HL Deb 11 October 2002 vol 639 cc572-8

12.25 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The House and Parliament generally have a good record in combating discrimination against disabled people. Many people have undoubtedly been fascinated by the reference made in the previous debate by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, to the way in which this legislation has come about and the many years of arduous work by the many people involved. Change, however, has been mired. Although much has been achieved, a very great deal still needs to be done. I hope that the House will support this very constructive Bill.

The Bill's object is to amend the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to ensure that the owners of working dogs are not refused the use of minicabs. The DDA was against discrimination—and an excellent Act it was, but there are many loopholes. When Section 37, for example, came into force last year, it laid down a requirement for licensed taxi drivers to carry assistance dogs—often called guide dogs. However, by failing to cover private hire vehicles, or minicabs, it left open a wide field for discrimination against many disabled people. Yet, private hire vehicles are the main form of transport in many areas.

I pay tribute to Neil Gerrard MP, who skilfully piloted this Bill through the House of Commons. He made many persuasive speeches and won widespread support in the House. He worked closely with the RNIB and the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. Both organisations were enthusiastic supporters of the Bill.

Fortunately, two-thirds of local authorities have laid down a requirement that private hire vehicles must carry a guide dog on request. Although this is of course helpful, it can be confusing. When people who need guide dogs are moving from one local authority area to another they cannot possibly know which areas have established the requirement and which have not. Many people could become stranded in a different area. Consequently, some disabled people are still at the mercy of private hire cab drivers who may use any one of the bogus excuses regularly offered. The arrangement is clearly unacceptable, but this Bill will eradicate this unfortunate anomaly.

People naturally think of guide dogs for the blind in connection only with those with visual impairment. However, the Bill refers not only to guide dogs for the blind, for those with visual impairment, but to hearing dogs for the deaf and working dogs of all kinds. These helpful animals render a great service to disabled people. By supporting this Bill, the House can ensure that any impediments to their use are swept aside. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Ashley of Stoke.)

12.28 p.m.

Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, this Bill too has my full support. The measure could not possibly have a more worthy promoter in this House than my good and noble friend Lord Ashley. As ever, he is fighting the good fight in a cause of high importance to severely disabled people. I pay tribute as well to Neil Gerrard on having used his good fortune in the private Member's ballot in another place to bring his Bill this far in the legislative process.

The Bill is not about special treatment; its purpose is simply to give disabled people the same opportunities to travel as everyone else. Private hire vehicles are an important part of the public transport system and it is entirely proper for the 6,000 or so disabled people who have assistance dogs to expect minicab companies to accept their bookings and for drivers to carry their dogs at no extra charge.

Welcome progress has been made recently—thanks to the work of Guide Dogs for the Blind—with many local authorities introducing licensing conditions that require minicabs to carry disabled people with assistance dogs at no extra cost. But until this Bill has been enacted, the current postcode lottery will persist and freedom to travel will continue to depend on where the blind person lives.

The Bill's importance is exemplified in a letter sent to me by a blind woman in Basingstoke where most minicab firms do not accept guide dogs. She queried this with the council and was told, correctly as the law stands, that they are legally entitled to refuse her access. Thus if she goes out anywhere that requires a cab home, her mother has to collect her. Her mother is elderly and chronically ill and could well do without this often stressful responsibility. Last week, reluctant to call on her mother, my correspondent had to wait three hours until past midnight for a cab which would take her home. She, like thousands of other assistance dog owners, simply wants the same freedom of movement that non-disabled people can take for granted. That is the fundamental issue this Bill addresses, but crucial to its effectiveness on the ground will be action to ensure full compliance with the new duties it imposes.

The Disability Rights Commission, which strongly supports the Bill, argues powerfully, in its review of the workings of the Disability Discrimination Act to date, that we must now move beyond reliance on enforcement by individuals to achieve full civil rights. We cannot simply leave it to individual disabled people to enforce their rights and must seek positive action on the part of service providers.

In that spirit the Department of Transport might usefully encourage local authorities to introduce a requirement that drivers and operators undergo disability awareness and equality training, as a condition of their licence, including training in the role of assistance dogs. I am delighted to have heard that this is indeed proposed by Transport for London in its current consultation on licensing of drivers in London.

