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Bus Services Bill [HL] - Report (2nd Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 24th October 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Campbell of Surbiton Baroness Campbell of Surbiton Crossbench 5:15 pm, 24th October 2016

My Lords, in moving Amendment 67 in my name, I add my support for all the other amendments in this group, which will enhance bus accessibility for disabled people.

Amendment 67 would require bus operators,

“to establish and publish policies to protect the interests of disabled people”,

and actively help them to use bus services. Companies that failed to comply would be subject to sanctions. This is intended to mirror the system of disabled people’s protection policies—DPPPs—in the rail sector, where train operators must set up and comply with such a policy as a condition of their licence. The Minister will remember that I proposed a DPPP-like system for the bus sector at Second Reading. I argued that it would aid consistency of service across local authority boundaries, thus encouraging a more coherent transport service for older and disabled people.

The Minister kindly met me recently to discuss my proposal and has since followed up with a very helpful letter, which he hoped would address my concerns. I thank him for his efforts—they were good efforts—to ensure that disability access will be covered in government guidance for local transport authorities. That is a positive step, which I welcome. But—and it is a big but—it will not be enough to ensure that accessibility is delivered by bus companies. Guidance without statutory backing or any enforcement behind it can be ignored with impunity—and, let us face it, we have plenty of experience of public services doing just that. Guidance is fine, but we know that it can be left on the shelf and ignored. People may start with good intentions but, in reality, other priorities invariably get in the way.

The Government set great store by an integrated transport system. That means integration not only across the piece so that buses connect with trains but between bus companies. Passengers should be confident of finding similar standards of service wherever they are. If this is tackled only through local transport authorities, it will leave a gap and quality standards will inevitably be patchy. The bus operators are an absolutely pivotal part of the equation. Bus drivers are the interface with the public. Their attitude makes all the difference to disabled passengers’ experience of a ride on the bus. Bus companies need to know what they have to do and, especially, what happens if they do not do it. Enforcement of the rules must be there as a disincentive to those who would flout them. That is why local transport authorities should impose requirements on bus operators under the schemes. Amendment 67 will make that happen. It will reinforce and complement the actions that local transport authorities take under government guidance. That will create a true partnership.

I understand that the Government are concerned to avoid any increased financial burden on struggling bus companies but I really do not believe that that will happen. In any event, the Government agree that bus operators should be making their services accessible and must factor accessibility into their costs. The Bill creates a raft of new enforcement powers for traffic commissioners. They will have the opportunity to promote good standards of behaviour, such as inclusive policies, and attach conditions to licences which will be enforceable. Why not include the requirement for bus operators to publish their policies for protecting disabled people? It makes sense. Why not use traffic commissioners as the licensing and enforcement body? After all, that is their job.

If these arguments still do not persuade the Minister to change his mind on this amendment, I propose an alternative solution. The Government have tabled Amendment 101 for a regulation-making power under the Equality Act 2010 to require accessible information—notably audio-visual announcements—on buses, backed by statutory guidance. That approach could equally apply to DPPP-like policies. Bus companies would have to comply with the requirements as a condition of their licence. If they failed to do so, a traffic commissioner could impose sanctions. It would also address the Minister’s concerns about the structure of the bus sector being different from that of the rail sector. The regulations would provide flexibility.

Guidance is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough. I urge the Minister to reconsider Amendment 67. By accepting it, the Government will ensure that disabled people will enjoy the same right to travel as their able-bodied peers, and secure a truly inclusive bus network for all their citizens. Guidance simply will not do this. I urge the Minister to reconsider my amendment or to reflect on and contemplate the alternative solution that I have proposed. I beg to move.