareness because I believe that that is where we can help the disabled without spending a vast amount of money on infrastructure.

With regard to infrastructure, one must conclude that if one starts now one can produce something that is user-friendly for the disabled. One has only to consider the work done by friends in Tyne and Wear who have produced a very user-friendly underground system. They have made access easy from the pavement through the station to the platform and have gone further in that they have made the platforms the same height as the entry step of the trains.

The same situation applies in the Docklands Light Railway. To get from street level to platform level and then into the train and back again to platform level and out on to the street is a viable proposition for the disabled, be they blind, handicapped in their limbs or deaf. I was particularly interested—and this point was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Teviot—in what the Manchester Light Railway is setting out to do in two ways.

First, it has set out to produce a two-level platform, one for the walk-on passenger but with ramp access. It will be at street level so the Manchester Light Railway will be a tramway in the city centre. There will be a second height of platform with ramp access which will produce a simple push-on or walk-on situation for the disabled.

Another extremely positive move is in terms of the penalty fares legislation which some noble Lords raised in this House some five or six years ago. They have said that penalty fares legislation shall not be applicable to the disabled.

If one starts now one can produce a rail based transport system which is very user friendly. Some of our transport systems began far in the past. Your Lordships' Chamber is coming up to its 150th birthday, as is a great deal of British Rail's infrastructure. We cannot produce a decent heating or cooling system for your Lordships' Chamber. Nor can British Rail or London Underground produce a totally user-friendly system for the disabled in terms of what they have inherited. The infrastructure was built a century and a half ago. One therefore comes back to awareness.

British Rail has a unit for dealing with the disabled. I congratulate it on that. I congratulate it on its core network of about 200 stations around the country which will be utterly usable for the blind by means of symbols and for the deaf by means of induction loops so that they can hear better, with special plaform facilities and staff training. If one were to start now one could make proper provision.

When I researched the topic that the noble Lord, Lord Allen, has raised I discovered that Eurotunnel and the shuttles will ask the disabled—howsoever disabled—to identify themselves before they take a Eurotunnel shuttle so that they can be put close to staff who are trained to deal with whatever disability they may have. That applies not only in terms of making the system user-friendly but also in terms of safety, which must at the end of the day be paramount.

If one considers the Eurotunnel, the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, said that we are ahead of our continental partners in this matter. The trains that will run from London to Paris and Brussels will jointly be owned by British Rail, the French railway and the Belgian railway. They would not have had any provision for the disabled had it not been for British Rail fighting that particular corner. They now have such provision and that is good. The point that I and the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, are making is that we are ahead of our continental cousins in that respect.

London Regional Transport and British Rail have a training programme. If one joins British Rail today one undergoes a morning of training through videos. British Rail has almost picked up the sentiment of the BBC, "Does he take sugar?" Disabled people are not different; they simply have different requirements of which we must be aware.

I have mentioned the Eurotunnel shuttles and the London Regional Transport training programme, but at the end of the day I should like to come back to awareness. I believe that it is not for the carriers entirely to resolve the problems of giving the disabled, howsoever disabled, the freedom to move throughout this country. It is a matter for the community. As I said five years ago, we must start in the schools. Five years ago I interviewed many of my colleagues who had just left school or university. I asked, "Have you ever been taught about dealing with the disabled?" They said, "No. We might have had a deaf person, a person in a wheelchair or a blind person at school but the school never went out of its way to teach us". I come back to the point again. Surely it is not for the carriers to take on this battle single-handed. It is a much wider issue. We should be aware of the needs of the disabled.

In conclusion, let me give a small example. I live close to Great Portland Street where, as noble Lords know, the RNIB has its head office. Hardly a day goes by without my seeing two or three blind people going about their business, achieving solutions, living a life—to which the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, referred—with their guide dogs. I did not know this fact until I asked a blind lady why she had put the reins of her guide dog flat upon its back. She replied, "That's a symbol. It's a request for help". The guide dog may know that; a member of the staff of the Royal National Institute for the Blind may know it. But I fell upon it by accident and I am sure that most noble Lords did not know that there was such a code.

Our bus companies, rail companies, Eurotunnel, the shipping companies, the airpoirts and airlines do a tremendous job of making a journey simple for the disabled provided that they are given notice. I urge that we start at the bottom in our schools and teach pupils to be aware of the needs of the disabled.

9.50 p.m.

