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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 24th October 2016.

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Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 5:30 pm, 24th October 2016

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this important debate, and in particular I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, who I know has been through some personal difficulties—and I hope that her mother is now also on the mend. I welcomed our meeting.

It is important to underline again that, as I said on Second Reading, the Government have very much listened and worked across the House on this important issue, and that will certainly remain our stance. It is important to get this element of the legislation right to provide the level of access we all wish to see.

On Second Reading and in Committee, as several noble Lords have pointed out, powerful cases were made for using the opportunity presented by the Bill to improve the experience and access of disabled people who travel by bus. I indicated the Government’s willingness to give further consideration to the proposals and have subsequently had many useful and practical discussions with a number of noble Lords whom I thank for taking the time to meet with me.

Perhaps I may begin with Amendment 98. I entirely support the principle of requiring bus drivers to undergo mandatory disability awareness training, and I know how important this training is to many disabled people. That is why we are currently finalising our disability awareness training best practice guidance and why we will support the bus industry to implement the European mandatory training requirement to the benefit of passengers.

I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, was and remains concerned about the potential for the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union to result in the removal of those protections. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister confirmed, through the great repeal Bill the body of existing EU law will be converted into UK law when we leave. Once again, I reassure noble Lords that the provisions of Article 16 of EU Regulation 181/2011, which sets out the requirement for mandatory disability awareness training for bus drivers, will be the starting point for any future consideration of this issue.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, was concerned that something could fall through the cracks on this. During the Leader’s Statement today, a question was asked about our engagement with stakeholders. The Department for Transport has been clear on that. I cover the wider transport brief in your Lordships’ House but, as the current Aviation Minister, I have also met various stakeholders—as have other Ministers in my department—on a raft of issues. We ensure that any stakeholder can directly access Ministers as they establish their priorities for the industry across the board, and I can certainly speak from experience regarding the transport sector.

I reassure the noble Baroness that we will continue this conversation. It is right that Parliament should hold the Government to account in ensuring that the important provisions in certain directives are reflected as they are transposed into UK legislation. I assure her that a diligent approach is being taken to ensure that these factors are taken into consideration.

I have taken up the practical element of what we are discussing not just with officials in my department but with officials across government. Given that, I believe that we can look forward to the availability and quality of disability awareness training continuing to rise across the bus industry. I therefore hope—and I have put on my best smile for the noble Baroness—that, based on the reassurances I have given and the practical steps I have outlined, she will be willing not to press her amendment.

On Amendment 67, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, I am fully aware and agree with noble Lords that conveying information on the availability of services to assist disabled passengers can give passengers greater confidence in their ability to travel independently. I know too that this is an issue about which not just the noble Baroness but all of us across the Chamber feel very passionately.

As I said at the beginning of my response to the amendment, I am truly grateful to the noble Baroness and other noble Lords for meeting me to discuss this very important issue. As I explained to her, we support the principle of establishing and publishing policies with a view to protecting the interests of disabled persons when using transport services, as demonstrated by our continued use of the disabled people’s protection policies for railway operators.

I accept the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, about this issue vis-à-vis buses. However, the railway sector, with around 30 operators, is very different from the bus industry, which has over 700 companies providing services. As noble Lords have acknowledged, many of them are small or medium-sized enterprises and operate under a very different licensing regime. We must ensure that, in seeking to improve the accessibility of services—a commitment that we have made—we do not create a disproportionate bureaucracy or imperil the sustainability of marginal bus routes. There is a balance to be struck.

However, we intend to include in guidance the expectation that authorities will produce statements specifying the policies, services and facilities that have been put in place to ensure an inclusive approach to bus network design and management, and to provide disabled passengers with the necessary information to make informed choices about their travel arrangements. I will of course be happy to share a draft with all noble Lords when it is available. In the meantime, I will continue to consider how we might further protect the interests of disabled passengers.

In the spirit of the debate that we have had thus far, the noble Baroness offered me an option. I will certainly reflect on the option of Amendment 101 and come back to her. If she has time for a further meeting that would help our understanding in that regard, I would certainly welcome it. Therefore, I hope that she will consider how we might move forward together on this, because the Government and, I am sure, all noble Lords are committed to the principle. With that assurance, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able not to press her amendment.

