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1.11 pm

The Minister for Railways and Roads (Mr. John Watts): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mr. Booth) on again bringing this important issue before the House. As he acknowledged, in the past 10 to 15 years significant progress has been made towards improving the accessibility of our transport systems. The achievements of recent years in that field were due in large part to a process which began back in the early 1980s, with research to give us a basic understanding of the needs of elderly and disabled people as public transport users.

We moved next to demonstration projects to evaluate improvements and to raise awareness of the possibilities before drawing up codes of practice and guidance for manufacturers and operators. Most recently, through the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, we have passed comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation which will, for the first time, provide a legal framework within which further improvements, leading to full accessibility of all public transport systems and infrastructure, may be required.

Before I outline some of the developments in public transport services--which I know will be of interest to my hon. Friend and to the House--I shall respond to some of the specific points on my hon. Friend's shopping list.

Taxis are of course a vital transport link, providing a 24-hour service all year round. We have required new models of the purpose-built taxi to be wheelchair-accessible for some time. We are also beginning to see the introduction of other vehicles that have been adapted to transport a passenger travelling in a wheelchair.

Under the terms of the Disability Discrimination Act, we will introduce a requirement for all taxis to be able to carry disabled people, including those who use wheelchairs. We will set technical performance specifications which will allow a range of vehicle types to enter the market. That will allow operators and the licensing authorities to make a choice to suit their particular operating conditions.

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Another particularly important measure that we will bring forward under the Act is a requirement that taxi drivers do not refuse to carry guide dogs or hearing dogs. That provision is not dependent upon the introduction of new vehicle standards, and we intend to consult on the relevant regulations this summer, with a view to bringing them into effect later this year.

I appreciate that those provisions will not tackle the discrimination that my hon. Friend mentioned in relation to minicabs. We cannot tackle that problem until there is legislation requiring minicabs in London to be licensed. However, we have already made it clear that, when a suitable opportunity arises, we shall bring forward legislation regarding the licensing of minicabs. Discrimination against guide dog owners may be considered in that context.

In the meantime, I endorse my hon. Friend's comments, and remind drivers and operators of both taxis and minicabs that guide dogs are highly trained animals and can be accommodated in current vehicles, whether purpose-built or saloon vehicles, without causing a nuisance. I know that many drivers are concerned that the dogs will leave the seats covered in hair. However, as my hon. Friend said, guide dogs are trained to sit not on car seats but in footwells. They are likely to be better behaved than some passengers that taxis and minicabs carry in the course of their usual business.

Ensuring that disabled people have access to mainstream public transport is a major priority for us. That does not mean that the need for accessible specialised services, such as the dial-a-ride service mentioned by my hon. Friend, will diminish. No matter how accessible mainstream services become, some people will remain reliant on door-to-door services for some or all of their mobility.

Those services also have the potential to link in to mainstream services--for example, by providing transport links to main interchanges. In short, their role will change over the coming years to provide a complementary service to accessible public transport rather than providing a substitute for accessible transport as has occurred in the past. None the less, they will continue to play a vital role.

The private car is also important to disabled people's mobility. The Department's mobility advice and vehicle information service--MAVIS--and other independent assessment centres across the country provide advice and assessment on cars and driving to disabled people, both as drivers and as passengers.

My hon. Friend mentioned the important issue of the provision of parking for those who rely on the private car for independent mobility. I note my hon. Friend's point about parking spaces for orange badge holders in central London. The Department has worked with the four authorities involved for several years. Some progress has been made, but I will ask officials to take the concerns raised by my hon. Friend in the debate to the working party's next meeting so that they may be considered.

Turning to rail services, there is no doubt that the provision for disabled people has been greatly improved over recent years, thanks to the policy commitment of the British Railways Board and the hard work of its Advisory Committee on Disability. The Railways Act 1993

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introduced a requirement for all train and station operators to have regard to the needs of disabled people. That duty is policed by the rail regulator. In advance of that legislation, all InterCity services are fully accessible, and all newer rolling stock on those services incorporates a wheelchair-accessible toilet. New rolling stock elsewhere on the system is also providing wheelchair access, and incorporates other features to make it easier to use for people with mobility difficulties. Again, those developments will provide a solid foundation on which to take forward the requirements under the Disability Discrimination Act.

Access to railway stations is also important. It is no good people being able to get on to the rolling stock if they cannot reach the platform in the first place. In main line terminals in London and other major cities, again, we have a heritage of fine old buildings that were constructed in the days when access by disabled people was not considered an issue. Throughout the country, there are about 2,500 stations, in both urban and rural areas, where access from one side of the track to the other is possible only by means of a footbridge or an underpass.

As with the vehicles themselves, we have for some years had full access to all main line and InterCity stations--and that includes not only wheelchair access but, again, a wide range of facilities and services for people with impaired vision, impaired hearing and other mobility problems--but access to many other stations throughout the network remains patchy.

At some, it has been possible to install lifts to enable people to cross the track by means of the footbridge or underpass. At others, a road bridge provides a relatively easy and adjacent route between the two. Where neither of those is possible, the solution has generally been to encourage disabled people to use the next station where access is easier, but that is not always convenient.

Under the terms of our new legislation, there will be a requirement for all stations to be made fully accessible, although that will involve a "test of reasonableness". Of course, full access would be expected to be built in where reconstruction or major refurbishment is taking place.

