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26 Jan 2005 : Column 125WH—continued

Vulnerable Passengers

3.59 pm

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): If I am a little breathless, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it is because I left myself just a few minutes to arrive here, and Portcullis House was shut because of a fire alarm.

I welcome the opportunity to introduce the debate. I also welcome the constructive role that the Minister of State, Department for Transport, has played on the issue of vulnerable passengers travelling on public transport. I hope that the Under-Secretary has been briefed by him on this issue and on the fact that it was raised in Standing Committee A, considering the Railways Bill, on 18 January. In that debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) proposed new clause 2, which he had tabled at my request to enable the matter to be debated. The new clause stated:

The new clause was debated and the Minister of State explained that he did not have the power to instruct, but it was a positive and useful debate.

I want to move the debate on and not simply go over the same ground, but it is worth putting on record the basic details of the case of a constituent of mine called Janice Norman. She was travelling on a crowded commuter train when she was 25 weeks' pregnant. She experienced what, regrettably, many pregnant women experience, which is the common British tradition of people raising their newspaper so that they cannot see the pregnant woman standing in front of them in the packed aisle. I have witnessed that practice myself, and have heard about it from my wife and many other women. My constituent was left standing in the aisle, and at some point during her journey another passenger barged past her, shoving her in the stomach so heavily that she felt it necessary at the end of her journey to see her GP. The GP did not believe that there was a problem at the time, but at 30 weeks, because my constituent could not feel the baby any longer, she went into hospital. The baby had to be delivered by Caesarean and, unfortunately, died after complications.

A port-mortem was carried out, which revealed that the baby had experienced some traumatic event at 25 weeks. The only thing that had occurred or that my constituent could recall was the incident on the train, which she had felt was very serious and necessitated a visit to her GP, so it seems as though that incident was the traumatic event. My constituent raised that with me and jointly we decided to set up what we have called a considerate commuters campaign. She has set up a website. I tabled an early-day motion in the last Session, which has been retabled in this Session, and as part of the campaign I contacted the Association of Train Operating Companies, London's Mayor and the Secretary of State for Transport.

It was as a result of that correspondence that the Minister of State responded positively and, in turn, contacted ATOC and the Rail Passengers Council. In the Secretary of State's letter, he expressed support for
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the possibility of launching a campaign to encourage people to be more considerate to other passengers and to raise awareness of priority seating. I welcome the Minister's support for that campaign.

This is an issue not only for passengers who are vulnerable because they are pregnant, but for many other vulnerable passengers. I received an e-mail from Sense, the UK's leading organisation for people who are deaf-blind or have associated disabilities. It raised similar points and, in particular, concerns about deaf-blind people, and about people with deafness who have problems with balance. As hon. Members will know, there is a link between people's ears and how well they can balance, and that is clearly an issue for people who are deaf if they cannot get seating. It is obvious that a woman is 25 weeks' pregnant, but it is quite hard to detect that someone is deaf, unless one can see their hearing aid. Many people—myself included, until I   received the e-mail—would not have thought of offering their seat to someone who is deaf because they might have problems with balance.

To complicate the picture further, someone who works for Sense highlights in the e-mail that there is a group of people for whom giving up one's seat is about the worst thing to do. If people are deaf-blind, the only way to know that their train has arrived in the appropriate station is by standing close to the door and counting the stations and signals as they pass. Moreover, if they are left with little time to get out of a crowded train, the last thing that they need is for someone to give up their seat. It is quite complex for passengers to know whether to give up their seat. However, I welcome the Minister's support in the campaign.

I want to focus on two further points. First, what are the existing provisions and what should be provided? I am grateful to Transport for London for providing information about what should be available on tube trains. There are strict requirements for new trains. Apparently, Transport for London requires either 10 per cent. of seats or eight seats—whichever is less—to be priority seats. On a tube train, that would mean that for each carriage there should be priority seats next to each of the entrances. Transport for London is about to issue much larger notices, so that people will be able to see more easily where those priority seats are. That is welcome.

