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Macdonald, Calum A.
McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)
Mahon, Mrs Alice
Marek, Dr John
Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)
Moonie, Dr Lewis
Pike, Peter L.
Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Reid, Dr John
Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Column 809Wareing, Robert N.
Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)
Welsh, Michael (Doncaster N)
Wise, Mrs Audrey
Young, David (Bolton SE)
Tellers for the Noes :
Mr. Ken Eastham and
Mr. Jimmy Dunnachie.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Bill read the Third time, and passed.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Alan Howarth.]
Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South) : I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise a matter that is serious and grave not just to my constituents and the people of Edinburgh and Scotland, but to blind, visually handi-capped and disabled people the length and breadth of the country. It is the failure of the Department of Transport to approve a system that will enable blind people to have much better and freer mobility. That system has been available in Scotland for nine years, but for obstinate reasons that I shall enlarge upon later, the Minister and the Secretary of State for Transport have refused to endorse it in England and Wales. The debate is about the attempt by blind people in Britain to persuade the Secretary of State for Transport and the Minister to provide safe pelican crossings for blind and disabled pedestrians. It reveals how the Department has dragged its feet on providing any system and how the Minister has saved millions of pounds at the expense of disabled people. It is about a catalogue of misinformation and untrue statements worthy of an Orwellian novel that have been deployed by the Minister to prevent blind people from obtaining a crossing because it is not the one that he wanted them to have. Fifteen years ago investigations began into a "sweep-and- beep" pelican crossing that would solve the problem facing blind people trying to cross a busy road where the traffic is stopped in only one direction at any one time. Standard audible crossings that can be heard from both sides of a road can unwittingly lure a blind or partially sighted person out in front of a moving vehicle because he does not know which side the beep indicates is clear.
For 15 years the Department of Transport in England has been trying to find an audible crossing with a beep that can be heard from one side of the road only. Nine years ago a Scottish company invented a crossing with a tape that advised pedestrians when the traffic had been instructed to stop in one direction. That crossing was installed at the west end of one of the busiest streets in Britain--the main shopping street below Edinburgh castle on the main Glasgow road. It is just next to the headquarters of the Society for the Welfare and Teaching of the Blind in Scotland. I attended a meeting there this morning and Mr. Bob Mackie, the secretary, Mr. Jim McCafferty of the National League of the Blind and Disabled and Mr. Denis Wilson of the Royal National Institute for the Blind confirmed how much they as blind people, and everyone they represent, value the talking crossing. Provisional approval for this system was given by the Department of Transport in Scotland and some talking pelican crossings were installed. In February 1987 the Department of Transport in Scotland gave the crossing full approval and 14 of these crossings have been ordered by highways departments in Scotland. In England there has been no such progress. The Minister's Department has sunk taxpayers' money into a different system, the "sweep-and-beep" or "cone-of-sound" system which he told the Royal National Institute for the Blind in June would be available now. This morning the RNIB again checked on delivery in London
Column 811and told me that the system is not yet available and nor is any date of expected delivery known. Organisations comprising and representing blind people have been pressing the Minister for two years to approve the talking crossing for use in England and Wales. All that is needed is for the Government to say that the testing and certification procedures of the Department of Transport in Scotland, which have proved satisfactory in Scotland, should be accepted in England and Wales.
The Secretary of State for Scotland wrote dismissing the three reservations that the Department of Transport had about the talking crossing. On 15 June 1988 he wrote to me saying :
"we in Scotland do not share the reservations held by the Department of Transport and that is why we have authorised the use of speaking pelican equipment at several sites in Scotland.
The Minister put his three objections to the RNIB at a meeting on 16 June last year, but the deputation led by Mr. Tom Parker OBE countered the Minister's criticisms and reiterated the record of the talking crossing--a record of faultless and safe operation since 1980 of a system that was approved by the Department in Scotland. Following that meeting, the Minister spoke to the BBC and his account was so strange to the truth that the RNIB executive member who attended the meeting complained about it. After the meeting the Minister said :
"Generally in the discussion people recognised that ours" that is the Department's
"is probably a better way."