Lord McColl of Dulwich

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Holderness regrets his unavoidable absence from the debate. He is exceptionally well qualified to speak on the subject because, as a result of war wounds, he has been severely disabled for almost half a century. As chairman of the Disablement Services Authority for the past few years, he has been actively engaged in securing a better organisation to meet the short-range transport needs of disabled people in terms of the supply of artificial limbs and wheelchairs. He has been instrumental in galvanising the service throughout the country to look at the total rehabilitation of disabled people in order that they may return rapidly to as normal a life as possible.

He has asked me, as his vice-chairman, to stress a number of points. First, our emphasis has been on complete rehabilitation with the conviction that mobility is of vital importance to disabled people. It is difficult for able-bodied people to imagine just how frustrating it is to be unable to move easily from one place to another. It may interest your Lordships to know that, in order to help the understanding of that problem, we at Guy's Hospital have all the medical students spend a day in a wheelchair—although one at a time, of course. By the end of the day they have a clear idea of exactly how difficult it is to move around in a wheelchair in institutions which are supposed to be actively concerned with the whole problem of disability. I believe that Professor Verna Wright of Leeds first started medical students along that road and the practice ought to be carried out in every medical school.

In terms of short-range mobility the Disablement Services Authority is convinced that powered chairs suitable for use indoors and outdoors should be made available to those who are so severely disabled that they are unable to walk or propel themselves in ordinary wheelchairs and unable to transfer themselves from one chair to another. With that conviction in mind during the past year, we conducted two pilot studies—in Newcastle and Manchester—supplying the powered indoor-outdoor chairs to such people. Needless to say, they were delighted with them and they greatly improved their quality of life in every way. The chairs significantly increased their range of activity, enabling them to leave the house unaccompanied and go for several miles to do their shopping, and so forth.

Many disabled people have no one to wheel them around. Therefore, it is vital to give them such independence. Currently we are working out the cost of extending the supply to the whole country. The signs are that the Government are keen to help and that has been a great encouragement to all concerned with the problem.

A car is a great boon for longer journeys and the mobility allowance helps with the purchase of suitable cars. However, unfortunately the necessary adaptations to the cars can be extremely expensive. It cannot be sufficiently emphasised what an enormous increase to the dimension of a life such a car will bring, enabling many disabled people to return to work.

Driving assessment centres are essential to get such people on the road. There is a growing number of those throughout the country, notably the excellent one in Banstead. There is also one in Crowthorne and another in Newcastle. Clearly we need more of those and we need much more help from the manufacturers to produce a greater range of vehicles. At one centre which I visited recently there was an excellent German car and an excellent Japanese car but no British model.

All those matters require more money. However, of much greater importance is a need for a change in the attitude of British people in all walks of life, as the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, emphasised so well. In Ripon recently many of the pavements have been repaired but not one has been lowered to allow easy access to wheelchairs. That would not have cost any more money. Improving the transport system in terms of pavements and roads makes life much easier for everyone; For example, lowering of pavements also makes easier access for mothers with prams. Disabled people should not have to fit into the present transport system. The transport system should be designed to suit everyone.

9.56 p.m.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, who should have had a two-and-a-half hour debate on this matter some time ago but he moved that off the agenda. He was not exactly pressed to do so, but on the balance of the argument it was felt that because there was a similar debate in that period it would be wise to move it to another day. This has been the first opportunity for him to raise this very important matter. It is a pity that it is so late but I assure the noble Lord that, because this is a transport debate, there would have been no more speakers had it been earlier in the day.

Some time ago I came across a report from the Greater London Association for Disabled People. That is known by the short title of the GLAD report. That was a survey carried out in 1985. In terms of awareness, which I believe this debate tonight is really about, it is quite shattering when one considers the total number of people the report is talking about. For example, in London—and this report deals with London—there are something like half a million people handicapped in their use of public transport. At that stage, something like 7 per cent. of Londoners were handicapped in their use of public transport. That has now risen to something like 10 per cent. and it is expected that by the turn of the century something in the order of 14 per cent. of Londoners will be handicapped in their use of public transport.

The effect of that on the isolation of those people is that something like one-third of them—160,000 at that time—lived on their own. Almost all those people had no access to a personal car. Something like 20 per cent. of those handicapped do not go out in any one week. A quarter of them never make a shopping trip and one-third never visit relatives or friends. Therefore, we are talking about very large numbers of people who are severely handicapped by their inability to use transport available to them in their daily lives. Their own personal life is therefore downgraded as a result of that. The majority of those people are not working. Many are living on a pension and most of them cannot afford to travel by taxi.