As for the Association of Train Operating Companies, there is some lack of clarity as to whether priority seats should be provided on all trains or whether they are currently provided on all trains, including the slam-door stock, although those trains should not be with us for much longer. I travel regularly on the slam-door stock, and if there are signs indicating where priority seating is, I never notice them when I get on the train, and I suspect that no one else does either. The existing provisions need to be clarified.

Secondly, there is the issue of what statistics are collated. Clearly, it is difficult for statistics on incidents such as that involving Janice Norman to be collated consistently, because people do not automatically think of reporting an incident to the train driver, who is required to carry a log. Train drivers are required to keep records of any unusual incidents that are reported
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and to record them in their log. However, I suspect that virtually no one would report the sort of incident in which my constituent was involved.

What can be done to collate much more consistent statistics on those incidents? I understand that the Rail Safety and Standards Board is producing a report, which was referred to in the debate in Standing Committee A on 18 January. The report was due to be published at the end of last month, but I understand that it will now be made available at the beginning of February. That report will be key. It is examining the safety implications for passengers of "crowding"—most people would recognise it as overcrowding, but I do not want to get involved in semantics—and will make key recommendations on issues relevant to this debate. I   assume that the Minister will be familiar with the remit   of the report and may well have seen a draft of   it. I understand that it will highlight the need to have a    consistent method of recording crowding—or overcrowding—on trains, and recommend standards by which crowding on trains, platforms or stations can be measured.

If those are the report's recommendations, I hope that the Minister will support them. I wonder if she has any views on how we can ensure that incidents such as that in which my constituent was involved will be recorded, so that we can build a picture of how widespread the problem is. If no statistics are collated, or if they are collated in an ad hoc manner, it is difficult to get a feeling of how widespread the problem is and what resources should be provided to introduce and publicise priority seating and deal with overcrowding.

Turning to national standards, I received a copy of a helpful letter sent by Philip Wilkes, a senior policy adviser at the Rail Passengers Council, to the Association of Train Operating Companies about standards in the industry. I hope that the Minister will be able, if not now, perhaps in writing, to set out her views on such standards. For example, does she think that an industry standard should apply for priority seating so that there is consistency in the percentage of seats made available, information about where those seats are located, and in which circumstances people should give up seats? Does she think that there should be a consistent standard of how reservation systems work for train companies? If a vulnerable, pregnant or disabled passenger rings up and says that they need to sit close to an exit, can the reservation systems of train operating companies handle that and give them priority?

There is also the issue of enforceability, to which I hope the Minister will respond. In the debate in the Standing Committee, it was suggested that by putting forward new clause 2, we were seeking to legislate for, or perhaps against, people's behaviour. Clearly, that is not what we were seeking to do, but it would be worth clarifying the position on the enforceability of priority seating—my understanding is that there is no enforceability. As a last resort, do powers need to be given to ensure that priority seating can be enforced?

Where do we go from here? This is not an issue only for Government, but principally for the whole industry, and also for commuters, who need to be more observant and considerate. However, I hope that the Minister will
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reconfirm her support for the "triple C" campaign—considerate commuter campaign—that Janice Norman has kicked off. I want the Government to consider introducing national minimum standards for vulnerable passengers for the provision of priority seats, reservations protocols, and also upgrades to first class, which I did not mention earlier. A limited number of train companies allow pregnant season ticket holders who hold monthly or annual season tickets to be upgraded to first class, provided that they can produce the necessary documentation. I am not quite sure what that is, but a photo might be sufficient.

I would also call on the Government to back the recommendations that I believe will be in the Rail Safety   and Standards Board report. They include introducing national minimum standards for the level of    overcrowding on trains, stations and platforms; streamlining and simplifying the reporting of overcrowding incidents, so that there would be one source and we would get a real picture of how serious the problem is, and reviewing the enforceability of priority seating.

I am not trying to legislate against people's behaviour. That clearly cannot be easily achieved. The antisocial behaviour that we experience all too often on our streets is spilling over into our trains, buses and tubes. The Government must back our campaign and ensure that public transport is enjoyed by all, not just those who are able bodied, inconsiderate or aggressive.

