HL Deb 24 October 1995 vol 566 cc1026-45

(".—(1) This section applies where—

  1. (a) a provider of services ("the occupier") occupies premises under a lease;
  2. (b) but for this section, he would not be entitled to make a particular alteration to the premises; and
  3. (c) the alteration is one which the occupier proposes to make in order to comply with a section 18 duty.

(2) Except to the extent to which it expressly so provides, the lease shall have effect by virtue of this subsection as if it provided—

  1. (a) for the occupier to be entitled to make the alteration with the written consent of the lessor;
  2. (b) for the occupier to have to make a written application to the lessor for consent if he wishes to make the alteration;
  3. (c) if such an application is made, for the lessor not to withhold his consent unreasonably; and
  4. (d) for the lessor to be entitled to make his consent subject to reasonable conditions.

(3) In this section— lease" includes a tenancy, sub-lease or sub-tenancy and an agreement for a lease, tenancy, sub-lease or sub-tenancy; and sub-lease" and "sub-tenancy" have such meaning as may be prescribed.

(4) If the terms and conditions of a lease—

  1. (a) impose conditions which are to apply if the occupier alters the premises, or
  2. (b) entitle the lessor to impose conditions when consenting to the occupier's altering the premises,

the occupier is to be treated for the purposes of subsection (1) as not being entitled to make the alteration.

(5) Part II of Schedule (Premises occupied under leases) supplements the provisions of this section.").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 24 [Advice and assistance]:

Baroness O'Cathain moved Amendment No. 29:

Page 21, line 25, leave out ("may") and insert ("shall").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 29, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 30, 31 and 74. Before I do so, I apologise to the House for my absence during the debate on Amendments Nos. 2 and 49, when I believe my noble friend made reference to the advice and assistance and dispute resolution detailed in the amendments to Clause 24.

On Report I moved similar amendments which I withdrew for further consideration "with a warning". I return to this issue with an amendment to Clause 24 and its supporting Schedule 3 to elicit the Minister's full response and clarification of the Government's intention and proposals regarding the provision of advice and assistance. I am aware that in July the proposals were very much in genesis but I believe that since then some life has been breathed into the soul, so to speak, of Clause 24.

First, I should like to be fully assured by the Minister that the interpretation of Clause 24 affords and effects equality of opportunity for disabled people and is not misinterpreted as a paternalistic measure. Secondly, my amendments seek also to clarify the law and gain a firm commitment that the Secretary of State will make arrangements for the provision of an equitable expert advice service and that such a service will be accessible to all affected parties and will promote and facilitate the settlement of disputes. Mechanisms which obviate a recourse to the courts are clearly in the best interests of disabled people, the business community and government expenditure. I beg to move.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, my name is attached to the amendment and I should like to support it. However, I wonder whether my noble friend can confirm and clarify that the advice and assistance provided will be open to all parties to a dispute—service providers as well as disabled people—and that persons as referred to on the face of the Bill include bodies corporate as well as individuals. Can my noble friend explain the different levels of advice and assistance that will be available under the access provisions? What is the structure envisaged for a mediation service? Can my noble friend clarify the procedures proposed for the settlement of disputes for smaller firms and larger organisations? Can he confirm when consultation on the mechanisms for settlement of disputes is likely to start? Can he also say something about the development of the Government's proposals for the helpline facility that was mentioned at the Report stage? Will the helpline be operational prior to implementation of the Bill? My noble friend has already said that he will be consulting with all parties prior to the start, but do the Government concur that the helpline will be the key to ensuring smooth implementation?

My noble friend has been given advance notice of these questions. I hope that the answers will make it easier for the implementation of the Bill once it becomes an Act.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I have not given the Minister advance notice of the points I intend to make. However, I should like to support the amendments and say that it is right that the Government should be required to provide conciliation on goods and services. The courts are far too costly and they are intimidating to disabled people. They tend to deter them, which is a very bad thing. The Government should also provide advice and assistance. We know now that the Government will not allow the National Disability Council to do that so the Government should take on that responsibility.

The Bill should establish a continuous process—a continuum between disabled people and the conciliation and advice. The disabled person should get advice in order to establish whether he has a case. Then there could be conciliation, which would remove the grievance quickly and easily. Each of those stages hinges upon the other. If there is no advice, the disabled person will not know whether he has a legitimate grievance and the conciliation will be unused. If there is no conciliation the grievance will remain because people will be fearful of the courts. One will not work without the other. We must have both—conciliation, and assistance and advice. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure the House on those basic points.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, I support these amendments. As the Minister knows, I have said at previous stages of the Bill that advice should be available to all. One should avoid litigation at all costs. There is nothing more costly than going to court and many disabled people are among the poorest in the country.

Lord Zouche of Haryngworth

My Lords, I support the amendment. The Confederation of British Industry has taken a very positive and healthy attitude towards the implementation of the Bill. It wants to make the Bill work. The CBI amendment seeks to ensure that any proposed mechanism for mediation is accessible to both disabled people and business. That will have many advantages. It will reduce the necessity for recourse to the courts. That is a terrible experience which no one needs, especially if one is disabled. It tends to polarise positions rather than help in working towards some sensible solution. I support the amendment.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Addington

My Lords, the aim of the amendments is to ensure that the widest possible amount of information is available in the most easily accessible manner. As has already been stated, the most consistent winners in a court case are the lawyers. We are trying to avoid that situation. An amendment along these lines should appear in the Bill. That would strengthen it. We have to make the secondary bodies as effective as possible. I believe that the noble Baroness has a very good set of amendments.