That is simply untrue. That was not the first time that the Minister resorted to these tactics. A catalogue of lies, mistakes, distorted information and contempt for the wishes of blind people emanating from the Minister and his Department--
The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Peter Bottomley) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I should be grateful to the hon. Gentleman if he would spell out what he believes I or the Department may have said that is factually incorrect.
"Generally in the discussion people recognised that ours is probably a better way."
There was no such recognition and if the Minister cares to check with the RNIB member who attended, Mr. Tom Parker, or with Mr. Jim McCafferty, an RNIB executive member who is also a member of the National League of the Blind and Disabled, he will see that his statement is thoroughly and completely repudiated. He made other misleading statements and I am prepared to quote them as well. I invite the Minister to reply to what I have just said.
Mr. Peter Bottomley : I think that it might be more helpful if the hon. Gentleman finished what he believes to be his catalogue and then perhaps we could get on to the positive points. If the hon. Gentleman makes accusations he needs to substantiate them.
Mr. Griffiths : I have substantiated them and I will substantiate the next item. David Tarrant of Hampshire county council asked the Department of Transport for permission to install a talking crossing to help blind pedestrians in the county. He was told that the manufacturers had not sought the Department's approval for the product. That was a lie.
Mr. Peter Bottomley : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Gentleman makes constant accusations about lies. Who said what to whom and when? Was it oral or was it on paper? That would be easy to check. The hon. Gentleman should try to avoid using the word "lie", although he may want to use that word. He should put forward issues on which he thinks we have been wrong or misleading or point to things that we have said which turned out not to be true. It would be helpful if he would do that directly.
Mr. Griffiths : I note that, Mr. Speaker. I think that I have been factually accurate ; and if the Minister cares to ask his civil servants to contact Mr. Tarrant on 0962 841841, extension 7179, he can verify what I say.
I know that the Minister realises that I feel strongly about the issue. In the eight years before I came to the House I worked closely with disabled people, and I also know from my meetings over the past year with the RNIB-- culminating in a meeting in Edinburgh this morning--how strongly that organisation feels about it, and how strongly blind people wish me to communicate to the Minister their dissatisfaction about how the matter has been handled.
The Minister's Department has sought throughout to discredit the talking crossing. On 31 January I received a letter from Mr. Hugo Sprinz, who lives in Hull. He wrote :
"I understand that you too are interested in achieving safer crossings for pedestrians. I am registered as a blind person and have the same objective in mind."
Mr. Sprinz enclosed letters from the Department of Transport. Like many blind people, he had expressed support for the talking crossing. The Department, however, wrote back on 17 November :
"Unfortunately none of these are available for use by the Local Highway Authorities at present."
The talking crossing is certainly available, and the Department knows that. It has simply refused to give the approval that is available in England and Wales.
The letter--on the Department's headed paper--went on to say : "there has also been a recent fatality at one of these talking crossings and the Scottish Office are reviewing their use of the equipment."
That is quite untrue, and I have the correspondence to back up what I have said. There have been no such fatalities--yet for the past three months organisations representing the blind have been subject to hundreds of inquiries about the safety of the talking crossing, all as a result of the misinformation emanating from the Minister's Department. To date, neither the manufacturers nor the inventor of the crossing--nor, more important, organisations representing the blind--have received an apology for the Department's actions.
Column 813The irony is that, while there has been no fatality in nine years related to the talking crossing, the Department has discovered a fault in the audible crossing which it approved and has switched 1, 000 of them off. Those concerned with the welfare of the blind will know that the crossings are often a lifeline enabling visually handicapped people to get about. Yet, although the malfunction of his approved crossing was detected on 26 September, the Minister--who professes to be so concerned about the disabled--did not inform the RNIB about this vital problem during September, October, November, December or January.
The RNIB's head office in London told me this morning that it heard about the problem only when the press alerted it on 27 January. Eventually on 3 February a fax arrived from the Minister--after 1,000 crossings had been disconnected. He must explain to the House why he failed to ensure that the RNIB and other organisations representing disabled people were not alerted at the earliest opportunity to a dangerous problem and to the shutdown of 1,000 of his Department's crossings.