I hope profoundly that this much needed measure will very soon become law without amendment and be fully enforced throughout the UK well within the next 12 months. Nothing less will do.

12.32 p.m.

Lord Carter

My Lords, this Bill has been through the other place and, if it is not held up in your Lordships' House, will become law. That will be welcome to all those who will be affected by it.

I declare an interest at the outset in that my daughter has had guide dogs for the past 16 years. I am therefore well aware of the problems that arise for owners of guide dogs. I understand that virtually all people who use assistance dogs—I believe that that is the proper term for the three groups: guide dogs for the blind, dogs for the deaf and dogs for the disabled—almost never have a problem with black cabs even to the extent of the driver assisting when the dog needs to go for a walk in the park, if your Lordships get my meaning. However, my daughter has had the experience of booking a minicab which drove away when the driver saw that she had a guide dog. Like all such dog owners she is familiar with the experience of being charged extra due to the cost of cleaning the vehicle to remove dog hairs—however, that never seems to be a problem with black cabs—and being required to sit in the front with the dog in the footwell which can be a real problem when a large dog is involved.

Owners always mention their guide dogs when ordering a cab but problems can still arise with minicabs. Maximum publicity should be given to how well trained assistance dogs are, that they are checked regularly by qualified vets and that their owners keep them well controlled at all times. Taxis, whether they be minicabs or black cabs, are an essential part of a blind person's life as although they are able to travel on public transport with their dog, they may well be travelling to an unfamiliar place or have to use a Tube station with nothing other than escalators, both of which situations can be stressful for the owner and dog. In such cases a taxi is the only answer.

I hope that I may be allowed to recount a true story with regard to escalators. I am sure that your Lordships know that assistance dogs cannot be taken on escalators due to the danger of harming the dogs' feet if anything goes wrong. Therefore, their owners either acquire expert knowledge of all the Tube stations with solid staircases or they have to find a member of staff to stop the escalator. On one occasion we could not find anyone to stop the escalator and we were in a hurry. I picked up the dog and went up the escalator with a large Labrador in my arms. I assure your Lordships that the faces of those on the down escalator were a picture.

In some parts of the country, especially in the more rural areas, taxis are the only form of transport as public transport is either non-existent or infrequent and unreliable. Such areas would be caught by the terms of the Bill. All private hire vehicles in those areas would be affected by it. In rural areas a taxi is the only answer. To be refused or made to wait a longer amount of time just because one is travelling with an assistance dog is both annoying and discriminatory.

For all the reasons I have mentioned it is imperative that assistance animals including guide dogs, dogs for the deaf and dogs for the disabled are catered for and welcomed at all times in whatever mode of transport is available. In conclusion, I say to my noble friend Lord Morris of Manchester that there is no need to amend the Bill. If it is not amended, it will certainly become law. That would be extremely welcome to all owners of assistance dogs.

12.36 p.m.

Lord Addington

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, on introducing the Bill as it deals with a practical problem in a succinct way.

I shall concentrate my remarks on blind people although the Bill covers people with other disabilities. Blind people have tremendous problems accessing buses. They cannot see them coming and do not know whether they have arrived. However, a minicab which they can order by telephone and which comes to their door, collects them and takes them specifically where they want to go as opposed to transport that must be hailed on the street is the answer to many of these people's problems. If a blind person needs a dog to guide him or her, the dog must be allowed to travel in a minicab. That is what we are talking about here. If the chain is broken, a blind person can find himself or herself stranded. When we discussed transport and disability previously we came to the conclusion that it did not matter how brilliant the chain was if a link was broken. For example, if a blind person has no way of navigating the 300 yards that lie between the train station and his destination, the ease of access to the train is immaterial.

The Bill addresses a real problem. We can only salute all those local authorities which have placed a duty on licensed minicab drivers to address this issue. However, there will always be a certain part of the country where the local authority does not consider such action necessary or has not got around to it. Consequently, there is a black hole for disabled people as regards their right to travel around the country.

It is essential that this Bill—which is modest in terms of its size and aims—is enacted. I congratulate those who took it through the Commons and I again congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, on introducing it. I hope that we shall give it a fair hearing. It is pleasant to be in the second line-up of the usual suspects. One hopes that one day we shall have passed all the disability legislation that is required so that we do not have to meet quite so frequently.