Baroness Darcy (de Knayth)

My Lords, I support these very helpful amendments. I look forward to hearing the Minister's replies to the various questions posed by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen. I support the amendments entirely.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady O'Cathain for outlining her concerns and I am also grateful to other noble Lords who have spoken on the amendment. Those concerns centre around how the Bill will provide for the resolution of disputes which arise from the new right of access to goods and services. We touched on this area during our earlier consideration of Amendments Nos. 2 and 49. I shall try not to repeat some of the points I made then but I should like to take just a few minutes of your Lordships' time to explain how we envisage Clause 24 working. I hope that will reassure my noble friend.

I imagine that some of your Lordships who were in the House at Report stage will remember that I said that it is disabled people who will generally be the more vulnerable party to a dispute arising out of the right of access and that our proposals for advice and assistance had been framed so that, where appropriate, they could receive a greater share of the amount of support on offer. I think my actual words were that it would be, batting slightly more in favour of the disabled person".—[Official Report, 18/7/95; col. 276.] By that I meant that, while staying strictly within the confines of the law, the service would seek a resolution which ensured that the disabled person's rights were met. In my view, it is extremely important that Clause 24 retains the flexibility to allow us to do that. We would like a service which operates to serve the spirit in which the legislation was conceived: a desire to up the pace of the move to a more accessible environment for disabled people.

I am not sure that my noble friend's amendment incorporates sufficient latitude to allow us to set up a scheme which might need to differ from existing dispute resolution mechanisms to take account of the very special and varied aspects of disability discrimination. However, we recognise that the primary source of advice and advocacy for disabled people will continue to be the multiplicity of advice agencies which already exist: whether generalist, like the citizens advice bureau service, or disability specific, like the disability information and advice line service or DIAL. We could not, and would not wish to, supersede or compete with those existing structures. Rather, it is more sensible to set up a complementary service which will help the existing disability advisers to do their jobs better. In other words, what is required is a secondary tier of advice to give help and assistance to those who have the day-to-day contact with disabled people: in essence a team of full-time disability advisers who, whether situated centrally or regionally, will together form a pool of expertise which can be utilised to stop disputes escalating to the point where court action is necessary. That would fall within the strictures of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, who advised me to keep things clear of the lawyers. I entirely agree.

We feel that a scheme along those lines is the best way to make use of the existing networks of advice and assistance. The agencies—local agencies, specialist agencies and the generalist agencies, such as the citizens advice bureaux, which provide services locally—will screen out the majority of cases of alleged discrimination. Some of those will be misconceived while others could be dealt with simply. Where the case is more complicated, or the parties in question cannot agree on what the solution should be, the guidance of the advisers could be sought. In very difficult cases, the case could be referred on to the advice service, which will in this way build up expertise in the more difficult types of case which it can then apply more generally.

At each point in this process, it is likely that there will be some contact with the service provider in order to arrive at a mutually acceptable solution short of a court summons. To answer my noble friend Lord Swinfen, there will be nothing to stop a service provider using the system in exactly the same way. Many small shopkeepers, for example, will be quite happy to avail themselves of the services of local advice agencies. I can, however, appreciate that such a scheme will not always satisfy the requirements of larger business, and I understand why many feel that a more formal dispute resolution mechanism along the lines of ACAS is required for Part III of the Bill.

I should emphasise that we have deliberately not set out to duplicate ACAS's role in the goods and services field. As your Lordships know, ACAS becomes involved in a dispute only when an application has been made to a tribunal. I note that the amendment also envisages that the Clause 24 arrangements will primarily be triggered once a complaint has been made to a court. Our intention is to set up a system which can resolve disputes before people even apply to the courts. That will be best for both business and disabled people.

Further, there is no doubt in my mind that the disability advisers would be able to perform the mediation role which my noble friend seeks, if there existed some way of filtering out inquiries on more straightforward issues. There must be a number of bodies which, when it is a businessman who has a problem, could perform the same operation for the advisers as will be performed by the CAB and other groups when disabled people have a grievance. One could perhaps imagine a role for trades associations or chambers of commerce. Further, most large service sector companies will have an existing mechanism for dealing with complaints from members of the public who feel that their statutory rights have been infringed. Customer relations staff could work together with the disability advisers to resolve problems before they began to escalate. We could reinforce such mechanisms through the use of a code of practice which directed disabled people down a particular route as an initial step. This is clearly an area where we need to talk in more detail to both business and organisations of and for disabled people and we will be looking for an opportunity to do so over the coming months.

Finally, I should like to emphasise that we recognise that business needs a lead-in period so it has time to equip itself to cope with the more stringent provisions of Part III of the Bill. That is why the various rights of access are to be phased in over a period of maybe as many as 10 years, starting with the simple duty on service providers not to refuse service to a disabled person unreasonably and ending with the duty to remove physical barriers if there is no other means of providing access. This phasing period will also give us time to assess whether our proposals for advice and assistance are going to prove sufficient. If it transpires that a more formal structure is necessary, the power remains within Clause 24 to provide one. This is almost certainly an issue on which we shall be asking the National Disability Council to review the existing arrangements and to make recommendations. We would then consider the arguments for change and weigh the perceived benefits against the potential costs, taking account of such possibilities as incorporating funding from the private sector. Here again, the amendment is probably too prescriptive to allow us to adapt whatever service is set up under Clause 24 to meet the needs which may arise over time.

