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2 Dec 2002 : Column 730—continued

11.2 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on securing this important debate, and on the characteristic care and precision with which he has presented his case to the House.

Personal mobility is a vital part of daily life for all of us, and for many disabled and older people it is also the key to independent living. Losing the ability to go out and about independently can have a hugely damaging effect on an older person's quality of life. That is why the Government are wholly committed to addressing the transport and mobility needs of disabled and older people, not only in this important area but across the whole spectrum of public transport, the pedestrian environment and the private car.

We are well aware of the demographic trends to which my hon. Friend has referred, and of the need to ensure that we have the means to help older people retain that all-important independence. That is likely to include, for example, continuing to drive for as long as they can safely and comfortably do so, and offering them alternative forms of mobility when they come to the point of giving up driving. Mobility centres around the country, which the Department supports financially, have a key role to play in that. Of course, when discussing the subject of motorised wheelchairs, we are talking not only about keeping people mobile but about safety, not just for users but for other road users and pedestrians. My hon. Friend referred to some of those issues.

Before I respond to the main issue raised by my hon. Friend, it may be helpful if I briefly provide the House with some background on the legislation and the use of these vehicles. As he said, these vehicles are defined as Xinvalid carriages" in law. I agree with him that that is not a term that we would use these days—he called it an outdated term. I certainly do not think that we would describe the person who introduced the legislation—now Lord Morris of Manchester—as outdated. He continues to be a doughty fighter for disabled people. The sentiments and the measures in the legislation would certainly not be called outdated, but some of the terminology might well be.

My hon. Friend has already briefly set out the legal position, but I hope that the House will bear with me for a couple of moments as I complete the picture and clarify it for the record. The use of these vehicles on the highway is governed in legislation by section 20 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, and by the Use of Invalid Carriages on Highways Regulations 1988. No regulations govern their use off the highway. The 1988 regulations cover three classes of invalid carriage—one class for manual equipment and two covering powered vehicles. Class 1 covers manual wheelchairs. Class 2 covers those vehicles designed for use on the footway—what most of us call the pavement—that can travel up to speeds of 4 mph. Class 3 covers vehicles that can be used both on the footway, where like the class 2s they are limited to 4 mph, and on the road where they can travel up to 8 mph.

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Powered wheelchairs and scooters should not be seen as an alternative to a private car. They were introduced to provide local outdoor mobility for disabled people who might otherwise be confined to their home. Indeed, for the purposes of road traffic legislation these vehicles are defined as

This means that powered wheelchairs or scooters do not need to meet the same construction standards as a motor vehicle, nor do their users need to meet the same fitness standards as those required of a driver. However, given the speed restrictions and other limitations set out in the regulations covering their construction and use, the level of control has generally been regarded as reasonable. Of course, as many of the users may have been, or are still, driving a car, they will have experience of the highway code.

My hon. Friend referred to construction and use standards, and the 1988 regulations require that all powered wheelchairs and scooters meet standards for lighting when used on roads, and there are also requirements for brakes, a horn, mirrors and a speed indicator to be fitted. All classes of these vehicles can be used legally by only one person and that must be a disabled person, someone involved in the sale or maintenance of the vehicle or the training of the user. Powered wheelchairs and powered scooters also need to comply with the CE marking requirements under the medical devices regulations.

I have set out the general background to the construction and use of these vehicles, so I will now focus on insurance, which I know is of particular concern to my hon. Friend. He has already referred to a question that he asked recently in the House on the issue, and I have also received correspondence from other Members on the same subject. When the legislation was amended in 1988, it was considered unnecessary to introduce a requirement in law for compulsory insurance. The previous regulations—which had covered class 1 and 2 vehicles—had made no provision and there were strong representations that the status quo should be maintained. The decision was reached in consultation with disability organisations and enforcement authorities. At that time, there was very strong opposition to compulsory insurance from disability organisations and no clear consensus among the other bodies consulted.

On that basis, it was agreed that the most effective approach was to provide clear guidance to the users of these vehicles about their responsibilities as road users, including strong advice on the desirability of obtaining insurance, either through household insurance or a separate policy. As my hon. Friend said, insurance can be obtained at modest cost and, of course, can bring considerable peace of mind to the user.

The guidance—a code of practice for class 3 vehicle users—has been updated since 1988, and has been supplemented by a training pack specifically aimed at the users of the class 3 vehicles that can be used on the footway and on the carriageway.

In addition to the insurance question, we are aware that there are other issues about the use of these vehicles

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that are of concern to my hon. Friend and to members of the general public. Dropped kerbs, for example, are essential to help all wheelchair and scooter users cross from one pavement to another. Many disabled people are concerned that there are not enough of them or that they are too high. We have tried to tackle that problem in a number of ways. Our guidance to local authorities on local transport plans makes it clear that they must consider the needs of disabled people from the start to the finish of their journey. The guidance reinforces the requirement in the Transport Act 2000, which places a specific duty on local authorities that in developing their local transport plans, they must have regard to the transport needs of people who are elderly and have mobility problems.

My hon. Friend knows that we have put a substantial amount of extra new money into local transport plans. The amount has doubled in his area of Staffordshire over the past few years and I am sure that his authority is putting it to good use, not least as a result of the pressure that my hon. Friend puts on it to tackle the issue that he has raised. The guidance is called XInclusive Mobility" and will help authorities prepare to comply with the duties of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which from 2004 will require the removal of physical barriers to access.

Concerns have been expressed by some pedestrians, especially those who are frail or who have low vision, about the size and speed of the vehicles used on pavements and in shopping centres. There are also concerns expressed by motorists about the ability of some class 3 users to control their vehicle. As a result of those concerns, there have been calls for tighter controls, such as minimum eyesight requirements, compulsory training or a test of competence.

My hon. Friend asked about the review of legislation. I assure him that we take the issue seriously, but we need to recognise the balance between the needs of the users of the vehicles to maintain their vital independence and mobility and the needs of other road users. We are aware that the use of such vehicles is likely to increase and we want to ensure that the legal framework is right. For those reasons, as a competent and forward-thinking Government—my hon. Friend tossed us that bouquet and I pluck just one small flower from it for my Department—we have decided to hold a full review of the 1988 regulations, covering all aspects of the use of those vehicles on the highway. We plan to hold the review next year.

The review will include a wide-ranging consultation with all interested groups and stakeholders. It will cover the full range of issues that I have touched on and perhaps others that have not yet been identified. During the course of the review, we will be happy to receive any specific comments that my hon. Friend receives. I commend his constituents on raising the matter with him. It is proper that they should do so and we would welcome their contribution to the consultation. Once the review is complete, we will consider whether any changes are needed either to the law that governs the use of the vehicles or to the guidance that accompanies the regulations.

My hon. Friend would not expect me to prejudge the outcome of the review, but we are keenly aware of the

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balance that has to be struck between mobility and safety. As a result of misleading press coverage, which implied that we were committed to introducing compulsory insurance, we have received several representations from disability organisations arguing strongly against such a requirement. We also want to listen carefully to those opinions.

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My hon. Friend has raised important matters in his customary powerful but persuasive way. I congratulate him on raising the problem on behalf of disabled people and other users of the pavement and the road. If I have not been able to answer all his questions in the short time available, I will be happy to correspond with him.

Question put and agreed to.

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