Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): The hon. Gentleman mentions hearing dogs and he is absolutely right to do so. That issue needs to be highlighted, because when we think of guide dogs, we inevitably think of visual impairment. We need also to bring hearing impairment into the network that he describes.
Mr. Gerrard: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, but if he looks at the definition of assistance dogs in section 37 of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which applies to taxis, he will find that it covers not only guide dogs for the blind but hearing dogs and other working dogs.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): This private Member's Bill, which would oblige drivers of private hire vehicles to carry the guide dogs of disabled people without imposing an extra charge, closes a loophole in previous legislation. The omission of private hire vehicles from the 2001 legislation, which obliged taxis but not minicabs to accept guide dogs, created an anomaly and a confusing and patchy service for visually impaired peoplea point made strongly at the time by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), whose social conscience is legendary.
That confusion can only be heightened by the fact that 312 of the 374 local licensing authorities outside London and Northern Ireland that are empowered to impose such an obligation have not done so. It therefore seems clear that national legislation is needed to contend with that inconsistency, so that we can bring the majority up to the standard of the minority.
For those in the United Kingdom who are blind or visually impaired, the assistance of a guide dog can make a remarkable difference to their independence and mobilitya point made strongly by the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. I am conscious of the shortage of time, so I shall not recount a heart-rending case, described in the Western Mail, of a blind man in Cardiff who spent half an eveningfirst on the street, and then on the telephonetrying to find a taxi home. Significantly, it was an Islamic taxi driver who finally came to collect him.
The Opposition therefore support in principle this private Member's measure to improve independence and mobility for blind and visually impaired people, but several practical hurdles may have to be overcome in Committee. The obligation on drivers would be difficult to police effectively, as it would rely on the willingness of local police to bring criminal charges against minicab drivers who flout their obligations. Moreover, how strictly will the term "private hire vehicle" be defined in the new legislation? How much will the situation in London be affected by Transport for London's recent consultation on minicab regulation?
As I have said, despite those obstacles to effective implementation, the Conservative party strongly supports this measure to increase the independence and quality of life of disabled people, including those who are deaf as well as those who are blind or visually impaired, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) said. The Opposition support the Bill and seek to give it a Second Reading.
Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): When the current anomaly was first mentioned to me by one of my constituentsMr. Robin Hutchinson, who happens to be the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association's head of communicationsI was absolutely staggered that it existed. I was also staggered that cab companies and cab drivers were discriminating in this way; it is shocking and surprising that people should take such action.
The Bill is particularly welcome because it will remove a form of discrimination that many hon. Members perhaps never thought existed. That is a lesson to us all about how such discrimination can come about and how damaging it can be to people's ability to lead independent lives. I
When we consider regulation, we often ask, "Okay, there may be a problem, but is this the right way to go about it?" The Bill is clearly the right way. Its provisions can be implemented and have been shown to work in local authorities throughout the country, and they will produce no practical problems for the industry. I hope that both sides of the House will support it and that it will make rapid progress.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), who spoke from the Front Bench, was kind enough to make some complimentary remarks about me, which in itself is rare in the Chamber, so I treasure every one.
There is a tiny track record on such issues. I participated and took an interest in the legislation on minicabs, which I forced into Committee, where it was amended some 50 times because it was so bad. I tabled an amendmentit failedin an attempt to give disabled people rights of access to minicabs. The Government resisted that amendment at the time, so, to my disappointment, it did not find its way into the legislation.
Mr. Hayes: I should like my right hon. Friend to clarify what he has saidI cannot believe that I heard him correctly. Is he suggesting that the Government resisted a similar measure to that now proposed, with all-party support, to give disabled people such access and the freedom that results from it?
Mr. Forth: Well, the proposal was different at the time. I proposed that minicabs should provide access for disabled people. This measure is different, although it is related. I am only too happy to blame the Government when blame is deserved, but we are dealing with a slightly different thing on this occasion.