The London Regional Transport disabled unit has achieved some success since it was founded in 1984 but there is obviously still a lot to be done. It is consulted about new vehicles; for example, buses and trains. We have talked about things that need to be done to vehicles during the course of this debate. There is a great deal of old stock. Buses last for about 15 years and Tube trains last for something like 35 years. At the moment only about 10 per cent. of buses have the kinds of new features to which the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, referred.

There are schemes like Dial-a-Ride, which is a wonderful idea. However, it only reaches a small number of people. Furthermore, it is run by 29 separate voluntary management committees and is not unreminiscent of the curate's egg. If the standards of the bottom third could be raised to the level of the top third, life would be a lot better for many more people. The taxicard system is also a very good scheme. It is funded by individual boroughs which, so far, have done their best to fund it properly. However, with the squeeze on local government resources one wonders how long that situation can continue.

Smaller buses are being run on routes which go closer to people's homes. Unfortunately, smaller buses tend to be harder to get into than larger buses. Mention has been made of drop-floor buses and all kinds of innovations that are being introduced in order to enable access to larger buses. The smaller buses so far do not have this drop-floor facility. One wonders whether the Government can do something in that direction to encourage drop-floor facilities in smaller buses.

I should like to ask the Government what they have in mind for the safety of wheelchair users in terms of the constraints on wheelchairs when in vehicles. I am astonished to discover from figures provided by the Department of Transport that there are 460 different models of wheelchairs and 6,500 variants on those different kinds of wheelchairs. In order for the drop-floor system to mean anything, one must have restraints for 6,500 variants of a wheelchair.

One area of disability which has not been touched upon much tonight is that of visual impairment. I use the term "visually impaired" rather than blind because the majority of people you and I see going around with white canes are not totally blind but are to a varying degree visually impaired. I am advised upon this matter by my daughter, who at the moment is doing a course in order to become a blind rehabilitation officer.

Lord Carter

My Lords, surely she is going to be a rehabilitation officer for the blind.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, that just shows how careful one has to be with the terms one uses when dealing with this subject. She is hoping to be a rehabilitation officer for the blind.

I was struck by the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich, about students being put into a wheelchair for a day. He might also consider the possibility of students being blindfolded for a day. In the course of her training my daughter has to spend time blindfolded, cooking, moving about, etc. The people one sees walking around with white sticks or long canes are not all totally blind. As an aside, I should like to say that it is not widely recognised that those canes are not available on the National Health Service. Some local authorities provide canes for the visually handicapped, but many people have to spend a significant amount of money on them because they are not cheap. Whereas one can obtain a Zimmer frame on the NHS, one cannot obtain a long cane.

When it comes to transport, visually handicapped people need reliable transport, especially buses. They need to know when buses are likely to be arriving at the stop. They have great difficulty in dealing with request stops, for instance, because the bus may have passed them before they know that it is there. They have to be trained to ask people what is the number of the bus and where it is going. Signs at bus stops are such that the visually impaired cannot read them. There are few tactile signs at bus stops. Although the general public are, on the whole, willing to help, they do not understand the type of help necessary, which brings us back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans; that we need to increase our awareness of the needs of handicapped people in our schools and general training.

When buses arrive at the bus stop, the doors are not in a uniform position. The steps are not the same in number. They are not of uniform width or height. If one is elderly, suffering from arthritis and visually handicapped, it is difficult if the bus stops at some distance from the bus stop and one has to step out into the road.

Those people who have guide dogs—I have watched the honourable Member in another place, Mr. Blunkett, on the Tube with a most excellent guide dog, which obviously knows which compartment he has to get into and where the steps are when he arrives at the station here—who are going somewhere unfamiliar or who are getting on to a bus which is not the standard type of bus can be in great trouble because, again, the small buses frequently do not have sufficient room to accommodate the guide dog for someone who is visually handicapped.

There is a great need for brighter and more contrasting colours to be used in the seating. There is a great need for continuous hand rails on buses and on the Underground. The types of knobs that hang down from the roofs of Underground trains are not a great deal of use to handicapped people. The continuous rails which are being introduced on the Victoria Line at the moment are much more accessible to handicapped people. There is a great need for the training of bus drivers. It is no great help to a visually handicapped person if the bus stops at the correct stop but the door opens straight into a lamp post. It is no use if the bus driver, in order to be helpful, stops several yards short of the bus stop, because that can be extremely disorienting. Ordinary passengers need to understand the problems of handicapped people.

