I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
For many of the more than 14 million people in the UK with a disability, taxis and private hire vehicles are a vital means of transport and access to daily freedoms that most of us take for granted. That is particularly true for those who live in rural areas, such as the ones I represent, where public transport can be inaccessible or scarce. The willingness of taxi and private hire vehicle drivers to carry people with disabilities and to offer the extra help that makes their journeys manageable therefore matters hugely to the capacity of people with disabilities to get around at all.
This House has legislated in the past to help, with the passing of the Equality Act 2010, which provided specific protections for those using wheelchairs and those with assistance dogs, but we are probably all aware from our postbags that there is still a problem. Among the thousands of taxi and private hire vehicle drivers who do all they can to support their disabled passengers, there are still some who refuse to carry them at all and still some operators who refuse to take bookings or make available the sort of reasonable assistance that would enable people with disabilities to take advantage of their services. The Bill that I propose seeks to build on the protections in that Act and to broaden them to address the discrimination that a wider range of passengers with disabilities still face. Let me set out how it seeks to do that.
The Equality Act requires the driver of designated wheelchair-accessible taxis and private hire vehicles to carry a wheelchair-using passenger at no extra charge, but it imposes no duty on the driver of any other taxi or private hire vehicle to carry a passenger who could transfer from a wheelchair into the vehicle and whose wheelchair could be folded and stored for the journey. The Bill would create that duty, unless it would not be safe or otherwise reasonable in all the circumstances for that to happen.
When a passenger has with them mobility aids, the Bill will create a duty for drivers to carry those aids, again, unless it would be unsafe or otherwise unreasonable to do so. For passengers needing mobility assistance, the Bill will require drivers to offer such assistance as is reasonably required. For all passengers with disabilities, the Bill will create a duty for drivers to take such steps as are reasonable to ensure that they are carried in safety and reasonable comfort.
The language of the provisions is important. They ask nothing unreasonable of taxi and private hire vehicle drivers and nothing, I suspect, that many drivers are not already doing for disabled passengers up and down the country, but they set out in law the expectations that a civilised, inclusive society should have in meeting the mobility needs of its disabled citizens.
The Bill also follows the example of the Equality Act in making it clear that no additional charge may be made for complying with the duties that it provides for; neither can it be acceptable for drivers or taxi or private hire vehicle operating companies simply to refuse to carry disabled passengers at all in order to evade these duties. For that reason, the Bill extends the Equality Act offence for drivers refusing to carry passengers with an assistance dog or charging more for doing so to drivers and operators refusing to accept a person with any disability because of that disability. That offence and offences arising from a failure to comply with the duties that I described will be punishable with fines comparable with those relating to offences already in law under the Equality Act.
When a taxi or private hire vehicle has been pre-booked by a passenger with a visual impairment, learning disability or a cognitive impairment, it can sometimes be difficult for them to identify the vehicle when it arrives, so the Bill will also create a duty for drivers to take reasonable steps to help the passenger to identify and find the vehicle when the driver has been made aware that some assistance is required. Once again, no extra charge can be made.
As ever, there is a balance to be struck. The Bill is designed to improve the travelling experience of disabled passengers, but it should not do so by imposing burdens on taxi and private hire vehicle drivers they are incapable of bearing, or that it would be unreasonable to ask them to bear. That is why the new duties I have referred to describe steps it is reasonable to take and why there are defences to the offences created by the Bill, where drivers could not reasonably have known of a passenger’s disability or of the mobility assistance they might require. But where it is reasonable to require actions from drivers that would facilitate the travel of disabled passengers, we should require them.
Some drivers have disabilities or impairments themselves, and the Equality Act provides for certificates exempting such drivers from duties under that Act, but those exemption certificates are currently very widely drawn and, I would argue, unjustifiably so. Of course it is right that drivers unable to render mobility assistance should not be subject to a duty to do so, but it does not follow that such drivers should be entitled to refuse to carry disabled passengers at all where it would be reasonable for them to do that, or to charge extra for doing so. The Bill would therefore limit the scope of exemption certificates to exclude only those duties that should properly be excluded.
It is important to recognise that it is not just taxi and private hire vehicle drivers and operators whose actions have a bearing on the capacity of passengers with disabilities to access their services. Local licensing authorities have a part to play too, including by helping passengers who need a wheelchair-accessible vehicle to find one. The Equality Act provides that licensing authorities may maintain a list of wheelchair-accessible taxis and private hire vehicles, but it does not oblige them to do so. Currently, some 79% of authorities in England maintain lists of wheelchair-accessible taxis, and 70% maintain such a list in relation to private hire vehicles, meaning that potential passengers in 20% to 30% of local authority areas do not have access to that information. Even more troubling, the current duties on drivers set out in the Equality Act apply only if their vehicle has been designated by inclusion on the relevant list by the local licensing authority. So a failure to maintain a list will make driver duties unenforceable in those areas where no list exists. For those reasons, the Bill would make the maintenance of such lists obligatory.
Taken together, I believe these measures can make a real difference to the travelling experience of many people with disabilities and build on and improve the provisions of the Equality Act 2010. Of course, the Bill is necessarily limited in its scope, and there will be more to do. I am grateful for the views of and support from the organisations I have spoken to about the Bill who support people with a range of disabilities, as well as the representatives of operating companies and local authorities whom I also met. They were strongly of the view that the Bill would be reinforced by a requirement that all drivers of taxis and private hire vehicles should undertake disability awareness training. I am aware that the Government have already indicated that they intend to legislate for that to happen elsewhere, so it is not part of the Bill, but the duties set out in the Bill will be best met if an open conversation takes place between driver and passenger about how the passenger’s journey can be made most comfortable and convenient. Those conversations will be more likely if passengers know these new duties exist in law and are confident in expressing their needs, and drivers are equipped to clarify and meet those needs as well as they reasonably can.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to assure the House that the Government intend to legislate soon for that training requirement, and of course that she will be able to express her support for the Bill. I ask right hon. and hon. Members from all parties to do the same and allow the Bill to progress to Committee, in the spirit of our common cause of making journeys in taxis and private hire vehicles better, easier and fairer for those with disabilities.
