Clause 176

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

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Exemptions from rail vehicle accessibility regulations

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

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 9:30 am, 2nd July 2009

I have a brief question arising from our previous debate. If the Secretary of State is asked to make provision for an exemption order, after consulting the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee and any other person whom he thinks appropriate, he has the options of making an exemption order, refusing to do so, or doing so with specific conditions and restrictions. In the past, would those conditions have  included the sort of communication that the operator had to undertake to make people aware of particular rail networks or trains that were not accessible?

A criticism that is often raised with me by constituents is that they are not only annoyed when a particular rail network is not accessible; they are most annoyed when they do not know that it is accessible or they think, or are led to believe, that it is accessible. In such circumstances they may be surprised and may end up with a lot of problems once they are on the train, including finding that they have to go to another station that they did not expect to go to. If the Secretary of State is to make exemption orders and rail vehicles are not accessible, one useful condition could be included relating to what the operator has to do in terms of proper communication, so that disabled people using that service are aware not just that it is not accessible, but what other options are available that they might use to maximise their mobility.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Conservative, Daventry

My hon. Friend’s comments on the clause have helped to satisfy me in relation to my previous point. It is terribly clear that we should not simply stamp that provision on the physical spec of the rolling stock; we should look at how the process will work in practice. We are establishing some understanding about that and, I hope, encouraging the Minister’s departmental colleagues.

I should like to return to a point that was in my mind when we were talking earlier about Hackney carriages: the basis on which orders can be made on exemptions or derogations from regulations. I remember, as a Minister, facing the dilemma of the extent to which a Secretary of State would specify the grounds for their decision to confirm, modify or refuse an exemption order. I suspect that disabled people and their organisations would want to build up a corpus of views about whether that was done reasonably and not simply as an economic cop-out. It would be interesting to know whether there will be something beyond the bald rubric that the Minister has decided on, so that people could begin to understand the rationale for a growing—one hopes it is not too fast growing—corpus of decisions for exemptions.

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

My answer to the hon. Gentleman is that I do not know whether the rationale will be put into communications following the granting of an exemption or the imposition of a condition, although it obviously should, for the reason that he mentioned. I am glad that such important practical points are being raised. Exemptions to such provisions that have been made under the DDA are usually time-limited, so it is usually about getting things in order in due course. I understand that conditions are often set on those provisions, and that would remain the case for exemptions granted under the Bill.

Committee members have made some practical points. Apparently, the extent of the availability of conditions to the Secretary of State would permit the kind of communication that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean mentioned. Such practical matters will be drawn to the attention of the appropriate Departments so that all the sensible points that have been mentioned are taken into account when exemptions are granted.

A limited range of events would cause exemption. For example, the Glasgow underground has different dimensions from other underground train services and it would be difficult for it to meet the precise regulations in relation to wheelchair accommodation, so it has an exemption for the time being, but such a provision is made available and used only in pretty exceptional situations like that, where bigger tunnels would have to be dug under the whole of Glasgow.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 176 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 177 to 179 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 20 agreed to.

Clauses 180 to 182 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 21 agreed to.

Clauses 183 and 184 ordered to stand part of the Bill.