The Bill strikes me as being essential, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on introducing it. It is a model private Member's Billit is brief, succinct, focused and, I hope, uncontroversial. Therefore, I hope that it is something to which the House can give its support. I welcome the opportunity to discuss it briefly, and I am happy to take part in the debate.
All I want to do is flag up a point that has already been made a couple of times: the Bill will need to be considered in some detail in Committee. Although we all want a measure of this kind, and therefore give it our broad support, I hope that the Standing Committee will take a little time to consider it in detail and satisfy itself that the duties that are being imposed are reasonable and achievable. For example, the reference to the licensing authority giving exemptions, if appropriate, on medical grounds, gives me slight pause for thought. If the medical grounds are relevant for, I presume, the driver of the vehicle, may they not also, in some circumstances, be relevant to those who might use the vehicle subsequently or to other persons in the vehicle? I mention that as one possibility that we would have to consider. I do not want to dwell on it, and I am happy to give my broad support
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble): First, I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) for introducing this Bill, which seeks to end a profound injustice experienced by many disabled people who want to use minicabs. I was aware, of course of his commitment to disability rights, and he was a member of the Committee that considered the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. He also has the rare distinction of already having got a private Member's Bill on to the statute book; this will be his second.
The Government are committed to establishing comprehensive and enforceable rights for disabled people. Access to transport services is a key element in delivering on that commitment, and there is no doubt that, for many disabled people, private hire vehiclesor minicabs as they are more usually knownare a vital part of the transport mix. It is therefore deplorable that disabled people should be denied access to those services because of a reluctance on the part of drivers to accept guide dogs or other dogs trained to assist themhearing dogs and other types of dogparticularly when those dogs are essential to their independent mobility.
Hon. Members have already set out much of the legislative background to this Bill and to the problems that we have encountered. As there are still many matters that hon. Members want to discuss, I shall not go back over those issues, and I shall come directly to the Bill.
The Government support the Bill because we fully agree with its basic aim: people with guide dogs and other assistance dogs should not be barred from using minicabs because of their animals. This is an issue on which my Department receives a significant number of representations both from groups and individuals.
It may be of interest to the House if I read out a few extracts from some of the correspondence, which gives an idea of the kind of discrimination that disabled people experience, and, also, of how they feel about it. One person wrote:
The Bill is based on the existing provisions in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and it assumes that the licensing regimes for the two transport services are one and the same. That is not the case. The licensing regimes for taxis and private hire vehicles are substantially different.
In the case of taxis, the driver himself accepts a hiring. Section 37 of the 1995 Act recognises the fact that a licensed taxi driver plying for hire is compelled to accept a hiring normally within the area of the licensing authority. Therefore, if a blind person accompanied by a dog wanted to go beyond the local licensing area, the driver could refuse. The legislation simply means that the presence of a guide dog is not reasonable grounds for refusing a compellable hiring.
The problem with using the same approach for minicabs is that the method of hiring in the private hire vehicle legislation is completely different. Minicab operators, not the drivers, decide whether to accept any given hire on a commercial basis. For example, they might decide to refuse all airport jobs on a particular day, because they have made the commercial decision to deploy all available minicabs on short journeys on that day. An operator with a fleet of up-market limousines might decide not to do high street shopping jobs. The operator would not offend against private hire vehicle legislation in making such a decision.
Unfortunately, the wording of the new proposed section 37A(1) under the Bill suggests that the driver's duty to carry dogs applies only once the vehicle has been hired. As an operator is under no obligation to accept a hiring, it might never come to the attention of a driver, in which case the Bill will not achieve its aim.
The Bill therefore requires amendment if it is to achieve its aim. It will have to consider the role of the operator as well as that of the driver. We will be happy to work with my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow to ensure that such issues are covered in the Bill. With those provisoswhich I believe my hon. Friend is happy to acceptthe Government are happy to support the Bill. We look forward to seeing it on the statute book and to it giving fuller rights to disabled people.