Amendment 99 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, concerns an issue that has been raised constantly, and rightly so, during the debates on the Bill. It is of great importance not only to wheelchair users but to others who rely on the use of the wheelchair space in order to access bus services. As I have said on a number of occasions, I am a father of three children. One has just stopped using a pushchair but one is certainly still doing so. Access and appropriate space for all users of bus services are important.

Like other noble Lords, I continue to await with interest the Supreme Court’s judgment on the case of FirstGroup plc v Paulley. I am sure that the noble Baroness understands that I am constrained in what I can say until that judgment has been handed down. In any case, many factors will need to be considered properly before the Government can form a view on this issue and take any action that they might deem necessary. It will also be important to understand the needs and preferences of everyone concerned, including disabled people, bus operators and other passengers. Following the judgment, the Government will need to consider whether action is required and, if so, what form it might take. As with any policy, we will consider whether new legislation is required or whether existing secondary legislation can be used to achieve the desired outcome.

I assure the noble Baroness that at all stages we will engage with our statutory advisers on transport accessibility and the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee. Following her interest in this issue, when this judgment comes to the fore I shall be pleased to facilitate appropriate discussions to ensure that we proceed on the correct basis. In my view, it would currently be difficult for the Government to take any steps without being seen to prejudge the outcome of the Paulley case, and I firmly believe that we should await the judgment before taking further action. The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, knows that I totally sympathise with her motives in tabling this amendment, but I hope that she and other noble Lords are assured that this issue will be given due attention by the Government once the Supreme Court has ruled.

I now turn to Amendments 101, 115, 116 and 117 standing in my name and Amendment 110 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, which all relate to the subject of accessible information on board bus services.

In Committee I agreed to consider the noble Baroness’s amendment further. I have considered this issue carefully over the summer and am pleased to propose an amendment to introduce an accessible information requirement. Ultimately, this will require operators to provide accessible information, using both audible and visible media, on board local bus services in England, Scotland and Wales.

We intend that information identifying the route and direction, as well as upcoming stops and points at which a vehicle is diverted from its scheduled route, should be provided on all the services covered, and that traffic commissioners will be responsible for ensuring compliance. Further detail on our thinking is set out in the policy scoping note, which was sent to noble Lords on 6 October.

The noble Baroness proposed to amend the Public Service Vehicles Accessibility Regulations—the PSVAR—which provide physical accessibility standards for buses and coaches, and noble Lords may wonder why we have chosen not to take this approach. We believe that, by placing an information requirement on operators rather than a requirement to install specific equipment, we will ensure that the needs of passengers are met within years, not decades. I know that this will resonate with noble Lords across the Chamber. It will also mean that operators will be free to choose the method of delivery that meets the needs of passengers and suits their particular service and business. Although the industry as a whole is yet to embrace accessible information wholeheartedly, I believe that operators, not government, are best placed to select solutions that meet the requirements of their customers.

Noble Lords will appreciate that, while we are clear about the core principles that should underpin the accessible information requirement, it is important that we develop the details in full consultation with both the bus industry and disabled passengers. We therefore propose to amend the Equality Act 2010 to provide the regulation-making powers required to develop the accessible information requirement. The regulations themselves and supporting guidance will be developed in liaison with affected parties, including the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, the Passengers’ Council and the devolved Administrations. I assure the House that we will work to progress these discussions as quickly as possible and bring forward regulations as soon as we are realistically able to do so.

For almost a decade Londoners have benefited from “talking buses” across the Transport for London network. The accessible information requirement will extend this on-board information revolution across the whole of Great Britain, ensuring that every passenger can board a bus with confidence and alight at their intended location. Given that commitment, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, will be willing not to press her amendment.

This has been an important area of debate on which we have spent a great deal of time in Committee and outside the Chamber. The Government have had practical, helpful and constructive discussions with noble Lords across the board and I believe that we have moved matters forward. I have a musical accompaniment from someone’s mobile phone; normally we would have a drum roll but I have the nice tinkle of a bell behind me. More seriously, as I said, this is an important issue on which I believe the Government have moved matters forward. Based on the assurances and practical steps put forward by the Government, I hope that the noble Baroness will be minded to withdraw her amendment.