I gather that one of the great problems is that passengers are frequently sat upon by visually handicapped people who get on to buses and do not realise that there is someone sitting on the seat that they are about to occupy. Again, we all need to understand that it is not rude to say to someone, "Hello, you are about to sit on me", before one is sat upon because that can save a great deal of embarrassment.

I gather that in Birmingham some effort has been made to improve the signs at bus stops by introducing tactile signs. This is the kind of provision which should spread throughout the length and breadth of the country. If it is a slightly political point—this is certainly not a party political discussion at all—it is that bus deregulation has not been of the greatest help in rural areas where bus timetables are changing quite rapidly. In those areas where bus stations are really no-go areas, nobody quite knows to whom they belong. In those areas there are increasing problems for handicapped people. I am told that in particular bus stations are very difficult for handicapped people of all kinds, particularly for the visually impaired.

Railway stations are much better. There is the start of the provision of tactile maps in railway stations. However, the problem is that on some of the more recent rolling stock where one has to press a button to open the doors of a sprinter train and also on some Tube trains, there is no standardisation as to where the button is placed. I observed this fact the other night when I was staggering my way home to Somerset through the floods when we were put on to a new sprinter train. The position of the button outside is quite well illuminated and I imagine that it would not be too difficult for someone who is partially sighted to get on. However, it is much more difficult to get out even for someone who is well sighted because the exit button is cleverly concealed. I can imagine that if you were partially sighted you could very easily get into a panic.

As the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, has said, this matter is all about educating ourselves, organisations, public utilities and local authorities. If this debate tonight has made some small addition to the general knowledge in this very important area, then I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, is to be congratulated on bringing the matter before your Lordships.

10.12 p.m.

Lord Carter

My Lords, it is one of the nicer courtesies of this House that we thank noble Lords for bringing forward a subject for debate. I am sure that the House will be particularly grateful this evening to the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, for giving us the chance to discuss this very important topic, which I believe has not been discussed for some considerable time in your Lordships' House.

It is an important topic because, as has been said by a number of speakers, it is a subject which affects nearly 10 per cent. of the population, or 6 million disabled people. DPTAC, of which we have heard a great deal—the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee—has said that 10 per cent. of the population of Western Europe is without mobility. The fourth report of the OPCS survey, which deals with transport among other subjects, stated that 40 per cent. of the residents of communal establishments for the disabled never go out. This compares with less than 10 per cent. of the disabled who live at home.

This debate is principally about public transport but the fourth report from the OPCS pointed out that of disabled adults living in private households 76 per cent. use or are transported in private cars compared with 57 per cent. who use buses, 23 per cent. who use trains and 27 per cent. who use taxis. I quote these figures to underline the importance of helping with the cost of transport for disabled people and the importance of the mobility allowance, which was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale.

The parent of a severely mentally handicapped daughter put it in this way: "A car for Annette and me to use would be very useful, but as things are, you can either buy a car or run one, but not both". A survey conducted by MENCAP of the transport needs of people with profound retardation and multiple handicaps found that 49 per cent. of those surveyed required some financial assistance with the cost of transport. I quote from the same report from GLAD which the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, mentioned and which deals with London. It found that 80,000 people with handicaps as regards transport were of working age and not in employment. A higher than average proportion of those in employment were in part-time work. It pointed out that 200,000 transport-handicapped people rely totally on state benefits. In addition, it said that 60,000 people over pension age who cannot use buses are not eligible for mobility allowance and that a free bus pass is clearly of no value to them. It concluded: There is no consistency in the level of financial concessions offered between one type of transport and another". We are dealing with the problems of public transport. The proposition is a simple one. Public transport should be available to all those members of the public who wish to use it. But that proposition is hard to achieve in practice. The principles were expressed most succinctly by Sir Peter Baldwin, the chairman of DPTAC, who is listening to the debate this evening. I am sure that we are all glad to pay tribute to the excellent work done by DPTAC. He said: People in positions of influence should be coming up with solutions to the following key areas: Who are the people who cannot go anywhere? How can transport be provided and organised so that they can use it? How can those currently unable to travel be given the means and confidence to go out and use facilities that are available? The report of DPTAC, entitled Public Transport and the Missing 6 million, sets out the requirements of policy extremely well. It states: The effort of establishing understanding must be directed to all those who visualize, regulate, plan, design, equip, finance and manage the system: the vehicles, the roads, the pavements, the precincts, the stopping places and the stations. It must reach all those who operate the system, or parts of it, whether they do so in commerce, in public service or in voluntary or charitable service. So the effort must be made in appropriate form in each of these directions, but consistently between them. The consistency must come from the shared vision that the transport and mobility to be provided is, as near as may be, for the whole population, not as at present for the population less 6 million souls". As has been pointed out, DPTAC has produced an excellent specification for buses used to operate local services. The specification shows the adaptations required to improve accessibility. The report was produced in June 1988 but the specifications are still voluntary. Will the Government, through the construction and use regulations, make them mandatory? This point was made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, and has been pressed on the Government by RADAR and by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. Will the Government legislate to ensure that all new buses are accessible to disabled people? I include wheelchair users, those with sensory handicaps and those who are ambulant.