The Department has said that blind people do not want the talking crossing, but in December 1987 the European Blind Union unanimously endorsed it. Item 4 of the minutes dated 4 December 1987 records : "Pedestrian crossings should give an audible signal and, where there is a double crossing involved, it is better for such a signal to be the spoken voice".
In January 1988 the RNIB decided that talking crossings were its preferred choice for staggered crossings. On 25 May 1988 the institute wrote to me. The letter said :
"May I on behalf of RNIB express our appreciation of your help and interest in what we believe to be a very important aspect of safety and mobility for blind people in the increasingly difficult traffic conditions which prevail".
The Bristol Royal Society for the Blind has endorsed the crossing ; the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association wrote that this
"excellent device could contribute to the safe travel of blind people in England and Wales as well as in Scotland."
Notwithstanding all the support that I have already quoted, I know that the Minister will claim tonight that the RNIB has now fallen in with his "sweep -and-beep" system--but for one reason only. He has told the RNIB that any attempts to obtain Ministry support for the Scottish talking pelican crossing would be futile.
Lastly, I want to read from a letter that I received this morning :
"I, along with a number of other Blind people am firmly of the belief that the Department is holding a pistol to the heads of blind People in order that they accept their system."
That letter comes from a blind man who is an executive of the RNIB. His grave charge, substantiated by the facts, is one which the Minister must answer.
Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths) on expressing his deep concern for the problems of blind and disabled people and on raising the subject of the absence of pelican crossings.
In August last year, the Leicestershire county council approved the installation of a pelican crossing on New Parks way, New Parks estate, in my constituency. It said that it did not have the money to put in the crossing. I
Column 814warned the council that there would be a tragedy. Two weeks ago, there was a tragedy, and Kelly Allen, aged eight, was killed. Had there been a pelican crossing at the spot, as had been provided for, that child would be alive today.
The county council says that it has no money to put in the 19 or so crossings that have been approved on spots at which it acknowledges there is great danger. The Leicester Mercury is pressing the council as part of its campaign, and I have been pressing it for years. Now the council says that it has almost £600,000 in the gritting fund because of the benevolent winter. It says that it cannot use that money for crossings because it is in the revenue account, and crossings can be paid for only from the capital account.
The Government have the power to stop this monumental bureaucratic wickedness. They must insist on pelican crossings being installed where they are needed to save lives. They must not preside over the unnecessary deaths of blind, disabled or elderly people, or of children such as Kelly Allen.
It is worth acknowledging that, even with the 10 per cent. of pelican crossings that might conceivably have suffered from the fault experienced in Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths) should first have thought of asking for information about the one failure from the Scottish highway authorities, rather than throwing accusations at me. Even with the 10 per cent. we are talking about--1,000 out of up to 10,000--if most of those pelican crossings have gone in since 1983, the rate of installation has been accelerating. I hope that it will accelerate still more and that all highway authorities will make funds available. If we can help in general terms we shall, and although we do not make decisions for the 107 highway authorities in England--there are more in Scotland--we hope that they will reach high priority sites and make decisions to go on providing better safety for the vulnerable road users, the pedestrians. I know that the family concerned appreciate the concern shown by their Member of Parliament, the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, South asked a question on 8 February about the number of injuries at bleeping pelican crossings in the past 12 months. I answered :
"The total of 37 casualties should be compared with total pedestrian casualties in 1987 of 57,453. Of these 2,170 occurred on pelican crossings, and a further 2,470 occurred within 50 m of such a crossing. More than 7,000 pelican crossings were in operation during 1987."--[ Official Report, 8 February 1989 ; Vol. 146, c. 705. ] People--not only the blind--may be concerned about malfunctions from listening to the debate. There are few recorded cases of pedestrian casualties at malfunctioning pelican crossings. In such cases, we do not know whether the accidents were caused by the defective crossings as we do not collect the causes of road accidents.
Over the past week or so the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South has asked a fair number of questions about these crossings. I am sorry that he has not chosen in this debate to give out much of the information that he has received. He has argued his case rather badly.