My noble friend Lord Swinfen asked me about the telephone helpline. I dealt with that point when we considered Amendment No. 2 and I do not think that I can usefully add anything to what I said then. I do not want to repeat myself, but I believe that I said then that we shall start to consult shortly after Royal Assent. We shall also do that in relation to the advice and assistance service. Officials from my department will be seeking to discuss those matters with organisations of and for disabled people as well as those representing service providers, to ascertain the best way forward.

I am sorry that I have gone on at some length, but this is an important issue and I wanted to spell out how our thinking has developed since I spoke on Report. I hope that I have sufficiently reassured by noble friend to enable her to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for a very full and detailed explanation of the development of the Government's proposals. I do not complain that he went on "at some length" as he put it, because it is important for us to have as much clarification as possible of what he has in mind. Speaking from the business point of view, I like his approach in terms of having at stage one the specialist agencies and at stage two the team of experts. We must realise that we have to build up expertise. The proposals are therefore helpful, as were my noble friend's points about the lead-in period.

I am satisfied that the Government's proposals are in line with the amendment as moved. Of course, they are not precisely the same: otherwise, the amendment would be agreed to. However, I am satisfied that that further explanation amply clarifies the law and is now on the record. It goes much of the way to secure the commitment which the business community is genuinely seeking.

It seems to me that the mechanisms proposed for Clause 24 are the Government's insurance policy for the long-term investment in achieving equality of opportunity for disabled people. That is good for disabled people and for business. As my noble friend said, the last thing that we want to do is to create a situation where everybody is running off to lawyers and into court.

I remind your Lordships that this legislation is a social reform and as such I guess that it cannot be too prescriptive. I was struck by my noble friend's comments on this point because the last thing that I want is for the provisions to be prescriptive. Being a social reform, the legislation will evolve. The lead-in period will help in that respect.

I remind your Lordships also that all of us in this House and the business community are clearly united in the determination to end discrimination against disabled people. Sometimes during the passage of the Bill, which seems to have been for ever, being both long and tortuous, we have tended to lose sight of that and to have got into slightly confrontational situations. We are all on the same side in our determination to end such discrimination. I believe in all conscience that there is no division in this House either on the amendment or on the Minister's full response, which, I repeat, is now on the record. In the true spirit of this legislation, I pray in aid the CBI parliamentary brief which most noble Lords have received, to remind ourselves that, working together to reach lasting solutions, rather than short term gains, will ensure that the end to discrimination against disabled people, becomes a reality".

In that spirit, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 30 and 31 not moved.]

7 p.m.

Clause 26 [Further and higher education of disabled persons]:

Lord Henley moved Amendment No. 32:

Page 22, line 28, leave out ("follows") and insert ("set out in subsections (2) to (6)").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 34.

In Committee and on Report noble Lords were, quite correctly, anxious to establish whether there was a clear division of duties between the further education funding councils and the local education authorities in order to satisfy themselves that the law had made provision for students with learning difficulties and disabilities. I believe that we have addressed that point. They were anxious to establish also that the courses provided by local education authorities enjoyed parity of esteem with those funded through the FEFCs. The Bill now includes amendments requiring further education institutions to provide "disability statements" about their provision of facilities for education for students with disabilities. Accordingly, on Report I undertook to consider whether I might bring forward an amendment placing a similar duty on LEAs.

Taken with existing clauses, these amendments will ensure that disabled people are better informed of the full range of further education provision open to them, irrespective of whether it is funded by the FEFC or LEAs. LEA-funded further education centres as well as FE colleges will now have to provide useful and practical information for prospective disabled students to help them make informed decisions about their choice of education. Many LEAs already provide comprehensive information about their further education facilities for disabled persons; we aim, through this amendment, to make sure that all LEAs adhere to that good practice.

These amendments, taken together with the other educational provisions in the Bill, will greatly increase the information available to pupils, students and parents when making choices about education, and I commend them to the House. I beg to move.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I welcome the amendment from the Government and the fact that discussions are taking place with the Department for Education and Employment, the FEFC and the LEAs. We hope that that will clarify in detail the respective responsibilities and duties with regard to course provision. I seek an assurance from the Minister that the form that the prescribed description will take will be the subject of consultation with the LEAs.

Baroness Darcy (de Knayth)

My Lords, I give the amendment a warm welcome and thank the Minister for a positive response to the concerns that we all voiced, first, about students falling between the two stools of the FE sector Schedule 2 provision and the LEA provision; and, secondly, about the quality and quantity of non-Schedule 2 provision.

The new duty placed on LEAs to produce disability statements now brings them into line with the colleges. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, mentioned the other amendments brought forward at earlier stages of the Bill. I shall not take up the time of your Lordships on the Bill do now pass, so perhaps I may say briefly how welcome are all the amendments first heralded in the other place and then introduced in Committee by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. It is good that education now figures in Part IV of the Bill. That does not of course mean that it is subject to anti-discrimination legislation, which I regret. SKILL, the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities, still feels that education should be included in Part III which outlaws discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services.

However I accept, as does SKILL, that the Government genuinely believe that bringing education into Part III would be detrimental to their strategic plan to improve further and higher education provision for students with disabilities and learning difficulties. We therefore very much welcome the useful statements made by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, on Report, first, about the complaints procedure for FE students; and, secondly, about the colleges' duty to meet the needs of disabled students whom they enrol. They will strengthen the strategic plan.