4.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Charlotte Atkins) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on securing this important debate on the safety of vulnerable passengers on public transport. We take the issue very seriously, and I share his deep concern about the case of his constituent, Janice Norman. I should like to take this opportunity to offer my deepest sympathy to Ms Norman and her family for this terrible loss. I can fully appreciate her desire and determination, backed by her Member of Parliament, to raise awareness of the need to show consideration towards fellow passengers on public transport.

It is difficult to know exactly how one could collate information about such incidents, as they will be extremely varied. Many years ago, for instance, I was on a tube train with a youngster in a buggy, and I was worried that there was such a crush that people would fall over on top of the buggy. That situation was not life threatening, as in Janice Norman's case, but it was deeply worrying. I agree that the safety and comfort of vulnerable passengers must be ensured as far as possible, and the Government and the train operating companies already do a lot of work in this area.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) tabled a new clause to the Railways Bill seeking to require the Secretary of State to launch a campaign to   encourage passengers to be more considerate to vulnerable passengers and raise awareness of priority seating. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Transport, acknowledged that this was   a serious subject on which he had been in correspondence with the hon. Member for Caithness,
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Sutherland and Easter Ross, as well as and with the Association of Train Operating Companies and the Rail Passengers Council. My hon. Friend said:

He went on to say:

Clearly my hon. Friend could not accept the new clause, but he was sympathetic to the view expressed by the hon. Gentleman. He said that he had written to ATOC and the RPC asking them to consider the matter in more detail and asking whether they would be happy to lend their weight to a broader campaign. He added, and I would also like to add, that we would be more than happy to be party to such a campaign. He also referred to London Underground's "Love is . . . " campaign, which he said had had a modicum of success in focusing on what should be second nature—consideration of fellow passengers generally, and a high degree of consideration for people such as pregnant women, who are clearly vulnerable.

The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross stated in the Committee that some train operators, such as South West Trains, Thameslink and South Eastern Trains, also offer complimentary first class upgrades to pregnant women holding season tickets when there are no seats available in standard carriages. My hon. Friend the Minister of State undertook to ensure that train operating companies that use that practice continue to do so, and that those that do not use it consider implementing it. That also raises an issue about ladies who have not got season tickets. Often, a pregnant lady will be more vulnerable if she is not aware of the situation and the trains. If one is a season ticket holder and regularly uses the train, one is more likely to be aware of the situation.

The Rail Safety and Standards Board, the industry's own safety body, is due to publish a report at the end of the month on the first phase of research into the health and safety effects on rail passengers of crowding on trains. That will include consideration of the different groups of people at risk, such as the very young, the elderly, pregnant women and disabled people. The Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations 1998 prescribed a minimum number of seats for the use of disabled passengers. In addition, as the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington said, most train operators also designate priority seats for those who have difficulty standing, such as pregnant women and the elderly.

Our aim is a transport system that works for everyone. We have done much to achieve that aim by improving the accessibility, punctuality, reliability and safety of public transport. However, it is clear that not all groups have benefited equally from our increasingly mobile society. Understanding and recognising the
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different perceptions and needs of all passengers is fundamental to our transport policy. The Department sponsors a wide-ranging programme of research and consultation on issues such as people's mobility needs and personal security. We have issued good practice guidance to assist planners and providers to deliver services that meet people's needs, including many of the most vulnerable. I am not sure whether that includes guidance on the number or location of priority seats, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman about that. I imagine that some sort of guidance is probably given, but it is clearly guidance and not prescription.

Tom Brake : When the Minister writes, can she also set out—she may be about to do so—whether she believes that there should be a national standard for priority seating? She highlighted the fact that there were discrepancies between the operations of the different train companies.

Charlotte Atkins : I am happy to do that and examine what we have done in the past on that issue.