12.38 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, I am also happy to be counted as one of the usual suspects. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, on bringing forward the Bill and on explaining so clearly and in such detail its objectives. As always, the noble Lord is very persuasive.

We on these Benches support the Bill as an opportunity to address the clear shortfall in the 2001 legislation which obliged taxis but not minicabs to accept guide dogs. That omission is a great inconvenience to disabled people who generally rely more than able-bodied people on accessible taxi services. The current situation is doubly confusing because, as the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, said, 312 of the 374 local licensing authorities outside London and Northern Ireland that are empowered to oblige minicabs to take guide dogs have not done so.

The Bill will provide those with guide dogs with greater mobility by bringing about national consistency. A disabled person needing to travel by minicab should be able to do so unfettered and not be charged extra.

The Bill will increase the quality of life of disabled people: the deaf—the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, and I have a particular interest in the deaf—and the blind or visually impaired. We on these Benches wish it well in its passage through the House.

12.40 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am not sure whether I am one of the usual suspects but, whether I am or not, I am very happy to respond on behalf of the Government to this debate and to emphasise our commitment to civil rights for disabled people, of which access to transport is an absolutely key element.

Having said that, access to private hire vehicles—to minicabs—is a key element of access to transport. As noble Lords made clear in their excellent speeches, for many people with disabilities, public transport is simply not available—depending on the degree of disability—for reasons that are insuperable. Private hire vehicles are therefore far more important to people with disabilities than to others. That is not simply my own assertion; we know it to be the case. The Department for Transport commissioned a MORI report through the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee. It found that 40 per cent of people with disabilities use taxis or minicabs at least once a month, and that 53 per cent of people with visual impairment do so. It is clearly absolutely essential that this gap in the provision should be filled.

As was made clear in our debate, we have made considerable progress in terms of public transport. Under Section 37 of the Disability Discrimination Act we have made universal provision throughout the country for licensed taxis. However, that Act does not cover private hire vehicles. The licensing regime for those vehicles is different and more complicated because it depends to a considerable degree on local initiatives. It is therefore necessary for there to be primary legislation to ensure that the coverage of anti-discrimination legislation is nationwide.

I pay tribute to the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association and the RNIB, whose activities led to the spread of local initiatives and to local licensing authorities imposing suitable conditions on private hire vehicles. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Astor, rightly said, that is by no means universal. That is why we are here today. Clearly, the same provisions must relate to exemptions as those that apply to licensed taxis; likewise, the same precautions must apply. The Bill therefore provides for exemptions on medical grounds, as it does for taxis. We must recognise the position of those drivers who would be deprived of their livelihood for medical reasons if they had to carry dogs but were allergic to them. Again, the legal provisions relating to licensed taxis will apply in this regard. An argument against exemption would be if there was a fixed partition between the driver and the passenger and therefore the dog. There also has to be an appeal mechanism, which is provided for in the Bill.

My noble friend Lord Morris referred to training for private hire vehicle operators and drivers. There are no powers to require training in disability awareness for operators or drivers. The point could—and, I hope, will—be emphasised in the guidance that will be issued to stakeholders when the Bill is introduced.

In conclusion, the Government thoroughly support the Bill. We believe that it is consistent with the European Convention on Human Rights and we recognise that there will still be difficulties in terms of implementation, particularly in London, where the licensing regime has a long way to go. We are pleased that the Bill was amended in the Commons to cover Scotland and Northern Ireland as well. We now believe that it thoroughly deserves the support of this House.

We congratulate Neil Gerrard on taking the Bill through the House of Commons and the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, on introducing it into this House and on the way in which he did so. In recognition of the universal approbation of the Bill this morning, we wish it Godspeed.

12.46 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, in view of the response of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, this is a happy day for the many people who need to use private hire vehicles. I express my appreciation of the contributions of such experts as the noble Lords, Lord Morris, Lord Addington, Lord Carter and Lord Astor. They are familiar with the territory and their voices are important. I am especially grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, for the clear and eloquent way in which he expressed the Government's support. He always wins my admiration for his apparent mastery of 1,000 different briefs; today was no exception. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.