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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 Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 5:15 pm, 24th October 2016

My Lords, I support all the amendments in this group and shall speak to our Amendments 98 and 110. Before I deal with these, I thank the Minister for his welcome comments on these issues in Committee and for the subsequent proposals he has brought forward. There is no doubt that he has made a genuine attempt to improve the provision for disabled passengers. Of course, we would have liked him to go further, but we welcome the progress that has been made so far.

We particularly endorse the amendment and speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, who has sought to underpin future partnership agreements with a policy commitment to protect the interests of disabled passengers. The Minister’s response in his recent letter suggests that this policy is best set out in guidance. While we welcome this as far as it goes, we remain convinced that it would be a bolder and clearer commitment if it was in the Bill. We also have a great deal of sympathy with the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, on wheelchair access and hope that this issue can be resolved speedily once the current court case is resolved.

Amendment 98 covers disability training and would ensure that disability training is mandatory for all bus drivers and terminal staff from 1 April 2019. This amendment builds on the good practice that already exists among the better bus operators around the country, but which is not universal. Our amendment would address that inconsistency. That policy has wide support. When we debated this in Committee, and in subsequent discussions with the Minister, he stressed that in 2018 mandatory disability awareness training will come into force courtesy of an EU directive to this effect. We are not convinced by this argument. As the Brexit agenda unfolds, we have even less confidence that a directive due to come into force in 2018 will be listed as an existing obligation and written into a great repeal Bill, or whatever it is eventually called. Under the Prime Minister’s timetable, Article 50 will be tabled at the beginning of 2017, and therefore must be concluded by the beginning of 2019. We therefore believe that there is a real chance that this policy will fall through the crack and not be recognised as an existing obligation in the Brexit discussions. There is also a real chance that bus operators will fail to take the obligation seriously if it is rooted in EU legislation when we are due to leave a few months later. Therefore, why leave this to chance? If the Government believe that the disability training should be compulsory, the safest approach is to put it into our domestic legislation now, so that it can apply from 2019, as would have been the case if we had stayed in the EU. This is what our amendment seeks to achieve.

Our second amendment in this group, Amendment 110, would require all buses to have audio-visual communication systems so that everyone travelling on the service is informed of the route being taken, the name of the next stop and any delays or diversions. As the noble Lord knows, these proposals have the support of more than 30 charities as well as several bus operators. However, only 19% of buses nationally are fitted with AV, so, as we argued in Committee, implementing these requirements would make a vital difference to the lives of more than 2 million people with sight or hearing loss as well as many elderly people, all of whom rely disproportionately on public transport for their independence.

Since our debate in Committee, we have had fruitful discussions on this issue with the Minister. Since we tabled our amendment, the Government have issued a policy statement and their own amendments to the Equality Act to deliver the AV programme we are seeking. I am very grateful to the Minister for their understanding and support on this issue. It could genuinely be a transformative policy and make a huge difference to people’s lives.

The Government’s amendments to the Act specify that the changes will be brought about by regulations from the Secretary of State, following a period of consultation. I do not doubt the Government’s sincerity or their determination to introduce these regulations, but perhaps the Minister can give some clarification on these proposals. For example, the scoping paper suggests that the consultation would commence in spring 2017, with final regulations published in April 2018. Can the Minister confirm that that timetable is the case? Can he also confirm what date the Government have in mind for bus operators to comply with the new regulators and whether any vehicle exemptions would be temporary or permanent?

Clearly, a lot more work needs to be done to spell out the details of the regulations. I am sure disability groups will be pleased to work with the Government on this. I can assure the Minister that we on this side of the House will continue to do what we can to work with him and to support this initiative. On this basis, I clarify that we will not press our Amendment 110 to a vote.