I welcome also the commitment to look further into the question of transport to and from further education establishments which the noble Baroness has already mentioned.

I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, for being willing to meet and discuss matters in the first place, and also the then Minister for Education in the other place, Tim Boswell; and I recognise the hours of hard work put in by officials of the DFEE and the staff of SKILL to arrive at a solution.

Finally, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Henley, for making the helpful statements on Report and for now coming forward with the amendment. I am grateful to the many noble Lords on all sides of the House who have given powerful and continued support. That is quite enough eulogistic chat from me, I think. I very much hope that the amendment will iron out the problems. If not, it may be necessary to consider in future bringing all communication and living skills under Schedule 2. For the moment however it is a welcome and positive step towards ensuring that students with severe learning difficulties learn to operate as effectively as possible in the adult world.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy, for getting in her retaliation first, if I may put it that way, or, rather, for getting in her Bill do now pass speech in advance. I apologise on behalf of my noble friend Lord Mackay that he had to miss part of it, but he will read it with enormous interest tomorrow when he has a chance. I take note of the points that the noble Baroness made.

I also express my gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, for reminding the House that we have already started on consultation with the LEAs, and obviously that is important. I can give her an assurance that the form of LEA disability statement will obviously be the subject of consultation with the LEAs. As far as is possible, we shall try to find something that is satisfactory to all parties concerned. Obviously in advance of that consultative process, I do not believe that there is much more I can say about what form that will take.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 33:

Page 23, line 39, after ("of") insert ("physical or other support").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I should like to speak also to Amendment No. 35 which is Amendment No. 33's Scottish cousin. There is, I understand, no difference save that of nationality between the two amendments.

When I arrived here I was advised by my Whips that I could never declare an interest too often. Accordingly, in any university matter I do so. I should like also to thank the Ministers (both the noble Lord, Lord Henley, and the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish) and through them their officials for a meeting which I hope may much shorten the length of my remarks.

The amendment concerns these statements which universities are to be required to provide about facilities for those with disabilities. It seeks to insert the words "physical or other support" before "facilities". The concern is this. First, disabilities, as we all know, are extremely multifarious. So are academic courses. The task of matching every disability to every course would be a truly exhausting one. We should like an assurance that universities will not be asked to attempt that labour of total enumeration.

The other point upon which we would hope to hear reassurance is that matters concerning admissions and curriculum are matters of academic judgment. While it is, I think, generally recognised that universities will and must make an effort to adapt to the needs of students with any particular disability wherever they can, it must remain a matter of academic judgment what adaptations can be made and what cannot.

I should like to clarify that point very briefly, if I may. There is, I think, and should be, a duty on universities to try to help, especially when a student has been accepted. There is a duty to that student. Some obstacles can be overcome. Some are harder. Some cannot yet be. But I do remember that many obstacles which now can be overcome could not be overcome 30 years ago. But we cannot accept at present an obligation to open every course to people with every disability. There are some obstacles which have not yet been overcome.

The noble Baroness, Lady Darcy (de Knayth), asked me on Report whether universities recognised an obligation to look for leeway in a course where there is something in it that creates an obstacle to people with disabilities. I can now clearly give her the answer yes to that question. We will look. The modularisation of courses will make it easier to look.

There is a duty to respect the freedom of academic judgment but that carries with it a reciprocal duty to use that judgment to be as helpful as we can be. I hope that that clarifies the position a little. I beg to move.

Baroness Darcy (de Knayth)

My Lords, I very much hope that the Minister can reassure the noble Earl that disability statements will in no way affect the academic standards or criteria of an institution. I am grateful to the noble Earl for replying to the question that I asked on Report and saying that the universities would exercise leeway. SKILL states that it knows of no institution which applies different academic criteria to disabled students as regards admissions and examinations and I look forward to the Minister's reply.

On Report (col. 278) I said that I thought that the words "physical and other support" seemed wide enough not to cause concern. I plead that it was 1 a.m. and I was not sufficiently informed as to what "other support" did or did not cover. I now know that it would not include important areas such as policies, for example, examination and admission policies; information provision, for example, what is put into a prospectus; and staffing arrangements, for example, whom disabled students can contact for advice.

SKILL points out that if the clause were amended as the noble Earl suggests the higher education institutions would be providing less information in their disability statements than would FE institutions and now LEAs. The consistency of information available to students across post-16 education would be compromised. I am sure that that is not the noble Earl's intention. Although I understand his worries I hope that he will find they are groundless. I also hope that having heard the Minister's reply he will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Carter

My Lords, the noble Earl speaks with a great deal of knowledge and experience of this matter and he has made the case extremely well. There is no need to add to it and we are pleased to support him from these Benches. I am surprised that with his great facility for the English language he introduced a word such as "modularisation" into the official record.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his point and I sympathise with him but it is the name by which it is known.

Lord Henley

My Lords, we were pleased to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy, even after her pre-emptive attempt at a Bill-do-now-pass speech. We hope to hear her many more times during the course of Third Reading. I believe, and I am sure that all noble Lords will agree, that there is scarcely a need for someone of the distinction of the noble Earl to declare an interest. He is far too well known and appreciated in higher education circles for that to be necessary. I echo what he said about our earlier meetings. I and my noble friend Lord Mackay were grateful to have an opportunity to discuss these matters outside the House—or rather inside the House but outside the Chamber—and for notice of his intention to table this amendment. The noble Earl, quite rightly, is seeking certain assurances on the effects of these clauses and I hope that my comments will be of assistance.

