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2 Dec 2002 : Column 723continued
Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye): The petition I present is on behalf of Mr. Fernando Bauza and 512 other residents, mainly from the town of Hastings. They are supporters of the imprisoned Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan, and many of them recently demonstrated outside my office. They claim that he was abducted in 1999 by Turkish agents and subsequently sentenced to death without a fair trail, and that the conduct of the Turkish Government has led to conflict with ethnic Kurds and contributed to the large number seeking refuge in England.
The Petitioners therefore pray that the House of Commons urge Her Majesty's Government to take such measures as lie within their power to intervene with the Turkish authorities to secure the release of Abdullah Ocalan.
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): I am pleased to have secured this debate. My aim is that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), and I look ahead to anticipate issues on public safety and traffic management and to reflect on good practice for the future use of motorised wheelchairs.
On balance, it is good that many of us live much longer and that technology enables us to stay mobile for longer, but the consequences of those developments have not yet been fully thought through, still less adequately debated in public. My basic premise is that the use of motorised wheelchairs is growing fast and will continue to grow. As a result, the scope for conflict between different groups of road users will increase, so a competent and forward-thinking Government would want to plan ahead for the problems that may arise. I am pretty sure that I support a Government who are competent and forward thinking and I am certain that my hon. Friend the Minister has those qualities in spades.
Is there much use of motorised wheelchairs at present, and why do I claim that such use will grow in future? When I raised the subject recently in the form of two written parliamentary questions, there was a surprising amount of interest from the national media, especially The Sunday Telegraph, and from Disability Now. I realise that politicians cannot always rely on media interest alone as solid evidence of public concern, so I looked elsewhere for evidence.
The HAND partnershipHelp, Advice and Advocacy for Norfolk Disabled Peopleis a not-for-profit charitable enterprise in Norwich whose activities include repairing, rebuilding and refurbishing disability vehicles, selling new ones and even hiring out vehicles. It provides services especially for people on low incomes and has been in business since 1987. That is evidence of sufficient demand to keep a business going.
More significantly, however, private companies sell such vehicles for profit. Among them is DMA Ltd.Days Medical Aidswhose marketing director, Mike Warren, has been most helpful. He told me that the market has seen a 45 per cent. increase in sales since 1997: from 22,000 vehicles in 1997 to 32,000 this year. He estimates that about 145,000 people are driving those vehicles around our towns and cities.
Stephen Sklaroff, a deputy director general of the Association of British Insurers, told me that insurance for motorised wheelchairs is already widely available. He said that insurance may be bought for third-party cover only or as part of a package, for example, to include damage and theft. He told me that more and more people are buying cover.
I hope that the Minister can see that, even with the limited resources and time that I have at my disposal as an individual Member, I have found good quality evidence that there is a growing market for the buying and hiring of motorised wheelchairs.
Why did I decide to investigate the matter? In time-honoured fashion, constituency casework first brought it to my attention, although I saw the link between the parochial and national interests immediately. The issue has national significance.
Many hon. Members will have heard grumbling about the use of motorised wheelchairswhether from the users themselves or from pedestrians and other road users. The first serious case that came to my attention in my constituency was of an elderly woman using a motorised wheelchair on a road in a village near Stafford. A car driver claimed that she had to swerve due to a sudden turn by the wheelchair user and her car struck the kerb. The car was damaged and the driver said that she was slightly injured and threatened to sue the wheelchair user for compensation. However, friends of the latter told me that she was a frail, elderly lady who had no savings and no insurance. Understandably, she was extremely upset at the prospect that she would be involved in a court case. My heart went out to that lady and I wondered whether insurance could have relieved her from worry about such a claim.
Subsequently, I held one of my regular meetings with the managers of a local housing association. Some of their stock is sheltered housing for elderly residents and they told me that they had noticed that more of the residents were using motorised wheelchairs. The managers face a range of challengesfrom conflict between residents who use motorised wheelchairs and those who are on foot to issues relating to the safe storage of the wheelchairs when they are not in use.