I thank Jeremy Wright for introducing this important Bill, which will help to address the barriers that disabled people face in accessing taxi and private hire vehicle services. Indeed, it is a laudable aim that we on the Opposition Benches fully support.
Affordability and accessibility are key for people with disabilities, and the situation today is simply nowhere near good enough. According to research carried out by the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, the household of 60% of disabled people had no car, compared with 27% in the overall population. Fifty per cent. of respondents said that inaccessible transport had restricted their choice of jobs, with the proportion rising to 62% for wheelchair users and 86% of people with a visual impairment. That is the challenge that we as a society face, but the backdrop is more troubling still.
Over the past decade, public transport has become harder and costlier to access. The failed and fragmented privatised model means that by 2024 average fares on buses are set to climb to 60% higher than they were in 2010. Shockingly, the number of bus routes is projected to fall by more than 5,000. Elderly and disabled passenger numbers are set to drop by nearly 26%. Sadly, the trend is not limited to buses: fewer than one in five railway stations are fully accessible, with the Government having cut the funding to increase disabled accessibility by 42% between 2015 and 2019.
There is a crisis of accessibly and it paints a deeply disturbing picture. Disabled passengers already face a multitude of barriers to travel and the declining provision of public transport has done enormous damage. That is why I commend the work of my hon. Friend Charlotte Nichols in making the case for a passenger charter for disabled public transport passengers, to set out their rights and the obligations of operators.
We should be determined to make our transport as accessible as possible and reasonable adjustments need to be made as soon as possible. That is the context in which we debate the Bill, which is focused specifically on taxi and private hire services. It will address the inconsistencies in provision under the Equality Act 2010 and expand the protections currently afforded to wheelchair and assistance dog users to all disabled people, regardless of the vehicle in which they travel. We welcome those provisions.
As the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam outlined eloquently, the Bill will also create a new duty on drivers to assist disabled passengers to identify and find the vehicle they have booked, and they must not make any additional charge for doing so. The new offence to help to prevent discrimination in respect of a driver choosing to accept a passenger will be a welcome step.
The Bill is part of an important broader picture of reform in the private hire vehicle sector, which includes the drivers who were denied rights for too long. Private hire drivers and all those employed in the gig economy deserve the same rights as other workers. Like many Members, I have been contacted by multiple hard-working private hire drivers in my Slough constituency who have somehow struggled through the past two years, having been disproportionately impacted during the pandemic. It is now more important than ever that such workers earn a decent wage, are able to take holidays and earn sick pay.
We welcome the agreement between Uber and the GMB union that is making a tangible difference to the lives and living standards of Uber drivers, but there is much more work to be done. The Labour party would reform taxi and private hire services, including a review of licensing authority jurisdictions, setting national minimum standards of safety and accessibility, updating regulations to keep pace with technological change, and closing loopholes to ensure a level playing field.
Labour welcomes the ambitions of the Bill and looks forward to working constructively with the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam if it makes its way through the House today. However, every Member will know that much work still needs to be done to make public transport accessible for people with disabilities. We must do everything we can to make that a reality.
I rise to speak in support of this excellent Bill and I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend Jeremy Wright on introducing it. It addresses an issue that has come up for me numerous times over the years, both as a Member of Parliament and as a caseworker for the previous Member of Parliament, whereby people with different disabilities have found it difficult, for whatever reason, to get transport. I want to look at three key elements in the Bill: no extra charge; cannot refuse transport; and licensing to maintain a list of wheelchair accessible vehicles, which is an excellent idea.
In 2019-20, 14.1 million people reported having a disability, representing about 22% of the overall UK population. Of those, about 1.2 million people are wheelchair users. Disabled people make twice as many journeys by taxi and private hire vehicle each year compared to non-disabled people—twice as many journeys—yet many continue to face discriminatory behaviour from drivers and taxi companies, including outright refusal of service, overcharging and a failure to provide assistance to enable them to board, alight and travel in comfort.
The Equality Act 2010 provides disabled people with some protection, but it applies inconsistently and only with respect to certain disabilities. I would like to put forward that “twice as many journeys” as an opportunity. It is almost a marketing opportunity: there is a target market of people who spend, or would spend, a great deal of time and money in the market. Therefore, this is a good opportunity for taxi drivers and owners of private hire vehicles, as well as for those who are disabled.
The list of licenced wheelchair accessible vehicles is also an excellent idea. As I mentioned, I have tried to help people in the past. I did not accept that they would not be able to book, so I tried to book for them. It was quite difficult having to ring round and ring round and ring round, so a list of licenced accessible vehicles is an excellent idea. To sum up those two points, they are useful measures that need to be put in place and perhaps should have been put in place in previous years.
The only other point I would like to make is about taxi drivers who are themselves disabled. I would like confirmation that there are provisions in the Bill to ensure they do not necessarily have to get out of the car and so on. I believe I am right in saying that that is included in the Bill.
I can confirm that. My hon. Friend will have heard me talk about exemption certificates. We wish to refine them in the Bill, but there will still be, within the exemption certificates, an opportunity for drivers who are unable to render mobility assistance not to be obliged to do so.