The noble Earl is concerned that the clauses might constitute a threat to a university's academic autonomy. He is concerned, for example, that their effect might be to require a university to change its admissions arrangements, or modify its course structures, or alter its assessment programmes in order to meet the needs of disabled students. I am happy to state the Government's considered view that they are not meant to do so and that they do not do so. Nor is it the Government's intention that the disability statements should be used to put pressure on the universities or the higher education funding councils to change policies on the curriculum or admissions. Such matters are quite properly academic matters which are the responsibility of the institutions to determine. Naturally, we hope that universities will be as receptive as they can to the needs of disabled students, and we believe that the need to set out information about their policies will help focus their attention on this issue. But it will remain for universities to determine their own policies.

The noble Earl is also concerned at the possible burden on universities of producing the disability statements. As he mentioned tonight and on Report, he envisages the possibility of very complex statements being required, which map every course in an institution against every possible disability of prospective students. I am happy to state the Government's considered view that we do not envisage disability statements being of that nature. I must temper that comment in one respect because, as the noble Earl is aware, it is not the responsibility of the Government to specify the information content of the statements. That is the responsibility of the higher education funding councils.

I can, however, inform the House that the Higher Education Funding Council for England has already established a group to consider the nature of the information to be contained in disability statements, and it is clear that the group is not contemplating statements of that nature. The group believes that it will be able to specify information which will both be helpful to disabled students and the council but which will not impose an undue burden on universities. A representative of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, which has been in correspondence with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, is on the group, and I believe I am right in saying that the CVCP is working constructively with the group. Further, the HEFCE intends to consult institutions generally about the specification of information in disability statements, once they have the advice of their group.

With those assurances, I hope the noble Earl will withdraw his amendment.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for that most helpful reply. I was aware of what was being done in the Higher Education Funding Council for England and, as the Minister said, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals is not in any way dismayed by what is going on there.

I am very grateful to him for his comments about the ability to avoid totally exhaustive and exhausting statements. I am particularly grateful to him for his comments about academic judgment and about the absence of any pressure on the funding councils to bring about change. What he says is very fair but he hopes that the universities will be as receptive as they can to the needs of disabled students. In return, I give the Minister that assurance with all good will, thank him very warmly and beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Henley moved Amendment No. 34:

Page 23, line 45, at end insert— ("(7) The Education Act 1944 is amended as set out in subsections (8) and (9). (8) In section 41 (functions of local education authorities in respect of further education), after-subsection (2) insert— (2A) It shall be the duty of every local education authority to publish disability statements at such intervals as may be prescribed. (2B) For the purposes of subsection (2A) above—

(9) In section 41(7), (8) and (11), for "this section" substitute "subsections (1) and (6) above".").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I spoke to this amendment with Amendment No. 32. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 27 [Further and higher education of disabled persons: Scotland]:

[Amendment No. 35 not moved.]

Clause 28 [Taxi accessibility regulations]:

Lord Renton moved Amendment No. 36:

Page 24, line 37, leave out ("and") and insert ("or while seated on a swivel seat:").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 36 I shall consider also Amendments Nos. 37 and 38. Clause 28 enables the Secretary of State to make regulations governing the accessibility of disabled people to taxis. Perhaps I may briefly explain my amendments. The new provision is an enabling provision, making what in other circumstances are called "construction and use regulations". They will govern the way in which taxis must be built for carrying disabled people with or without wheelchairs and the way in which drivers of taxis are to help disabled people to use those taxis.

The regulations do not specifically deal with disabled people travelling on a swivel seat, preferably next door to the driver, with the wheelchair to be folded up and put elsewhere in the vehicle. Therefore, I have provided for that to be done. The amendments are self-explanatory and noble Lords will see that I have added a new paragraph (c) to Clause 28(1) so that the regulations will provide: for providing space elsewhere on the taxi for the wheelchairs of those disabled persons who decide to sit on swivel seats".

I put forward these amendments in a spirit of compromise and in order to achieve that greater flexibility which everyone wants and which the Minister was kind enough to stress that the Government want. However, the Bill as it is drafted does not require that to be achieved. That is the sad thing about it.

I should point out also that besides dealing with the construction of taxis in the future, the regulations will prescribe the ways in which drivers of taxis are to help disabled people to use the taxis. By a strange drafting method, to that extent Clause 28 overlaps with Clause 31. Clause 31 imposes similar duties on drivers of taxis carrying passengers in wheelchairs. But in doing so Clause 31 deals with those who choose to sit in the passenger seat instead of in a wheelchair and have the wheelchair carried in the taxi. That is very good.

My noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish kindly wrote to me yesterday as follows: I fully appreciate your concerns about the needs of the large number of disabled people who do not need or wish to travel in a wheelchair. However, Clause 31(3)(c) already makes provision for the stowage of an unoccupied wheelchair and it is also our intention to address the needs of that group of passengers in the taxi accessibility regulations, which will specify a number of design features. Swivel seats are one important mobility aid we will be looking at".

That is absolutely splendid but it is not part of the Bill and would not bind a Secretary of State in the years to come.

It is a very strangely drafted collection of clauses. We must make absolutely sure that the obligations under Clause 28 whereby the Secretary of State is to make regulations are consistent with the provisions of Clause 31, which are more flexible. We do not want the construction and use regulations to defeat the purpose of Clause 31. That is why I thought it necessary to table these amendments.