As the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, pointed out, the deregulation of bus services makes the use of mandatory powers extremely important. Section 106 of the Transport Act 1985 gave power to local authorities to give grants to operators and the voluntary sector for the conversion of vehicles to make them much more accessible. However, the lack of funding limits the ability of local authorities to make such grants available. The provisions which protect against the inhibition of competition do not allow local authorities to be selective in their use of the grant. This presents a major stumbling block to the ability of local authorities to make use of the provision in the Act. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that when he replies.

I think it is fair to say that, while British Rail is trying hard to accommodate the needs of disabled people, we know that there is still a long way to go. I know from experience with my own family that British Rail staff are almost invariably extremely helpful to disabled passengers, but BR's policy overall gives rise to problems, particularly as regards unmanned stations. I have been told that in some cases disabled people have been advised to start and finish their journeys at manned stations. The able-bodied public would never tolerate such advice, so why should disabled people have to?

There is a continuing problem for disabled people with the gap between the platform and the train that exists at many stations. That is perhaps understandable as regards older stations; but it is inexcusable in a brand new station such as Stansted. I believe that this also applies in some of the stations on the Thameslink line.

The announcements given on trains are a continual source of complaint, especially from those with problems of hearing and vision. In the first place the announcements are not even available. Secondly, if they are available, they are either inaudible or incomprehensible. Thirdly, if they can be heard, they announce the destination of the train after it has left the station. That is not much help if you are on the wrong train!

Lord Teviot

My Lords, I really must intervene here for just a moment. British Rail takes a tremendous amount of trouble to provide the facility of announcements on trains. The voices of actors are used for the purpose but, of course, this is not done with regional accents. British Rail has tried very hard in this respect. Nevertheless, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Carter. I think that one would prefer to hear regional accents because they are easier to understand, and we must encourage British Rail to get this right.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord. However, even if you can understand the actor's voice it is not much help if you are on the wrong train to be told the destination after you have left the station of embarkation. Surely the annoucement should be made before the train leaves the station.

However, on a slightly lighter note, I turn to the design of British Rail trains. I am not sure whether noble Lords are aware of this, but the design of the emergency button and that of the flush button in the toilets is similar. Moreover, the buttons are situated together. Therefore, this has caused some emergency situations for people with visual handicap.

Lord Mountevans

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, but I should like to point out that British Rail did address itself to the problem. No doubt the noble Lord will go on to say that the disabled toilet which is currently being installed in trains is one which has actually won prizes for its user-friendliness.

Lord Carter

My Lords, the noble Lord is right; indeed, that was the point I was just about to make. Let us take a simple example of what can be done to assist the disabled. I am told that on the New York Underground the announcement is made as the train enters the station that the door will be on the left of the direction in which the train is travelling. Because the announcement is extremely clear a person with a visual handicap, or someone with a hearing handicap, will know as the train comes into the station which side to find the door. I think that that is extremely important.

When conducting the survey, the OPCS asked the people it surveyed if they had any difficulty in using public transport. I was told by a disabled person that the correct answer would be yes in London but no in New York. The noble Lord, Lord McColl, mentioned the point about students spending a day in a wheelchair. I too was about to point out that it would also be helpful to students if they spent a day blindfolded and, perhaps, a day wearing ear plugs to see how they managed with the full range of sensory impairments.