I am obliged to my right hon. and learned Friend for that intervention. That creates a perfect circle whereby disabled are able to be helped, and taxi and private hire vehicle drivers are able to take advantage of the market while being safeguarded from any hindrance because of their situation.
I, too, would like to start by commending my right hon. and learned Friend Jeremy Wright on the Second Reading of this very important private Member’s Bill. I also put on record my thanks to all the drivers of taxi and private hire vehicles in Clwyd South—as I am sure other Members would for their constituencies—who have provided an essential service to so many people, particularly during the height of the covid pandemic. Their kindness and concern for their passengers, particularly vulnerable people, is not the subject of this Bill: rather, its purpose is to address those who do not take into account the needs of disabled people.
I took great comfort from the fact that my right hon. and learned Friend has worked in conjunction with the taxi and private hire vehicle sector in preparing this Bill, because whether we like it or not, many of those drivers have had a very difficult time during the crisis, and some have gone out of business in my area on the Welsh borders. It is a very important part of his approach that he sees his work as a partnership with them. Yes, we have to ask more of them in this respect, but we also have to bear it in mind that those drivers’ businesses can sometimes be quite fragile.
My second point has been touched on by my hon. Friend Jane Hunt. I, too, have had experience of this issue, in my case as a councillor for 11 years before becoming a Member of Parliament, and formerly as a member of the licensing committee of Powys County Council. That experience strengthens my resolve to back this Bill. The point that my hon. Friend made about how disabled people make twice as many journeys by taxi and private hire vehicles as others is absolutely crucial to this argument. As Mr Dhesi said, 60% of disabled people do not have a car in their household. He also made a very valid point about access to public transport, which is a concomitant factor in what we are talking about. That is an area that I feel very strongly about, and I have campaigned successfully to bring forward consideration of step-free access at Ruabon station in my constituency of Clwyd South, which is a critical part of enabling disabled people to travel like everybody else can. Without step-free access at the station, it is impossible for disabled people to use it, and Ruabon station is an important terminus within my constituency, so the hon. Gentleman’s point was very well made.
My final point is to welcome the common-sense approach taken by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam, given what he was saying about an open conversation between passenger and driver and about the importance of training, which—as I understand it—is not part of this Bill but is another important feature of this issue. In a sense, that goes back to what I was saying earlier: the premises and requirements of this Bill are absolutely vital, such as “no extra charge” and “you cannot refuse transport”, but I like the way in which my right hon. and learned Friend’s approach is to use common sense as much as the rule of law to ensure that this change happens.
I will finish by reiterating my comments about the covid crisis. It has been remarkable—many other Members present will have had the same experience—how often taxis and private hire vehicles have been the lifeline for so many people, not only disabled people but many other vulnerable people, during the course of the covid crisis, whether to take them to medical appointments or to any other meetings or to collect prescriptions. I therefore commend this Bill to the House, with a particular emphasis on how that sector has done so much for our community, but can do a great deal more in future.
My hon. Friend Simon Baynes has made a really important point about the importance of this sector to our community, and how much we have relied on it recently. That is why this Bill is so important, and I welcome it and congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend Jeremy Wright on introducing it. This sector is important to our communities, but of course, it is a sad reality that some taxi drivers do discriminate against disabled people, just as people do up and down society. That is not an indictment of just that small number who do; it is a reflection of a society that still has a long way to go before we can claim to have equality for everyone, regardless of who they are and the challenges they face in life. There are cases of taxi drivers refusing to pick up people with disabilities at all. Research by the University of Nottingham found that wheelchair users are often told by taxi operators that no accessible taxis are available, and that in many instances taxi companies outwardly refuse to take people in powered wheelchairs. When I was doing my research for this speech, I came across one person who told the story in an interview of how five different taxi drivers refused to take her home one night when her powered wheelchair was just about to give up and die. In 2014, the boss of one regional taxi company decided to stop transporting disabled passengers altogether on what he called “economic grounds”. If these people do get picked up, they often face higher fares than other passengers.
So this Bill is important because it is an important cog in our overall strategy to make all forms of transport more inclusive. An inclusive transport system should enable all of us to access transport wherever we like, without extra cost and with confidence, regardless of our personal characteristics. The reality is, however, that for the one in five people in the UK who are disabled, it is just not as easy as it should be. Disabled people are forced to travel less, on average, than non-disabled people simply because of the barriers they encounter. Adults with disabilities make 39% fewer trips than people without disability challenges. Research shows that 63% of these trips are made by car, not only making it more expensive for them but meaning that it has consequences for the environment and what we are trying to achieve in a transport strategy. Setting aside the moral obligation to correct a system that fails to recognise universal transport equality, there is an obvious economic reason for passing this Bill and making it part of our long-term strategy to create an inclusive transport system in this country.
The barriers to transport faced by people with disabilities prevents many from fulfilling their potential at work, which is devastating for them and a huge loss for UK plc. In 2020-21, 52.3% of disabled people were in employment, whereas the employment rate for people who are not disabled was 81.1%, down from 82.2%. The unemployment rate for disabled people was 8.4% in October to December 2020, which was up from 6.9% a year previously. Disabled people have an employment rate that is 28 percentage points lower than that of people who are not disabled, and this is referred to as the “disability employment gap”. The impact of the pandemic has exacerbated existing problems. Over the past year the proportion of disabled people in employment has gone down. The proportion of disabled people who are either unemployed or economically inactive has risen. People who are not disabled have also seen an increase in the proportion of that, but it is smaller and we need to be very aware of that. The Bill will not solve all those problems, but it will contribute to the long-term solutions that the Government are committed to, in order to make transport accessible, more affordable and readily available for people with disabilities.