One of the biggest problems in accessibility of main line rail transport is the gap between the platform and the train. Over many years, British Rail has used a portable ramp that is kept on station platforms and is simply wheeled to the door of the carriage in which the disabled person is travelling. Although that works relatively well, it depends on communication between the stations of departure and arrival, and the competence of the staff involved in both cases.

Increasingly, we would expect a range of access options to be developed, including both lift and ramp systems on the train itself rather than on the station. With a growing number of unstaffed stations, solutions that are incorporated in the train are becoming more and more important. As my hon. Friend mentioned, in some parts of East Anglia, for example, a portable ramp that is carried on the train is being used successfully by the train operating staff, where no one is available on the station. Such solutions will become more widespread once the requirements of the Act come into force, but I am pleased that train operators are taking action of their own volition, before being required to do so by legislation.

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New systems offer a unique opportunity to build in full access from the design stage. The new rapid transit systems, for example, which have in the past 15 years been built in some cities, including London, have all been designed and built with full access to wheelchair users and other disabled people.

As with new vehicle systems, where it has been possible to build a completely new facility, the advantages of designing for everyone can be seen. My hon. Friend mentioned the London terminal for the channel tunnel at Waterloo as an example. From its earliest design stages, that was built with the advice and guidance of disabled people. The result is a station that is easy to use for people with a range of mobility difficulties, and, as a result, for all other passengers who may be travelling with heavy luggage or with small children, or who may be confused simply by an unfamiliar environment. Where we design in facilities that are convenient for disabled people, we bring benefits to all the travelling public. We should always bear that in mind.

Older systems such as the London underground face problems similar to those of heavy rail systems. It may simply be uneconomic to achieve full accessibility, although significant improvement may be possible.

The approach that London Underground has taken and that the Government support is, as I have described, that, wherever new stations are built or major refurbishment is undertaken, full accessibility will be incorporated, although it may be many years before the entire system can be fully accessible. Even when the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act come into effect, it will be subject--in the case of infrastructure such as the London underground--to the "test of reasonableness".

That means that there will be a financial limit on expenditure that the service provider is obliged to incur. The positive, but pragmatic, programme of improvement that London Underground has adopted over recent years is likely to be continued, so that there is a gradual rather than a dramatic pace of change.

Although the major difficulty of achieving full wheelchair access will remain with us for years, there is no excuse for failure to improve the system for the large number of people who have impaired vision and other mobility difficulties. Great emphasis has been placed, through guidance and codes of practice, based on research, on issues such as the use of colour contrast, guidance paths, audible announcements and other relatively straightforward and relatively low-cost items.

Information has a vital role to play in enabling disabled people to benefit from improved services. Good practice in that area is being established. For example, for some years London Underground has had a large print map of the underground system, and an audio cassette description of it.

Ninety per cent. of new buses have at least some of the features recommended by the Department's statutory advisers, the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, in its recommended specification. That document sets out a series of simple, low-cost improvements, such as better handholds, improved lighting levels and bellpushes that can be reached from a sitting position. Those features, which greatly assist ambulant disabled people, will be the foundation for the regulations that we will introduce under the Disability Discrimination Act.

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The regulations will also deal with wheelchair users' needs. In common with many other countries throughout Europe, we are part of the low-floor bus revolution. We already have several hundred low-floor, fully accessible buses in service, ahead of any legislative requirement. The advantages of low-floor technology for full-size single deck buses is well established. Again, the benefits to all passengers, not just those who are elderly or disabled, is well documented and self-evident. Low-floor double deck buses and minibuses will be in production soon.

Under the Disability Discrimination Act, we will not be making it a requirement for operators to use low-floor technology. We are planning to introduce a technical performance specification that will provide a choice for operators, although guaranteeing full access for disabled passengers.

Access to coaches presents particular challenges for the industry. Further research is being conducted to find a solution that is effective and that would not result in an unacceptable loss of seating.

Access to the vehicles themselves is only part of the solution to creating a fully accessible transport chain. For accessibility to be compatible throughout the country, and to ensure that it does not vary from town to town or region to region, we have established national guidelines for the pedestrian environment, including the use of tactile surfaces.

It is crucial for a person with impaired vision to know that, when he encounters a particular surface, wherever it might be, it will give him one clear message. The same philosophy has been adopted at transport terminals such as railway and bus stations. Here, too, clear guidance to operators, developed on the basis of research over a number of years, has meant that the same type of tactile surface, the same use of colour contrast and so on, can be found in facilities throughout the country.

We still have a long way to go before we can say with confidence that we have created a fully accessible transport system within a barrier-free pedestrian environment. What we have done over the past 10 years is to build up the necessary knowledge on which to create that system and that environment. We now have to apply it universally and systematically. We know that we cannot do that overnight, but we believe that we can achieve it.

The guidance and codes of practice and general raising of awareness on which we have concentrated over the past decade have provided a strong framework on which the new legislation can build. Most important, even though we are still quite a number of years away from achieving good levels of accessibility in some systems--such as the London underground--we can be sure that no more vehicles will be built or systems developed that, in their design, revert to the old practice of excluding, rather than including, disabled and elderly people.

Although there is no reason for complacency about the degree of achievement that we have under our belts, significant progress has been made, and we have firm plans, including those provided by a new legislative framework, which will ensure that progress is built on and that we move towards the goal of public transport services that are accessible to all people. In meeting disabled people's needs, we will be serving all passengers' interests.

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