The chief executive of the association wrote to me afterwards to list two incidents of a user driving into another resident on foot, and several incidents of users driving into property and causing damage. Sheltered housing schemes must be expanding, and there are bound to be such incidents all over the country. Even on the safe storage of the vehicles, some thought will have to be given to design standards for future schemes. There is evidence from my own casework that warrants raising the subject.
The current legal framework for the use of motorised wheelchairs is out of date. The present main Act is the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, which still refers to all motorised vehicles as Xinvalid carriages". That is surely an outdated expression. It has the whiff of the bygone age of the workhouse, and is a bit of an insult.
The body of the current law is in the Use of Invalid Carriages on Highways Regulations 1988, which define three types of vehicles: classes 1 and 2 are the lighter ones, which have a top speed of 4 miles per hour and are restricted to use on pavements, while class 3 relates to the bigger, heavier vehicles, which have a top speed of 8 mph and may travel on roads at their top speed but on pavements at the reduced speed of 4 mph or less. The regulations prohibit users of motorised wheelchairs from using their vehicles on motorwaysI am pleased to hear thatcycle lanes or bus lanes. They permit their use on pavements, whereas road traffic law forbids the use of motorcars, motorcycles and cycles on pavements.
The exclusion of motorised wheelchairs from the definition of motor vehicles in road traffic law means that their users do not have to hold a driving licence, take a test, pay excise duty, hold third party insurance or evenperhaps alarminglypass an eye test.
The last piece of the legal framework is the DVLA code of practice for class 3 vehicles, published in June 2000. In fact, I think it has no legal backing, and a trade association sponsored it, but user groups were involved in its preparation, and at least its style makes for easy reading. However, I want the law to be reviewed. I want a code with legal status that deals with serious issues, such as users' fitness to ride, the vehicle's fitness for use and the need for third party insurance.
In his written answer to my parliamentary question on 31 Octoberat column 980Wthe Minister said that the Department is planning to review the legal framework governing both the construction and use of the vehicles in the near future. I hope that this debate will be helpful to the Department in pointing out some of the issues that will need attention, and in attracting the attention of interested groups, so that they may contribute to his review.
I want to deal briefly with four issues: traffic management; fitness of users; fitness of vehicles; and insurance. On the first issue, the growth in the use of motorised wheelchairs will cause more conflict between their users and other road users, including car drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. The Department's current approach is best described as pretty much laissez-faire, but will it be adequate in the years to come? I expect the use of motorised wheelchairs in town and city centres to keep on growing.
Shopmobility schemes such as the one that I visited in Stafford recently are doing excellent work allowing shoppers who may be elderly, infirm or disabled to be mobile around shopping centres. Such services are to be welcomed and encouraged. We can expect people to continue to use the pavements to get around shopping centres. In centres that are dispersed, and in suburban and rural areas, we might expect users to be tempted to ride faster and to use roads as well as pavements. What should we do about that? Do we continue to impose a speed limit of 4 mph on pavements? Do we allow faster vehicles to use the roads, or indeed require them to use only the roads? What of the prohibition on using bus lanes and cycle lanes? When councils are doing good work with the new local transport plans to tackle issues of public transport and road safety in a more strategic way, what should we do about these vehicles?
As we plan and create networks of bus lanes, bus priority junctions, cycle lanes and safer walking lanes, should not we also plan how motorised wheelchairs fit into the scheme of things? The vehicles are comparatively lightweight and, of course, their users are very vulnerable people, so should we consider how to offer them the same level of protection as that given to cyclists and pedestrians? Indeed, in the future, should cycle lane networks be made available to those using motorised wheelchairs? I hope that the Minister will give serious thought to those questions.
As for the fitness of users, most of the people involved will be elderly, infirm and disabled. It might be a cruel blow to develop the technology to aid their mobility, only to deny them access to it because we consider that they are unfit to operate the vehicles, so I concede that we need to tread carefully in this area.