In conclusion, the answer to all these problems rests in three factors which were set out by DPTAC; namely, consultation, research and example. It means consultation with disabled people in the early design stages of new projects and continuous consultation to improve existing facilities. It means research to find the best and the most effective means of creating accessibility and, of course, linked with research must be training to educate the transport operators in the needs of people with disabilities. Finally, as regards example, it means that we must learn from and build on good experience both in this country and overseas. It is only in this way that we shall be able to ensure that public transport is available to all those who wish to use it. We shall then no longer have to debate the problems of the missing 6 million people.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I am very grateful indeed to the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, for providing us with an opportunity today to debate a subject which is profoundly important and yet is one which is all too often overlooked in the public arena. I am also most grateful to the noble Lords who have contributed to the short debate this evening. A great number of important points have been raised in a short space of time and I should like to reassure the House that our consideration of them does not end this evening. I see this debate rather as a starting point for further discussions and perhaps, more importantly, a point from which we can begin to focus attention on the size of the population who have difficulties in using transport and on the ways in which those problems can be solved.

I do not apologise for repeating some of the important points made in this debate if only to show that the Government are as much aware of them as are Members of your Lordships' House. The noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, focused by way of the powerful points he made in his speech on the number of people—more than 6 million—who because of disability or mobility problems associated with ageing do not have transport available to them.

I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord for having stressed this point so clearly. One of the major problems in the past in promoting a better understanding of the needs of people with disabilities in the transport industries has been, I believe, a lack of understanding about the numbers of people so affected and the implications for those people of being denied mobility.

Too many people still think that disability means people in wheelchairs. We do not see many people in wheelchairs about in the high street or at the bus stop so it is very easy to suppose that there is no problem. In fact only between 3 and 4 per cent. of people with disabilities are wheelchair users. That is not to say that their transport needs can be neglected and I shall return to this subject in a few moments. However, it is important to recognise, as many in the transport world are now doing, that there are vast numbers of people who are less severely disabled—most commonly with the mobility problems associated with ageing, arthritic joints, failing sight, loss of hearing and so on—for whom simple low cost changes in design or a little more thought on the part of an operator can make all the difference between mobility and immobility.

Added to that number—and again I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, for emphasising this point—is a much larger group of people still who would not in any sense consider themselves disabled but who have what we now describe in the transport world as a mobility handicap. This includes that very large number of public transport users who when they travel have to contend with luggage or the week's shopping or small children and all the encumbrances that go with them: the prams, the baby buggies and so on. For these people too steep steps, lack of handholds and lack of seating space are all at best inconveniences and at worst deterrents from travelling.

The difficulties to which I allude are not confined to any one form of transport. In fact it is in this area above all others that we must concern ourselves with what we sometimes describe as the transport chain. There is little purpose in one part of a transport system that takes full account of the needs of disabled people if the other systems that link with it, and indeed the means to reach those systems for a pedestrian, are not also accessible. It is important therefore to consider this issue on the broadest possible basis. We are concerned with every form of transport—local, national and international—and with every element of moving about between them. We are concerned not only with public transport but also with personal mobility and with the necessary links between private car and public transport.

I should like to devote a few minutes to outlining some of the areas in which progress has been made in this field. Although the noble Lord, Lord Allen, was absolutely right to emphasise the problems and shortcomings that remain, it would be quite wrong if we did not recognise the enormous amount of progress that has already been made across many areas of transport. I should also like, with your Lordships' permission, to outline some of the future developments to which the Department of Transport is committed.

The work of the Department of Transport in this field goes back some 10 years. Throughout that period the department has been working closely with providers of transport—the operators, the local authorities, the manufacturers, the designers and the engineers—to promote and encourage a better understanding of the nature of the need and a greater willingness to meet it. Perhaps most importantly the department has also worked at all times and in every project with disabled people themselves.

The department has been enormously assisted in its work since 1986 by the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee. This body, set up under the Transport Act 1985, was given the specific remit to advise my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport on the transport needs of people with disabilities. That committee, to which the noble Lord, Lord Allen, has already referred, is led by a former Permanent Secretary of the Department of Transport, Sir Peter Baldwin. Under his leadership the 20 members of the committee, the majority of whom have disabilities and also collectively an unparalleled range and depth of expertise across every form of disability and every mode of transport, have worked very closely indeed with the department's disability unit to achieve some of the developments that I would now like to mention.

The noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, has already talked about buses, the need for better provision and a better understanding of the needs of people with mobility problems in the bus industry. He has also talked about the contribution which the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee has made in that sphere. That progress has been, I believe, remarkable. The department and the committee worked closely together to draw up a document now known nationwide as the DPTAC spec. That document gives details of the wide range of simple and often low cost modifications that can be made to buses both current and new to make them easier to board and easier to use for a wide range of elderly and disabled people. There is nothing extraordinary or extravagant about the recommendations in that document. They are all simple, commonsense ideas: lower steps, better handrails, clear colour contrasts to help those with poor sight, a bell push that you can reach while still in your seat, a little more leg-room for those with arthritic joints or artificial limbs and a flat non-slip surface inside the vehicle. These are the kinds of features that the DPTAC spec points to.

It has already been clearly established by research sponsored by the Department of Transport that these kinds of changes could make a very significant difference in the ability of a large number of elderly and disabled people to travel. Research has shown us, for example, that the biggest single problem facing elderly and disabled people in using buses is that first step from ground or kerb onto the bus.

There is, however, a world of difference between theory and practice. Although research had proved these factors, we had still to show a commercially minded bus industry that it was not only socially necessary for vehicles to meet these needs but also economically sensible. To achieve this process of information and education the Department of Transport quite literally took the message on the road in the shape of four demonstration vehicles: two adaptations of existing vehicles and two new designs but all to the specifications outlined by the committee. As the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, said, those four vehicles have toured the country for the past 18 months on free loan to operators and authorities so that they could learn at first hand how their passengers felt about the modifications and how their drivers and engineers felt about them.

The result is that within the space of two years almost every new bus being built in this country now incorporates some or all of the features in that specification. A significant and growing number of operators are not only requiring their new vehicles to meet these standards but are modifying their existing vehicles, in many cases at their own expense as a commercial venture and in other cases with the financial assistance of local authorities.

The economic benefits of providing local public transport that is usable by many who were previously condemned to isolation at home and dependence on social services can be seen in many areas. First, we can see a direct commercial return to the bus operator. There is a large market for bus travel among elderly and disabled people and, as the noble Lord, Lord Allen, has already emphasised, it is a growing market with demographic trends indicating a significant rise in the proportion of elderly and very elderly people in the country over the coming years.

For local authorities too there are clear economic as well as social benefits. The cost of immobility is high. Immobility means a loss of independence. For somebody who becomes housebound the cost to social services through the domiciliary, domestic and health care that must be provided and ultimately the cost of residential care is considerable. I have concentrated on the wide-ranging and far-reaching improvements that have already been made in bus design.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Viscount for giving way. In that cost evaluation, how far has consideration been given to the question of single manned buses? There is no doubt that the presence of a conductor on a bus is a great help to disabled persons. How has that been costed in the equation?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Lord. I do not have the answer to that query but I shall certainly find out whether that has been a factor in the costing. I should imagine that that is a rather difficult arithmetical factor to work out. However, if I have any information on the point I shall certainly pass it on to the noble Lord.

Let me turn now to the next stage in our priorities in this same area. So far we have stopped short of attempting to meet the needs of wheelchair users in ordinary urban bus services. That is not a question of lack of interest or lack of commitment; it is simply a matter of achieving progress by degrees in a way that can be sustained both in operational and economic terms.

The Department of Transport is now working very closely with its colleagues in Europe towards the development of a new generation of buses with low floors that will be able to incorporate access for wheelchair users, as well as being easier for everyone, without enormous extra cost or time penalties in operation. The department is following the same programme that I outlined with the demonstration buses which so successfully promoted the DPTAC spec. It hopes to have the first low-floor wheelchair-accessible demonstration bus available within the next few months.

There have been many calls for legislation to require new generations of buses to provide wheelchair access, and the noble Lord, Lord Carter, raised the point tonight. We are not by any means opposed to legislation where it will serve a useful purpose. There have, however, been too many clear lessons from the United States and elsewhere of the penalties of legislation preceding practicality. We must begin by solving the technical and operational problems. It would be foolish to believe that we can provide a public transport system fully accessible to wheelchair users unless we have sorted out those problems first. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, and other noble Lords who have raised the point tonight will be pleased to learn that we hope, with our European colleagues, to move towards legislation over the next few years that is based on sound technical, operational and economic principles.

I have spent some considerable time talking about buses and the bus industry. I make no apology for that emphasis. It is rightly providing a focus for much of our attention in this area.