Improving accessibility is one of our overarching national objectives for transport. Local authorities are encouraged and empowered through the local transport planning process to work with local people, transport operators and infrastructure owners to deliver transport improvements to all sections of society. However, there is only so much that we can do; we cannot escape from the fact that comfortable and safe journeys rely on courtesy and consideration from fellow passengers. The good will of the travelling public, as well as the ability to recognise the needs of other passengers and give up seats willingly, are all crucial. It would be difficult to enforce such behaviour, especially on train services where there is no guard or inspector, but that should not deflect us from the importance of raising the profile of the issue not only in transport but throughout society.

Although the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 does not include pregnant women, it covers some vulnerable users of public transport. The Government are committed to an accessible public transport system in which disabled people have the same opportunities to travel as other members of society. Regulations are already in place that require all new rail, bus and coach vehicles to be accessible to disabled people, and policy proposals for taxis have also been announced. Such an approach will help other vulnerable users as well.

The Disability Discrimination Bill, which is going through Parliament, builds on the measures already in place, and it includes measures to amend the 1995 Act in areas such as the definition of disability, public sector duties, premises and private clubs. It includes also measures on transport. The Bill contains powers to give disabled people the same right of access to transport services that they already have in relation to other services, such as shops and banks. It also includes measures to set an end date by which all rail vehicles will have to be accessible and strengthens enforcement. I hope that it will help to create a sea change in people's attitudes. Subject to the passage of the Bill, we intend to implement those changes as soon as is practical after Royal Assent.

The Government are aware that many people—particularly women, older people and ethnic minorities—are concerned about using public transport,
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especially at night. We are committed to reducing the fear of crime wherever it occurs in the transport system. We know that no single factor makes people feel unsafe, and that only a combination of measures addressing the whole journey experience can reassure people about their personal security. The Department is encouraging the spread of good practice in crime prevention techniques on public transport through guidance to operators, local authorities, the police and other interested parties. We are constantly talking to operators. We need to stress the importance of other vulnerable users, too.

Tom Brake : In those discussions with operators, was the Minister made aware of concerns about the secure stations initiative? Those concerns are certainly shared by my local operator, Southern; it finds the surveys that it is required to carry out as part of the process so onerous in cost terms that it is not willing to put many of its stations through the process.

Charlotte Atkins : I was not aware of that, although my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Transport, may be, as he is more closely associated with the scheme, which is of course designed to improve security. What the hon. Gentleman says is a real concern. If that is the case—and we will certainly look into the matter—we clearly have to address the issue.

Transport crime does not affect only transport operators, and it cannot be tackled by them or the police alone. Local authorities, town centre managers and the   local community have an important role to play. We are talking very much about a partnership approach. Transport crime obviously impacts on the wider community and community safety initiatives, and it is important that the public play a role and look out for vulnerable passengers.
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Many people are concerned about waiting for and using public transport, especially at night. We are concerned about the protection of bus passengers and staff against assault. Many vulnerable passengers are concerned about that issue. We are aware that young people are often the perpetrators, but they are also often   the victims of bus crimes. We want to consider youngsters, too, because we want to ensure that they can use the public transport system; we all want to increase usage.

The safer travel on buses and coaches panel, STOP, looks at ways to combat assaults, antisocial behaviour and vandalism at bus stops and stations, and on vehicles and in waiting areas. The panel brings together those involved in dealing with safety and security and includes operators, local authorities, police and unions. It is charged with the important task of facilitating the exchange of ideas and spreading best practice. I hope that we can also get it to take up the other issues that have been mentioned. The introduction of accessibility regulations for buses has made it easier for those travelling with small children, luggage or heavy shopping to access bus services, and it will also make travel easier for other vulnerable users.

I hope that I have demonstrated that the Government take the issue of vulnerable passengers very seriously indeed. We have introduced regulations making all new   trains, buses and coaches accessible to disabled passengers, and have announced our proposals for taxis. However, we have to be aware that staff input and training is important, too. We are making progress, but we are not at all complacent about the importance of ensuring that public transport is comfortable and safe for everybody.

Question put and agreed to.

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