In a similar vein, my own Stafford access group has contacted me. It is a group of disabled people who agitate for improved services and access to building and areas for disabled people, and I have met it often. It quotes with approval the practice of the local Shopmobility in using questionnaires to check the fitness of users to control the vehicles that are loaned to them. The group asked me to consider the safety of the user and the general public, given that medical conditions are a legitimate subject of public interest. I am asked whether there should be a requirement for an annual statement of fitness to operate, and I am happy to pass that comment on to the Minister.
The fitness of vehicles is particularly relevant when they are used on public roads. The code of practice is short in that regard; it encourages owners to check regularly whether the vehicles are in good condition and recommends a safety check at least once a year. Indeed, the code says that the vehicles should have lights and reflectors, that users should wear something fluorescent by day and reflective at night and that the vehicles should have an audible warning device, a horn, andlisten to thisamber flashing lights when driving on dual carriageways.
One correspondent has contacted me to say that many motorised wheelchairs do not have reflectors and that the dominant colour of the rear of them is black. He says that he feels that the vehicles should be a light colour at the back and that reflectors should always be fitted. Again, I pass on those comments to the Minister.
I come now to the thorny issue of insurance. There is no legal requirement for insurance. The code of practice states that an insurance policy is strongly advised and that suitable schemes are not too expensive and are available to cover personal safety, other people's safety and the value of the vehicle itself. I do not wish to force people with a mobility need off our roads and pavements because they cannot afford the insurance, but the insurance need not be a burden.
However, one correspondent has taken me to task, asking why wheelchair users should be picked on when cyclists pose a greater danger and saying that they should be made to take out insurance, but my first concern is for the peace of mind of the users of motorised wheelchairs. The Association of British Insurers has told me of a current case where a claim for about £75,000 has been brought against a user. The present cost of comprehensive insurance is about £40 a year.
Another correspondent has told me that, some years ago, she was knocked down by an electric wheelchair, needed hospital treatment for an ankle injury and still has difficulty climbing stairs. She is suing, and the HAND partnership would welcome a compulsory requirement for third party insurance, provided that
The purchase of a vehicle is a considerable investment. Prices vary between £1,000 and £3,000, and buyers sometimes do not have the resources to purchase a replacement for a stolen vehicle or to pay for repairs to a vehicle that is damaged. The HAND partnership has had three cases of malicious damage to clients' vehicles this year alone.
Mr. Warren of DMA, a company that sells these vehicles, says that insurance gives users confidence to be able to go out and about and enjoy their independence. He points out that many of the insurance packages also include Xbreakdown assistance". Reassuringly, he tells me that he does not believe that a requirement for compulsory insurance would affect the present growth in sales of vehicles. He expresses the belief that compulsory provision may raise awareness among the general public and riders of the potential risks, and promote caution and courtesy on the part of riders and pedestrians.
I favour compulsory insurance, but, of course, I would expect full discussion with all interested groups before the Government change the law. I would also expect further improvements in technology to bring down the capital cost of the vehicles, and perhaps packages including insurance in the sale price would bring down costs. The Association of British Insurers states that the insurance market would be ready to meet any additional demand for cover. Of course, the ABI would wish to discuss a number of practical issues with Government when considering formal proposals. I therefore urge the Minister to consult widely and consider compulsory insurance as an element in the review of construction and use that he is planning.
Lastly, I would expect the Minister to proceed on the basis of the best available evidence, and make proper use of monitoring and evaluation in any new schemes that he devises. Perhaps he will therefore be surprised to learn that I have already received the first bid for funding for relevant research: to identify and describe the apparent risks and benefits of their use; to establish the need for and nature of improved education and training; and to establish the scope for improved mobility for older people. I do not know the person who has contacted me with that bid for research funding, but if the Minister would like the details I would be pleased to pass them on to him.
What do I want to achieve from this debate? I ask the Minister to respond with details, as far as he can give them, of his plans for a review of the present legal framework for the construction and use of motorised wheelchairs. I hope that he will share my desire that people who are elderly, infirm or disabled should be helped to be as mobile as possible. I ask him to recognise and share my concern for the safety of the users of those vehicles and the safety of the public at large. Will he say something about compulsory insurance in particular?