There is a further important point that nowhere in the Bill is there a duty to provide swivel seats. As far as I know, they are not mentioned at all in the Bill either for those taxis which are not black cabs but are saloon cars or for any taxis.

Lord Carter

My Lords, surely swivel seats are mentioned in Clause 30(5) and (6).

Lord Renton

My Lords, I apologise to the House. That is very negligent of me. Perhaps I may quickly read that. The trouble is that it is limited to those areas in which an exemption order is in force. That is the trouble about that. As I said at an earlier stage, this business of exemption orders introduces a sort of bureaucratic impediment to the flexibility which we all need because it requires a licensing authority to apply to the Secretary of State—that is, the Department of Transport—in order to be exempt from the other provisions which are stricter. We do not know on what grounds exemption orders will be granted, how far they will go and what flexibility they will introduce.

I must confess that I had not observed that indirect way of introducing swivel seats, but it is not quite good enough. I should much rather see it written into the construction and use regulations that are to be made. That is why I have tabled the amendment.

As I mentioned in earlier debates, my very severely handicapped daughter prefers to drive in a saloon car next to the driver instead of in a black cab taxi. She certainly hates being in a wheelchair for too long, although she has to spend most of her life sitting down. But when she is put in the ordinary back seat of a black cab, because she is very small she cannot see out. She happens to be cared for 100 miles from my home in Huntingdon and I am very anxious that she and others like her—and there are an enormous variety of cases of disabled people that we should envisage—will not be forced merely to sit in the back seat of a cab. I personally find that a swivel seat is desirable for getting my daughter seated, and that is why I mentioned that.

Let us take stock of the position we have reached according to what the Government have told us and according to previous legislation. In London all taxis are to be black cabs but if a disabled person wants to travel in a saloon car, it seems to me that he will have to travel either in a private hire car or in a minicab, which is also a type of private hire car.

The Department of Transport has said that it wants all taxis in England and Wales to be as in London. Clause 28 of the Bill seems to make that possible, in spite of what my noble friend wrote to me and in spite of what my noble friend has wisely said at each stage of the Bill about the need for flexibility.

However, I believe that in Scotland real flexibility will be achieved as a result of Clause 33(3) which states that the regulations may provide the circumstances in which an exemption from wheelchair provisions may be granted. That is a better kind of exemption because it is an exemption stated in advance instead of each licensing authority having to apply to the people in Whitehall.

In rural areas of England, Wales and Scotland there are simply not enough minicabs or hire cars. If nearly all taxis are to be black cabs, built specifically for carrying wheelchairs at very great cost, there will be fewer taxis and disabled people will suffer from that. Therefore, the effect of these clauses of the Bill as drafted, far from preventing discrimination against disabled people, will cause discrimination against them.

Perhaps I may say before I go further that my noble friend Lord Holderness, who is very severely disabled, has asked me to say that he supports my amendments and regrets that he cannot be here this evening.

I suggest that my amendments to Clause 28 are necessary, especially to achieve consistency with Clause 31(3). I beg to move.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, I rise briefly to support the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Renton. As I understand the Bill as drafted, when the regulations come into effect it will be necessary for all taxi services in England and Wales effectively to have London cabs; that is, cabs which are specially constructed with a view to make it possible for them to carry persons sitting in a wheelchair. That may well be reasonable for London, but I would suggest that it is not reasonable for rural communities for two reasons. First, it would significantly increase the cost of rural taxi services because the capital cost of the kind of cab about which we are talking is some four or five times that of another suitable vehicle and the running costs are very much higher. The rural population in many areas are not now served by public transport. Therefore, without public services, this could be a crippling blow for those who do not have a car of their own.

Secondly, as the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said, London taxis are uncomfortable and unsuitable for long journeys, especially for the disabled. I cannot understand why it would not be sufficient for taxi services to be required to have in every fleet a percentage of taxis which are suitable for carrying persons in wheelchairs who, incidentally, represent less than half of 1 per cent. of taxi users at present. If discrimination against disabled people can only be removed at the cost of discrimination against the rural poor, I suggest that the provision in the Bill as it stands needs revision. I support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Renton.

7.30 p.m.

Baroness Darcy (de Knayth)

My Lords, when he has heard the Minister's response, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, will feel able to withdraw his amendment. I do not wish to repeat at length what I said at earlier stages about how having a taxi accessible to me while remaining in my wheelchair has revolutionised my life in terms of liberation and independence. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, when such taxis first became accessible we actually had to book them three days ahead. But now that the fleet is run on a half-and-half basis, one can almost hail them off the street, although one still cannot be certain to find one.

I understand the fears expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, and the reasons for his amendment. But, as I understand it, the new breed of accessible taxi about which we are talking—that is, the taxi that will be accessible to all those in wheelchairs, to the ambulant disabled, to people with guide dogs, to people with arthritic hips, and so on—will be a different sort of vehicle from the one that we and the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, are thinking about. Indeed, there will be various models. However, let us think of something like a Renault Espace but at a lower level with a swivel seat by the driver into which one could also get one's wheelchair. The noble Lord's daughter could in fact transfer to the swivel seat and look out of the window as she travels while sitting next to the driver, which she likes to do. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure the noble Lord and that he will be able to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy (de Knayth), I also hope that the Government will resist the amendments. I am sorry that I am unable to support the noble Lord, Lord Renton, who has carried out such admirable work for and on behalf of the disabled, both in the parliamentary group and in this House. However, on this occasion, I believe that his emphasis is wrong and I should like to make just a few points.

