Transport Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 9th November 2000.

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Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions 5:45 pm, 9th November 2000

My Lords, I shall come to that point, if I may.

The first point is that an exclusive contract can, for the general public, provide a service which is not guaranteed in other circumstances. A contract enables the train operator to impose the condition of a proper supply of vehicles throughout the day at all times when trains arrive at the station.

An exclusive contract can also affect the question of fares. As noble Lords will know, fares are controlled by the local authority; but in many stations--Cambridge, for example--one may well be going outside the area controlled by the immediate local authority to one of the villages in Cambridgeshire. As an aspect of that contract, an operator can require control of fares which go beyond local boundaries which otherwise are not controlled. Noble Lords will be familiar with this: at times there is exploitation of that situation.

A contract can also be helpful to passengers in setting clear standards for vehicles on presentation and accessibility. That is where an exclusive contract could benefit disabled people in particular. A contract can be used to require the provision of accessible vehicles--taxis or minicabs--to serve railway stations. For example, a train operator could require that a specified proportion of vehicles should be accessible.

Several noble Lords referred to the situation at Cambridge. I understand that the train operator's contract requires that a minimum of 30 per cent of the total number of vehicles must be wheelchair accessible. It is also my understanding that that 30 per cent is a higher proportion of accessible cabs than operates in the fleet of licensed taxicabs overall in Cambridge. A survey by my department of local licensing authorities as at the end of December showed that of 147 licensed taxicabs in Cambridge only 30 were accessible to people with disability--that is a lower proportion than that required through exclusive contracts. That situation may well have improved since December. Nevertheless, that was the situation then. Therefore disabled travellers can benefit and can continue to benefit because the number of accessible vehicles can be increased over time until the figure approaches 100 per cent.

Noble Lords need to ask themselves what would happen if the amendment were passed. In the immediate situation, nothing would happen. If the amendment became law today there would be no change. That is because the amendment defines an accessible taxi as one,

"which conforms to or is exempt from taxi accessibility regulations made under section 32 of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995".

That is a perfectly sensible definition. However, many noble Lords will be aware that, so far, regulations under the DDA have not been made. The amendment would not come into effect until those regulations are made and that will not be until after we have consulted on proposals for the regulations. That will take place during next year. Until those regulations come into force with proper arrangements for transition, taxi accessibility requirements (or the lack of them) are entirely the decision of local taxi licensing authorities. The position inevitably varies from place to place.

If the amendment were passed, the number of accessible taxis will not increase. That number is a matter for local authority requirements now. When the regulations for the DDA come into force, it will be a matter for those regulations. Until that point--perhaps somewhat paradoxically given the views of the supporters of the amendment--the only exception where it could be enforced now is where there is an exclusive contract of the kind the amendment seeks to avoid setting down specific requirements for accessible vehicles made by train operators under contract. Those train and station operators can impose requirements going beyond those of the local authorities.

Nevertheless, noble Lords may say that when the DDA regulations and the amendment come into effect they will guarantee accessible vehicles at railway stations. If we do not do that, is there a similar assurance? This is a more complex issue than may have been made out in the debate. There may be a contract with a taxi company. In that case, the vehicles would of necessity conform with the DDA regulations irrespective of the amendment. As an alternative, if the train company makes an agreement with the operator of minicabs because that seems to give the best service, the question of accessible vehicles becomes very relevant. I take the point that the DDA does not apply to minicabs. However, the DDA comes in in a different respect, under this amendment and amendments made during the passage of the DDA in this House.

Section 33 of the DDA expressly provides that the Secretary of State can designate transport facilities where the operator has made a contract with a private hire vehicle operator; and the Secretary of State can make regulations applying any taxi accessibility requirements to the private hire vehicles used under the contract. So an answer is already provided after the DDA comes into effect. Where a train operator judges that it is in the best interests of the passengers to let a contract to a minicab operator, the interests of disabled passengers would need to be taken into account. Under Section 33 the Secretary of State would be able to ensure that that is what happens. He could designate the station and impose taxi accessibility requirements on those vehicles. In that way the benefit of the contract would be achieved and accessibility could be ensured.