Clause 175

Equality Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:15 am on 2nd July 2009.

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Rail vehicle accessibility regulations

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office

I beg to move amendment 87, in clause 175, page 127, line 38, leave out ‘194(3)(a)’ and insert ‘194(4)(a)’.

This amendment would correct a cross-reference. The correct reference is to the power of the Secretary of State to make different provision in regulations for different purposes. The incorrect reference relates to sex discrimination in schools.

This is to change 194(3)(a) to 194(4)(a), which, I am afraid, was a drafting error.

Amendment 87 agreed to.

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

This, I hope, will not take too long. Again, it relates to our friends in the Department for Transport. Given what the Solicitor-General said about timing, the issue may well fall within that category as well. In April, the Department for Transport issued a consultation on rail services for disabled people under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Specifically, the consultation is about improving the accessibility of light rail vehicles—those used on metro, underground and tram systems and other prescribed modes of guided transport.

I ask about the matter again to see how it interacts with what is being proposed in the regulations under the clause. The Government are carrying out their consultation. There are European standards on heavy rail vehicles—what we commonly call trains—and the appropriate stations. To ensure that the new regulations do not impose a double regulatory burden, the Government are consulting  on light rail vehicles and are also considering two draft regulations. I am sure that the Solicitor-General is not terribly familiar with them, because they are a bit convoluted. The Rail Vehicle Accessibility (Non-Interoperable Rail System) Regulations 2009 is not the most catchy and snappy of titles.

The regulations are quite technical. Ministers occasionally bring out rail vehicle accessibility regulations, both general and specific, and, anorak that I am, I faithfully get them from the Vote Office and read them to ensure that they are in order. Although they always have been, it is worth checking such things.

I want to check that the provisions that the Government mention here, which are to continue to have the right technical specifications in place but to have a less onerous regulatory system, are to be introduced on or before 31 December. Will the Solicitor-General update the Committee on how the consultation is proceeding? Moreover, will she tell us whether the proposed changes are purely regulatory and whether the way the DDA has been transferred into the Bill will have any impact on them? Will anything need to be done on Report or can these regulations be added to the existing powers and then transferred across into the Bill?

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Conservative, Daventry

Briefly, and rather in the spirit of my earlier intervention, I would like the Solicitor-General to have a word with her hon. Friends about the implications in practice. This is about rail accessibility, which will vary depending on whether the train is travelling or coming to rest at a station.

Let me sketch out a particular dilemma. As we improve the provision for disabled people on rail, which we should, there is bound to be pressure on space for fully abled passengers. It requires a sensitive design to make the spaces as flexible as possible to accommodate the needs of disabled persons with wheelchairs or for other passengers if that is appropriate.

One of the by-products of that is that if capacity is cut in the carriage by making provision for wheelchair access, another carriage might be needed in order to carry the same number of passengers or to meet the same demand. I promise that I will not go into a debate about the economics of the rail system, because that would take us into very unsatisfactory territory. Another carriage would be fine, although not without cost.

A concomitant effect at very small stations—I have two in my constituency—with short platforms is that if the configuration increases from six cars to seven, some may overshoot the platform. That may not be a problem for people who are fully abled and agile, but it would be more of a difficulty for wheelchair users or those who are not nimble in getting off trains, such as older people, because they may find themselves in the wrong place on the train. I suspect that many of us have had that experience on a crowded tube train—one suddenly finds that the door at the end of the carriage will not open and one has quickly to shimmy down to the next door, which is not always easy.

All I am suggesting—I am not proposing that this should be tied down in law—is that merely saying that carriages should be wheelchair accessible is not quite the same as saying that wheelchair users should be able to access the whole length of the train for safe egress and ingress to the platform. A little conversation, at  least, with the Solicitor-General’s sister Department might be useful, because it is important in the general framework of what I know is intended to be an enabling and encouraging clause to get it as practically right as possible.

For example, when the accessibility issue is being cleared in relation to new rolling stock and if there are limited-access stations, which are better than closed stations—we had the same dilemma about hackney cab services—it may be sensible if they have to produce an operational plan to ensure that wheelchair users are notified, put in a suitable part of the train, escorted, provided with more time or whatever is appropriate. Those are largely operational matters for the Solicitor-General’s sister Department, and I leave those thoughts with her.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office

The hon. Gentleman is right: it is hard to legislate for the practical problems he foresees. In the example he sketched out, I suppose that the train would have to move up a little. We hope that in the longer term the legislation will change attitudes and make people more aware of the need always to think about the possibility of disabled people being present. He makes a valid point, as ever. He is a devoted supporter of disabled people and I praise him, not for the first time, for that commitment.

The clause deals with the fairly technical rail vehicle accessibility regulations, and I am not such an anorak as the hon. Member for Forest of Dean that I check whether they are in order, so I must take that on trust. We are consulting, as he said, and that consultation closes on Friday, so if the hon. Member for Daventry or anyone else wants to add anything, time is short.

The clause replicates in the Bill the provisions of section 46 of the DDA, and any new regulations that emerge from the consultation will be enacted under this provision. We do not believe that anything more will be needed on Report. Having probed the issue, and with the assurance that a couple of days remain to contribute to the consultation, I hope that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean is content to allow the clause to stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 175, as amended, accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.