First, although there may be a limited number of people—some 75,000 or so, I believe—who are permanent wheelchair users, something like 600,000 people are wheelchair users at some point in their lives. Even someone like myself was in a wheelchair for a few months when I was foolish enough to destroy an Achilles tendon by running in a relay race, passing hot dogs to celebrate the Queen's Jubilee. The consequence was that I learnt firsthand how the cambers of the roads in Norwich worked.

The point about the Government's proposals—and this is why we welcome them—is that they seem to balance correctly the rights of disabled people to have full access with the need for flexibility in local circumstances. If a local authority is satisfied that there is no unmet need for wheelchair accessible vehicles, it may apply for exemption in exactly the same way as now, for example, a local authority which is satisfied that there is no unmet need for, say, gypsy caravan sites can apply for a designation certificate and not be required to make further provision. If the Secretary of State is satisfied that the local authority's case is well argued, the local authority may then go on to permit taxis not to be wheelchair accessible but merely to have swivel seats. That is the first point.

My second point has already been mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy (de Knayth), but it does perhaps need re-emphasising. Too much is sometimes made of the cost argument. The second-hand cost of the Metro cabs and the Fairways, and so on, is—certainly in my city—around £12,000. That still gives another 10 years or so of useful life at the very least to that vehicle. It seems to me that that is a perfectly acceptable cost when compared with the cost of a new saloon car or Cortina to join the taxi fleet. It would professionalise the trade, because it means that people whose only skill is car driving, who come into the trade to cream off the public before Christmas and then go out again, are not able to enter into and go out of the trade as is possible if they can turn their own private domestic car temporarily into a taxi. By requiring them to invest in a professional vehicle we will keep out the cowboys, professionalise the quality of driving and build up an expertise upon which people can properly rely.

Thirdly, we have talked throughout about taxis, but there are at least as many cars outside London—and rather more in London—which are private hire vehicles that are not required to be wheelchair accessible. Indeed, they can be fitted with swivel seats and the like. It is entirely open to the family of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, to telephone for a car which meets the comfort and other requirements of his daughter from a private car hire company. That will remain acceptable. As a result of the provisions, I hope that users of such vehicles will continue to have choice, that the cost will be acceptable and that proper rights for disabled people will be ensured consistent with the needs of local circumstances. I hope that the Government resist the amendments.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, we have had some interesting debates on the subject of taxis during previous stages of the Bill. I have had correspondence with my noble friend, so I entirely understand the reasons behind his amendments. He is concerned—as I am sure we all are—that the new generations of taxis should be easily usable by all disabled people, including those who are not wheelchair users and who prefer to transfer from their wheelchairs into a car seat when travelling.

I should like to try to help my noble friend who seems to see some internal inconsistency between Clauses 28 and 31. Indeed, I am not sure whether that is the basis of his concern. Clause 28 deals with the vehicle itself. It deals with the construction requirements of the vehicle about which we shall be consulting. As we see it, the vehicles that emerge will not necessarily be London taxis. I thought I made that rather clear on Report. I said that it was not mandating London taxis throughout the country. In fact, I believe that I gave an assurance that we would see to it that the regulations did not say so. Of course, London taxis which are accessible at present will come within the regulations, but the regulations will be a good deal wider and cover not just London taxis.

As I said, Clause 28 deals with the vehicle itself—that is, the construction requirements, and so on. Indeed, some of them are mentioned in subsection (2). Clause 31 deals with the driver. It is one thing to have the taxi meeting the construction regulations, but, the driver may not choose to carry a disabled person and to use the facilities that are available in his taxi. That is another problem which we have addressed in Clause 31. Therefore, there is no internal inconsistency between Clauses 28 and 31. They address different parts of the problem: one addresses the vehicle itself; and the other addresses the driver, especially when he is driving a vehicle which obeys the kind of construction requirements which are set out under Clause 28.

The powers to make taxi-accessible regulations under Clause 28 are sufficient to enable us to cover a wide range of features in a taxi to ensure safe access and egress by disabled people. One of the features about which we will be consulting will be the provision of swivel seats. The list in Clause 28(2) is not prescriptive. Swivel seats could, and most probably will, be included in the context of those provisions. As my noble friend pointed out, Clause 31(3)(c) would place an obligation on a driver of a regulated taxi to carry a disabled person's wheelchair if he or she chooses to sit in the passenger seat. I believe that it would be wrong to specify either swivel seats or any other feature, other than the limited features we have included, on the face of the Bill. We want to retain the flexibility which regulations give us to respond to changes and developments over time in vehicle design. I suspect that if we had had this debate 15 years ago people would have said that it was technically impossible to design a car to meet some of these requirements. However, we know that it is not. Some of the new cars coming on to the market appear to me, as a layman, to be suited to easy adaptation to carry a wheelchair, either with a person in the wheelchair or with the wheelchair in the boot or elsewhere in the vehicle.

I do not believe that it would be helpful to manufacturers or the operators of taxis if the legislative framework were created in such a way that it was unresponsive and inflexible. The Department of Transport is already holding detailed discussions with all sides of industry and with disabled people on the shape and content of the regulations arising from Clause 28. I believe that that is the most appropriate way to deal with important issues such as swivel seats.