The other major economic benefit of establishing greater transport inclusivity is the net gain that UK plc will create for itself by unleashing more of the UK’s spending power. As we transition away from the pandemic, we will need to make sure that the boats rise equally for everybody and that includes—more importantly than many others—disabled people in this country. I commend my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam because this is a major contribution to that effort, and I am proud and pleased to support the Bill.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend Jeremy Wright for securing this important debate. I think this debate ties in nicely with the one we had earlier about careers advice and improving the prospects of all of our population to make sure that they make the best use of their full potential.
As my good friend, my hon. Friend Julie Marson, has said, the statistics show that disabled people are twice as likely to make journeys by taxis and private hire vehicles as non-disabled people, so it is really important to ensure that disabled people do not experience discrimination when booking, taking or paying for journeys. If anything we should proactively ensure—and I think the Bill does this—that there are no barriers to entry so that those who are less able can make the best and the most of our society.
As the House will know, my constituency of South West Hertfordshire is a lovely rural constituency, and we are therefore reliant on private hire vehicles or personal transport. While we have some great transport links north to south via both train and tube, our connectivity via buses—this is one of my local campaign items—does need improving. I look forward to working with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Wendy Morton, whom I welcome to her place, in ensuring that South West Hertfordshire levels up, like the rest of the country, so that people can do the right thing by not necessarily jumping in their private car but using public transport where appropriate to help improve the environment.
On this point, I commend the excellent work of my own local cab company, John’s Taxis, which I use frequently to commute in to the Chamber. I know from first-hand experience how customer-focused it is ensuring that all of its consumers do use and are able to use its vehicles so that they can get around. Reference was made earlier to the importance of this particular sector during the global pandemic, and while most people had to isolate, just the ability to get out and about when needed was quite critical in some instances, and it is definitely worth applauding the efforts of those in this sector.
Right hon. and hon. Members will be aware that there are already legal rights in place preventing drivers from denying lifts to wheelchair users and assistance dog owners. The Bill is correct in drawing attention to the need to make sure that the same rights are extended to people with walking frames or sensory, communication and cognitive impairments, who often face being overcharged for their journeys, denied vital assistance or actually denied carriage altogether. I am aware that my Government are looking to create an inclusive transport network by 2030, and I think the Bill works hand in glove in ensuring that.
Finally, I want to make sure that we commit all drivers to accept passengers with disabilities, refrain from charging them extra and provide them with appropriate assistance. By doing this, we will create a fairer society and one that empowers everyone, regardless of their ability.
My congratulations to my right hon. and learned Friend Jeremy Wright on the Bill, of which I am hugely supportive.
Listening to my hon. Friend talking about society and playing together in a fairer society, it struck me that some of the taxi firms in my constituency of South Ribble are really only still here thanks to the Government’s support during the pandemic. We valued them and invested in them to make sure that they came out on the other side of the global health crisis, and this Bill sits within that same bucket, with us all working together to look after the most vulnerable in society. Does he agree?
I absolutely agree with what my hon. Friend has said. This House has rightly applauded those who have stepped up to the plate in the last two years during this global pandemic, and I would suggest that the majority of those in this particular sector have done so. Their ability to adapt their vehicles to ensure that consumers had the confidence to use them as methods of transport was really important. I know from my own experience how busy my local taxi company is.The fact that the drivers are on first-name terms with most of their customers shows that, in their own small way, they are part of the community that they are helping with their ability to transport people around.
I want to go back to my hon. Friend’s comment about the importance of taxi and private hire vehicles in his area, given the rurality of his constituency. This point has perhaps not been drawn out enough in the discussion. Can he say a bit more about the importance of this Bill and of taxis and private hire vehicles in the rural areas of his constituency?
I am always happy to share the joys of my constituency with the House, and I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the ability to do so.
My constituency is approximately 80% green belt. I have some very large and beautiful villages and small towns. People who live in those urban conurbations have some wonderful shops, restaurants and local community spaces to visit, but there are those who live a little further out, or who have difficulty moving—whether that is to do with walking unaided or requiring the use of buses or public hire vehicles. I do not represent a flat constituency. Personally, I live fairly high up on a small hill. It is nice and easy on the way down to the restaurants and to the high street, but I do struggle on the way back. Even at my youthful age, my old knee starts to creak occasionally. I have not yet called on my local taxi company to get me home. That has not been required yet. I can foresee that, sometime in the future, I will need to do so.
I am not blessed locally with the exhaustive public transport network that one sees in London, where there are regular buses, both at peak and off-peak times. I am not able to get a bus to my local train station and from the station to home in the evenings, but I am able to in the mornings. That is something that we need to think about as a society. It may not be commercially viable for bus companies to offer services at peak or off-peak times, but the community will adapt and use them. I know that this is a conversation that the Department of Transport and the Minister will engage with to make sure that we are incentivising people to do the right thing. I know from my personal experience of being in this place that the Government are very much motivated to create the framework so that doing the right thing brings rewards, rather being a barrier from the rhetoric to legislation.
Going back to the Bill, I applaud my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam for his common-sense approach. This place benefits from the evolution of laws. I know that this particular Bill will be an addition to what is already on the statute book. I am sure that we will revisit this particular topic to ensure that all people in society, whether able-bodied or not, are able to do what each and every other person can do. I look forward to further discussions in this debate.
I welcome this Bill, which has been brought forward by my right hon. and learned Friend Jeremy Wright.