There have of course been many other encouraging developments. Wheelchair-accessible taxis are becoming a common feature not just in London but in towns and cities up and down the country. Door-to-door special services such as dial-a-ride are flourishing in many areas with local authority support. In London dial-a-ride services are funded by London Regional Transport with a government grant. They are to benefit from an increase of £1 million in 1990–91, bringing total funding to £8–27 million. That should allow the service to expand further bringing benefits for all dial-a-ride users. British Rail has made great strides in opening up InterCity services and stations and is now making useful progress in other areas as well.

The pedestrian environment is of course an essential part of every journey. I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Allen, made particular reference to the importance of good design and maintenance of streets and pavements. The Department of Transport has worked closely with the Institution of Highways and Transportation to draw up a code of good practice in design and planning so that the pedestrian environment is open for everyone to use with confidence. The department has also pioneered a considerable programme of work to develop tactile surfaces to provide guidance and warning to blind pedestrians without impeding the progress of wheelchair users and others.

Personal mobility is also all important to disabled people. Technical advances in recent years mean that even the most severely disabled people can now drive. The Department of Transport, through its Mobility Advice and Vehicle Information Service, advises many thousands of elderly and disabled people on driving and car choice.

All of those developments are effective only if people with disabilities know about them and know how to use them. That brings me back to another of the important points made by the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale. Information is now very often the one missing link in enabling disabled people to travel and to travel with confidence. A great deal of work remains to be done in that area and the Department of Transport will be working closely with the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee which has adopted that subject as the focus for a public hearing which it will conduct next month. That will be the first step towards a concerted initiative to promote better information systems both to enable people to know what is available and to plan their journeys and also to ensure that the means of communication exist in an appropriate form and at the appropriate time throughout the course of the journey. Without that assurance many elderly and disabled people will still not have the confidence to travel even if the physical means are there to enable them to do so.

I shall now try to reply briefly to specific points raised by noble Lords in the debate, although I believe that I have already answered most ot them. The noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, said that the DPTAC reports were available only to Parliament and are not published. All the DPTAC reports are published and available to the general public.

The noble Baroness, Lady Darcy (de Knayth), asked about the current situation regarding the orange badge scheme proposed by my honourable friend the Minister then responsible for roads and traffic. All I can tell her is that, following wide consultations with disability organisations about improvements to the scheme, the department will shortly consult on draft statutory regulations.

My noble friend Lord Teviot raised the question of access to light rail systems. The department is taking steps to ensure that all new light rail systems have access for people with disability designed in at the early stages. He also mentioned the European proposals to set step height standards which are higher than DPTAC standards. There are European proposals for step heights which we consider to be unreasonably high. We are seeking agreement to reconsider that proposal and to introduce step heights in accordance with the DPTAC standards.

My noble friend Lord McColl of Dulwich reported on a visit to an assessment centre with no British cars available. The department's assessment centre, MAVIS, has a range of 20 vehicles representing the latest range of British, European and Japanese production models.

The noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, spoke of the difficulties for blind people when using bus services. Many of the features included in the DPTAC specification are specifically designed to help blind and visually handicapped people. The noble Lord also asked about plans for access to small buses. Our proposals for low-floor buses apply to small as well as to large buses.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked about effective announcement systems. BR, LRT and others are working to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of announcements. The noble Lord also raised the question of unmanned stations. BR is aware of the concern about unmanned stations and the British Rail Advisory Panel on Disability is looking into that matter.

There has been time this evening only to touch on some of the major points in such a wide-ranging subject. I hope that we may find an opportunity in your Lordships' House to return to a fuller discussion of some of those issues in the not too distant future. I am nonetheless deeply grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Allen, for having given us an opportunity for this brief airing of some of the major points. Its importance will, I believe, extend far beyond the debate in your Lordships' House this evening. The noble Lord, Lord Allen, stressed the need for a fuller recognition of the subject in the public domain. I hope that our discussion this evening will perhaps encourage the media to look again at an issue that does not just concern a small minority but one that affects more than 6 million people in this country. Across Europe as a whole that means some 50 million people for whom conventional transport is difficult or impossible.

I hope that I have been able to indicate to noble Lords some of the enormous improvements that have already taken place and the areas in which the attention of the Department of Transport will now be focusing. I should like to leave your Lordships with a clear indication that the Department of Transport is firmly committed to continue its work of the past 10 years towards a transport system that is accessible to everyone.

House adjourned at seventeen minutes before eleven o'clock.