My noble friend commented on the flexibility of the taxi law in Scotland as compared with that in England and Wales. I am inclined to say that that is not surprising, as the law in Scotland is in many ways superior. However, there is another reason for that. The law relating to Scotland dates only from 1982, as your Lordships will see from the appropriate clause, whereas the law in England and Wales belongs largely to the last century. The Town Police Clauses Act 1847 and the Metropolitan Public Carriage Act 1869 come to my eye in the Bill. That is why the provision for taxi accessibility regulations in the Bill for England and Wales is different from the provision for Scotland.

I can reassure my noble friend that the Department of Transport will be working closely with the Scottish Office over the provisions of the taxi accessibility regulations and how the regime will work. It is our intention that the two sets of regulations, based as I said on two Acts almost a hundred years apart, will as far as possible and appropriate have the same effect and work in exactly the same way.

I should also like to remind your Lordships that we intend to ensure that the taxi accessibility regulations reflect only what is technically and commercially practical. We do not want to see all taxis disappear because the accessibility regulations are either too onerous or too expensive to implement. I have made that clear in the past.

I hope my noble friend will accept that, in addition to swivel seat requirements that will be contained in regulations, Clause 30(5) and (6) also provide for regulations requiring the fitting of swivel seats to be made in respect of taxis which would otherwise be exempt from the taxi accessibility regulations.

I hope that that explanation and my assurance that we can already require swivel seats in taxis under the powers contained in the Bill, and the fact that there will not really be a difference between the position in Scotland and that in England and Wales, will reassure my noble friend and that he can withdraw his amendment.

7.45 p.m.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I am grateful to all those who have spoken on the amendments, especially the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, who was the only speaker who supported them.

To answer the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy (de Knayth), and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, the regulations could achieve the flexibility that we all want. However, from conversations that I had with Mr. Steven Norris earlier this year, I was very much afraid—and that is partly why I tabled the amendments—that it was his original intention that all cabs throughout England and Wales should be black cabs and that that would be the basis for the regulations. They are also construction and use regulations.

Perhaps I may say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, that she is misinformed on the question of private hire cars being freely available in rural areas. Certainly in the rural area where I live they are not. Rural areas vary. Norwich is a large city, and in outlying areas private hire cars are no doubt available, as well as some taxis. However, living five miles from Huntingdon, having consulted the Yellow Pages and made other inquiries, I find that there are very few hire cars with a driver. To declare an interest, at the age of 87 I am anxious as to what will happen when I can no longer drive my car. If I can hire a driver and a car that will be helpful, but it will not always be possible.

I now turn to the speech of my noble friend Lord Mackay. The best thing about the debate is that there is now recorded in Hansard the way in which this Government intend to use the powers in the regulations. They obviously intend to use them much more widely and sensibly than I was given to understand some months ago by the Minister for Transport. I say that deliberately, and hopefully.

I am grateful to my noble friend for his full explanation and for the commitments that he repeated. In all those circumstances, I feel that it would be reasonably safe for me to withdraw my amendment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 37 and 38 not moved.]

Clause 29 [New licences conditional on compliance with taxi accessibility regulations]:

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 39:

Page 25, line 30, leave out ("in an area").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 39, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 41 to 48. These amendments are also related to transport. Most of them are intended simply to tidy up the wording of various clauses. However, Amendment No. 41 introduces a new clause.

The Bill includes a requirement in Clause 31 that taxi drivers shall assist disabled people who have to use wheelchairs into and out of their taxis, and to load and unload their luggage. There is another provision in Clause 32 that would require taxi drivers to carry guide dogs or hearing dogs if requested.

We realised that in both cases those provisions would give a minority of taxi drivers problems because of medical or physical conditions. For example, the driver may be disabled himself or be seriously allergic to dogs. Consequently, provision was made in those clauses for licensing authorities to issue exemption certificates to taxi drivers who would be unable to carry out those duties.

Representations have been made to us by the taxi trade that there ought to be an appeals mechanism against a decision of a licensing authority to refuse an exemption certificate. That might, for example, be a borderline medical case, or where an authority has a policy that all taxi drivers they license shall be able to assist disabled passengers, or simply a bad decision. After all, there are 360 licensing authorities.

It is government policy that there should be an appropriate appeals mechanism to protect people against unreasonable acts by enforcement authorities. The amendment would provide for an appeal within 28 days to the local magistrates' court, which is the traditional appeals mechanism for taxi licensing matters. This is a small but important change which I believe will be welcomed by the taxi trade.

Amendments Nos. 42, 43 and 44 are amendments to Clause 33. They provide for equivalent regulation-making powers for Scotland to those already contained in Clause 32(9) for England and Wales. Both will provide for other categories of dog other than hearing or guide dogs to be prescribed which must be carried in taxis if they accompany and are trained to assist disabled people.

Amendment No. 39 is intended to avoid ambiguity in the meaning of Clause 29 by deleting the words "in an area", which serve no useful purpose. The other amendments may be categorised as housekeeping amendments which bring the wording of PSV and rail clauses into line with the equivalent taxi clause. They simply allow for the making of regulations under the Bill which cover a range of areas, including the construction, use and maintenance of vehicles. I commend the amendments to the House. I beg to move.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, perhaps I may say how important these amendments are and how glad I am to see them. I give an example. My daughter went to the help of a man who was trying to hire a taxi. She stopped a taxi and helped him in. He told her that he had been waiting two hours for a taxi to stop. I believe that the amendments are necessary.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Gladwin of Clee moved Amendment No. 40:

After Clause 31, insert the following new clause—