The Bill is to make provision relating to the carrying of disabled persons by taxis and private hire vehicles and would improve access to private transport for disabled people. It will amend sections of the Equality Act 2010 relating to the carriage of disabled people by taxi and private hire vehicles. It aims to address inconsistencies within current legislation and expand the protections currently afforded to wheelchair and assistance dog users to all disabled people, regardless of the vehicle in which they travel.
The Bill will oblige taxi and PHV drivers to accept passengers with a wide range of disabilities who could reasonably travel in that vehicle and stop them from charging extra, or failing to provide reasonable assistance without good reason not to do so. Drivers must make every effort to ensure that the disabled passenger feels comfortable and safe while travelling. This will be beneficial not only to service users but to the wider industry. The Bill will ensure that the hard-working, honest and compassionate taxi and private hire vehicle drivers do not have their reputations tarnished by the small number who do not respect their role as professional drivers. That terminology was used by my hon. Friend Peter Gibson in his Taxis and Private Hire Vehicles (Safeguarding and Road Safety) Bill.
My hon. Friend has just acknowledged that the vast majority of taxi drivers and private hire operators are complying and wanting to do the best thing, and I think we would all acknowledge the fantastic support that they provided during the pandemic, for instance. However, they need to be helped to understand what extra facilities they need to provide. Does she agree that the current shortages of taxis and private hire vehicles up and down the country must not be exacerbated by the imposition of onerous requirements? The requirements must be proportionate and we must encourage more people to be disability aware.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. The Bill does not request every taxi or private hire vehicle driver to make provision for wheelchair access or other such access for disabled users. It contains measures on those people who do provide such access and are known to do so. That is the important thing. I agree with my hon. Friend: I have some excellent taxi and private hire vehicle drivers in my constituency. I want to highlight in particular all the work undertaken by Chris Vale and his team, including voluntary work, during the lockdowns to help our local communities with food parcels and so forth.
Taxis and wheelchair-accessible private hire vehicles are a vital source of transport for many mobility-impaired and other disabled people, in both urban and rural areas. Disabled people make twice as many journeys in taxis and private hire vehicles each year as non-disabled people, but, as we have heard today, many continue to report discriminatory behaviour on the part of drivers, including outright refusal of service, overcharging, and a failure to provide assistance to enable them to board and travel in reasonable comfort and safety.
Although the Equality Act 2010 provides disabled people with some protection, it applies inconsistently and only with respect to certain disabilities. Currently, in some areas—mainly larger cities—licensed taxis have to be wheelchair accessible. In London, for example, all black cabs are wheelchair accessible. Section 165 of the Equality Act obliges drivers of wheelchair taxis and private hire vehicles to carry wheelchair users, and to provide assistance without an additional charge. Drivers of taxis and designated wheelchair-accessible private hire vehicles have various legal duties; non-compliant drivers are liable to prosecution and fines of up to £1,000, and the driver’s fitness to continue to hold a licence may be reviewed.
There are legal rights for wheelchair users and owners of assistance dogs to use taxis and private hire vehicles. As others have pointed out, many drivers are extremely helpful, but we hear too many stories of disabled people being denied transport or assistance, or being charged extra for their journeys. The Government have said that they support the creation of an inclusive transport network by 2030, enabling disabled people to travel to work or at their leisure easily, confidently, and without additional cost.
Taxi drivers in Stroud sit outside my office, and they are always quick with a wave and a smile. I do not think they realise how much that makes my day.
Taxi drivers across the Stroud district are genuinely valued, needed and relied on by many people. We have to look at the many barriers that cause problems for them and their customers. Does my hon. Friend agree that, when councils think about closing roads and pedestrianising areas, they should think a little more carefully about the customers who need these taxi services? As we have heard, disabled passengers are prevented from travelling or are having to pay increased fares if councils do not think things through.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. When councils are pedestrianising roads, creating shared spaces or whatever else, we should urge them to ensure measures and safeguards are put in place for taxis and private hire vehicles to access those pedestrianised places so that disabled people are not put at risk.
An inclusive transport network is part of the Government’s broader effort to close the 30% employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people of working age. The Government’s existing inclusive transport strategy highlights the inconsistent application of the Equality Act in the duty placed on taxi and PHV drivers, and the Government’s 2021 national disability strategy commits to introducing legislation to strengthen the law on the carriage of disabled people in taxis and private hire vehicles to ensure both protection from overcharging and the provision of appropriate assistance, regardless of the service they choose to use.
This national disability strategy includes a host of initiatives to provide improvements for disabled passengers, such as an accessibility audit for all railway stations, clearer audible and visual announcements on buses, the introduction of legislation for taxis and private hire vehicles, and £1 million to improve access to seaports. I understand the Government partnered with Scope to develop a charter for disabled passengers that will help boost confidence across our road and rail networks, and to produce a practical guide that pulls together disabled passengers’ rights so they understand how they can get from A to B with the dignity and ease they deserve.
Scope research indicates that passengers often encounter a vast number of documents concerning their rights, and these documents can be unclear. Working on this feedback, the charter will bring together existing information for passengers, focusing it into one coherent and easy-to-use format. Once the disabled passengers’ charter is complete, it will be published online to create an all-inclusive facility for passenger rights and complaints procedures. I presume it will include rights in relation to taxis and private hire vehicles.
Taxis and private hire vehicles, along with public transport, should be accessible for everyone, and the charter will help disabled passengers to better understand their rights and the standards they should expect across the network, and how to hold providers to account when their travel goes wrong.
Section 167 of the Equality Act provides only that local licensing authorities may “maintain a list” of wheelchair-accessible taxis and PHVs. However, only 70% of local licensing authorities have done so. This means that drivers in areas without a list have been able to continue discriminating against disabled passengers even if their vehicle is technically wheelchair accessible. To address this, the Bill will require local licensing authorities to maintain and publish such a list, and proposed new section 167A creates new offences where a private hire vehicle operator fails or refuses to accept a booking from a disabled person because of their disability, or where they charge extra for fulfilling any of the disability-related duties specified in the Equality Act.
I thank my—[Interruption.] Oh, I have just stabbed myself with my glasses. Another winning contribution to Hansard.
My hon. Friend is making a much more erudite and technical examination of the legislation than I am capable of producing now. It occurred to me how important it is to personalise the Bill for the individuals involved. A good friend of mine, who had the unfortunate duty of teaching me how to snowboard, had an unfortunate incident and ended up on the British Paralympian sit ski team. Her freedom is her fabulous hand-driven car. If that car is in for a service, however, a refusal from a taxi firm to accommodate her and the needs of her two young children can put her in a pickle, even though she has competed for the country. My hon. Friend is being much cleverer than I am, but does she agree that although the Bill can sound dry and technical, the technical is important for valued people such as my pal?
My hon. Friend raises a valid point. I am talking about the legal technicalities, but essentially the Bill is about people who are vulnerable and in need, and about taxis and private hire vehicles being compassionate and providing them with the right services. She is right that it is about people—what is politics about if not people?
The Government are committed to transforming the transport network, including for taxis and private hire vehicles, to make it more inclusive and to bring in easier travel for disabled people. The first evaluation report of progress against their inclusive transport strategy was published recently, on
I call Chris Loder. [Hon Members: “Shaun Bailey.”] Oh, I do beg the hon. Gentleman’s pardon. Now that he has taken his mask off, I can see who he is. I was incredibly confused because the other hon. Gentleman, who I mentioned, had asked to speak but appears not to be here, whereas the hon. Gentleman who does wish to speak had not given me notice, but he does not have to. He is more than welcome to speak now.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker. That is certainly an interesting way to start my contribution. I thank my right hon. and learned Friend Jeremy Wright for bringing forward the Bill. He has used his skillset to bring real change to people’s lives.
Over the last 18 months, we have seen the regulatory landscape of taxis and private hire vehicles dealt with considerably in the framework of a private Member’s Bill. In the previous Session, we saw the fantastic work of my hon. Friend Peter Gibson to ensure that we make the regime more robust. That is important because we are unfortunately still dealing with a regulatory framework that is somewhat patchwork, and this Bill goes some way to tightening that up.
To reflect on the comments of Mr Dhesi, he is absolutely right—I do not often agree with the Opposition Front-Bench team and I will try not to make a habit of it—that the framework is a patchwork and based on localised enforcement. That is not a bad thing, but there has to be constituency. He talked about the Labour party’s focus on a more consistent regulatory model, which is definitely worth deliberation and interest. I am sure that the Minister was listening to that intently and that her ears were wide open to that.
I was struck by the contribution of my hon. Friend Jane Hunt, who gave us the figures on the employment deficit and employment gap, which really highlighted the issue. The use of private hire vehicles and taxis for employment is important and something that I have seen in my constituency. When she highlighted those figures, I was particularly struck by the 52.3% versus the, I believe, 88%. That gap clearly demonstrates the importance of what we are trying to deal with in the Bill: it is about ensuring that people who want to contribute have equal opportunities and that, in the broader landscape, people with impairments and disabilities can access exactly the same opportunities as everyone else. We should get to a point in our society where those things should not matter and people should be able to contribute in any way they wish, regardless of any physical impairments or physical differences.
Hon. Members may believe that that is somewhat of an extrapolation, but it really is not, because the freedom to travel, the freedom to move and the freedom for someone to know that they can access services is fundamental to being a human being. I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam is aware of this, but his Bill is so important because through it he is ensuring those fundamental freedoms that allow people to get on with their lives and contribute. I cannot commend him enough for that.
Let us think about the numbers that we are dealing with: 22% of our population have reported some sort of disability or impairment. We can think about the 1.2 million people with mobility issues as a figure, but that is someone’s parent, someone’s grandmother and someone’s relative. I read that 46% of people of state pension age reported a mobility issue of some form or another. Those people have not necessarily always had an issue; rather, because, unfortunately of the way that age and time progress—it hits us all at some point—they need extra support. It is therefore imperative that we ensure that everyone can continue to lead fulfilled lives.
We have heard a lot about issues in rural areas and the pressures on public transport. There is a broader debate about public transport that I will not get into today, even though I take on the comments raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Again, I agree with the hon. Member for Slough—I am agreeing with him a lot today—who articulated well the real pressures that people face. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to be in a listening mood. It is really important that we come to the table for such discussions with an open mind, because we know that the pressures are there. The fact is, we have a growing population that will continue to expand, and we also have an ever-expanding population who are reliant on these resources. We therefore need a long-term sustainable strategy—we hear those words all the time, but I do not know whether anyone has defined what that looks like—that understands and accepts that. Of course, the Bill is part of the patchwork of looking at how we reform this space to ensure that it is as accessible as it needs to be for everyone.
My hon. Friend is making a good argument. As we are talking about the number of people with disabilities who need access to transport, does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill is formalising that patchwork in a much better format, which will give them confidence that they can use this form of transport and, in fact, gradually increase the market for taxi and private hire vehicle drivers?
I thank my hon. Friend for that interesting point. I may take it on a tangent and not do it justice, but I think she is right and that the Bill presents an opportunity. My hon. Friend Sally-Ann Hart made a fantastic contribution—it was so erudite and so analytical; she is a hard act to follow.
My hon. Friend Jane Hunt is right, because the Bill helps to bring about consistency. I was shocked to read that only about 30% of licensing authorities having retained lists of available private hire vehicles that were accessible, which means that access to information is not consistent across the board. My interpretation—my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam might correct me—is that the Bill brings that together, enabling consistency in accessing and obtaining information. I think that my hon. Friend was trying to drill into partnership working. There is always an opportunity for that. It is really important for local licensing authorities and local authorities more broadly to encourage partnership working. We have seen locally, in my community, that when the local licensing authority and the industry are at loggerheads, it is not consistent. It was Conservative councillors in my area getting those people around the table with the leadership that enabled them to have a productive conversation.
That is really important, and hon. Members across the Chamber have mentioned the need for a proper and effective dialogue with the industry. We are moving so far forward in this technological age that we should be able to create a fleet that is compatible and can meet people’s needs. The Bill rightly makes contingencies for a situation where it may not be possible, for example, to carry a mobile wheelchair. That should not necessarily be an issue in future if we can get the partnership with industry and join together the different stakeholders to ensure that there is real technological development in how we move the fleet forward and in the vehicles that are being used. This is a really good example of how the private sector, innovation and the fantastic work that this country is doing on R&D can come together so that the Bill’s aim of ensuring broader access can be realised.
I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough raises a very valuable point—I appreciate that I have gone somewhat around the houses in responding to her but it would not be a Friday if someone did not do that at some point. The Minister, as one of the key stakeholders, will also need to be in the room to ensure that she can be part of those conversations on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government.
The Bill is a really important part of the fundamental framework of opportunity. In preparing for this debate, I thought about the needs of people who are close to me, such as my grandmother, who is 92 and has mobility issues. I thought about when she would need access to a private hire vehicle to do what she needs to do. Luckily, she is still quite independent but she is getting to the point where she would need to do that and this Bill would mean that she can. Her local licensing authority is good. It retains those lists and does what it needs to do. However, this is personal for me because I think of her as a beneficiary of the aims of my right hon. and learned Friend’s Bill.
I apologise for somewhat jumping around from point to point, Madam Deputy Speaker, but before I forget, I want to mention exemption certificates. As many have said, this is a really pragmatic and important approach. We have to recognise that it will not be entirely practical at the moment for private hire vehicles to be in a position where they may be able to follow through on this. We need to prepare contingencies for cases where that might not happen. We also do not want to cut off the industry. We do not want to create a friction that may lead the industry to say, “We don’t want to bother with this engagement,” so it is absolutely right to have the exemption.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for all his support. I reassure him that there is nothing wrong with agreeing with the Opposition spokesman when he is right. My hon. Friend should also be reassured that when he does that, it will probably be attributed to a completely different Member of this House and people will not have a problem. On the point that he is making, does he accept that the Bill seeks to give protections to those he is worried about in two ways? First, it requires of drivers only those things that are reasonable. Secondly, as he said, exemption certificates will still be available for those who, on medical grounds or for other reasons, are unable to carry out some of the duties that the Bill specifies.
My right hon. and learned Friend articulates that in a way that I could never dream to. He is absolutely right and I completely accept every point that he makes. That is why I wholeheartedly support the exemption regime in the Bill. When I scrutinise legislation, I am very conscious of the unintended consequences, as I am sure he is as a former Attorney General. This is actually quite an ingenious way to get around that, because there is always a risk of unintended consequences and locking people out. I can assure him that he has my wholehearted support on that part of the Bill.
I will bring my comments to a close, even though I am sure that the House would love to hear me continue to opine on the private hire sector. I wholeheartedly support the Bill, which is long overdue and is needed. It brings together so many different strands of the regulatory framework and system, in which I think we are finally starting to see movement. It mitigates unintended consequences, and ultimately it ensures that things we talk about in this House, such as opportunity, access to opportunities, and ensuring that we level the playing field, are truly there. I look forward to the Bill’s passage through its remaining stages in this House.
I wholeheartedly congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend Jeremy Wright on his success in the private Member’s Bill ballot, on bringing attention to the important issue of ending discrimination against disabled people who want to use taxis and private hire vehicles, and on addressing the barriers they face when using those services. I am pleased to confirm that the Bill has the full support of the Government. We support the proposed improvements to the Equality Act 2010 by addressing the inconsistencies in provision, and expanding protections for disabled passengers. Expanding the protections currently afforded to wheelchair and assistance dog users to all disabled people, regardless of their disability or impairment, and regardless of the type of taxi or private hire vehicle in which they travel, is an important step towards our vision of a fully inclusive transport network and building back fairer.
With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will ask my hon. and right hon. Friends to consider that more than 14 million people in the UK—about 22% of the population—report having a disability. That is according to the Scope family resources survey of 2019-20. That includes 19% of working-age adults. Since disabled people make twice as many journeys by taxi and private hire vehicle as non-disabled people, it is clear just how important such services are. By ensuring protection from overcharging, and the provision of appropriate assistance for all disabled passengers, the Bill would take us one step closer to fulfilling the Government’s ambition for disabled people to have the same access to transport as everyone else.
As my hon. and right hon. Friends may be aware, that ambition is clearly set out in our 2018 inclusive transport strategy, which supports the Government’s broader efforts to close the 30% employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people, by enabling disabled people to travel to work or for leisure easily, confidently, and at no additional cost. I also draw the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends to the Government’s landmark 2021 national disability strategy, which demonstrates the Government’s commitment to ending discrimination against disabled people through positive changes, helping to remove barriers, improving outcomes and opportunities for disabled people, as well as opening up broader economic benefits from disabled people being able to participate fully as they would wish.
I am pleased that the specific proposals in the Bill have been informed by engagement with representatives from the taxi and private hire vehicle sectors, local licensing authorities, and disabled people’s organisations. Proposed new section 164A would extend existing protections to all disabled passengers in all types of taxi and private hire vehicle. The Equality Act 2010 currently, and rightly, places duties on drivers of designated wheelchair-accessible taxis and private hire vehicles to carry a wheelchair user, and to do so at no additional charge. However, not all wheelchair users need or wish to remain in their wheelchair while travelling in a taxi or private hire vehicle. In practice, some wheelchair users can travel in a non-wheelchair accessible vehicle by storing their wheelchair or mobility aid in the back of the vehicle. Current legislation unnecessarily excludes such wheelchair users from the protections and provisions of assistance when using a non-designated taxi or private hire vehicle, and I am pleased that the Bill would correct that.
Current legislation also excludes all other disabled passengers who do not use a wheelchair from any protection when travelling in any taxi or private hire vehicle. As my hon. and right hon. Friends will be aware, a huge range of impairments, beyond mobility issues, may result in a person using a wheelchair. So it is right that the Bill would create a new duty to ensure that taxi and private hire vehicle drivers do not refuse carriage to any disabled person who could reasonably travel in their vehicle, making every effort to ensure that the disabled passenger is comfortable and safe while travelling and not charging them any extra for doing so.
Proposed new section 165A concerns identifying and finding the vehicle. I ask Members to imagine being alone, perhaps in an unfamiliar place, waiting for a taxi that they cannot see. How would they know where their pre-booked taxi was? How would they know if the rumble of the engine from the stationary car nearby is a licensed vehicle that will safely take them to their destination? That is reality for some disabled people, who end up calling operators to inquire about the whereabouts of their taxi that should have arrived some time ago, or being charged a fee for not presenting themselves when the vehicle arrived. No more. Under the Bill, disabled people will no longer be at a disadvantage when identifying a booked taxi or private hire vehicle as drivers will be required to assist all disabled passengers who need help identifying and finding their booked vehicle at no extra charge. Crucially, that will give disabled passengers the confidence that they will have the information they need to travel. As is reasonable, the driver must be made aware before the start of the journey that the passenger requires assistance to identify or find the vehicle.
Section 167 is on licensing authorities’ lists of designated wheelchair-accessible taxis and PHVs. As we have heard, local licensing authorities are currently empowered but not required to maintain a list of designated wheelchair-accessible taxis and private hire vehicles, and I am pleased that 70% in England have chosen to do so. However, that means that almost a third of local licensing authorities are yet to begin to maintain a list of wheelchair-accessible taxis and private hire vehicles, meaning that wheelchair users in those areas have not benefited from those protections against discrimination otherwise provided under the Equality Act 2010. It is only by appearing on such a list that a taxi or PHV becomes designated as a wheelchair-accessible vehicle, with drivers of those designated vehicles required to fulfil the existing duties in section 165—to accept the carriage of wheelchair users, to provide assistance and to refrain from charging extra. Thanks to the provisions in the Bill, in future the wheelchair-accessible designation will be relevant only with respect to passengers who need to travel while seated in a wheelchair. Nevertheless, it cannot be right for such access to depend on the local policies of individual licensing authorities, and the Bill will ensure that every authority must maintain such a list.
On proposed new section 167A, section 170 of the Equality Act 2010 places a duty on operators of private hire vehicle services not to refuse a booking because a passenger will be accompanied by an assistance dog, but no equivalent provision exists to protect wheelchair users or people with other disabilities. The Bill would add a new offence for private hire vehicle operators to fail or refuse to accept a booking from any disabled person because of their disability or to charge extra for fulfilling any of the disability-related duties in the relevant sections of the Equality Act.
Of course we must also consider the needs of the taxi and PHV drivers, who work so hard to provide such a vital service, and I am satisfied that the Bill provides appropriate and sufficient defences to ensure that the duties placed on drivers are reasonable. Defences are in place for cases where a driver could not reasonably have known that a passenger was disabled or required mobility assistance or could not reasonably or safely have carried the passenger, wheelchair or mobility aids. Additionally, the Bill allows medical exemptions from the provision of mobility assistance for drivers who are themselves disabled, as appropriate—a point hon. Members raised earlier. However, it is right that the Bill would remove any exemptions from the broader duties to carry disabled passengers without charging extra for any assistance the driver provides. That is an important improvement to the existing provisions.
Ultimately, good transport should work for everyone. That is the Government’s aspiration, and I am sure that all Members present today will support it. To support the sector, in 2020 the Government published the REAL disability equality training programme to improve the transport sector’s confidence and skills in delivering inclusive journeys for disabled passengers.
I once again thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam for his hard work on this important Bill, which the Government firmly believe will make a real difference to disabled people, their comfort and their safety when travelling by taxi or private hire vehicle—in some cases, perhaps even affording disabled passengers the ability and confidence to use services that they would not have previously considered. The Bill represents an important step towards the fully inclusive transport network that the Government and I—and, I am sure, all Members across the House—want to see. We support the Bill, and we wish it well in Committee and as it travels through the House. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend.
With the leave of the House, I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, including my hon. Friend the Minister, for what they have said. I thank the Opposition spokesman, Mr Dhesi for what he has said, and for his support. I look forward to working with him as the Bill proceeds.
This Bill, as many of my hon. Friends have said, is not an attack on the very many good and decent drivers who do their best to help people with disabilities; instead, it is designed to make sure that that everyone with a disability, of whatever kind, receives the fair treatment that they are entitled to expect when they seek to travel in such vehicles. I hope that the unanimous support that the Bill has received so far augurs well for its future stages, when I look forward to discussing it further.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (