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House of Commons

Tuesday 1 February 2005

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


London Local Authorities and Transport for London Bill

Order for Second Reading read. To be read a Second time on Tuesday 8 February.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Railways (Disabled Access)

1. Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab): What assessment his Department has made of access to the rail network for disabled people. [211839]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Charlotte Atkins): More than half of all rail journeys originate at stations with step-free access. The Strategic Rail Authority will consult shortly on a strategy to make the railways more accessible. More than 3,800 rail vehicles are already fully accessible, and there will be 700 more within the next 12 months. The rail industry is working hard to make travel more accessible, but we recognise that more needs to be done.

Mr. Pike: I thank the Minister for that answer, but she will know that at many stations the layout and access for disabled people is impossible. In addition, if disabled people make a train journey and want to get off when they return home, they do not always know that they will be able to get off the train safely before it moves on to the next station. That means that many disabled people are trapped and unable to travel, because of their fears of the present transport system.

Charlotte Atkins: Stations are covered by part 3 of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which requires the operator to take reasonable steps to remove any barrier to using a train service. I appreciate the comments that the hon. Gentleman makes about the confidence of disabled people when using the train system. Certainly, the assisted persons reporting system should improve the delivery of assistance at all stages of the journey. It is important that operators take reasonable steps to ensure that if disabled users cannot
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access a train service, a taxi or some other means is provided to ensure that they can use the railway system with confidence and ease.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet) (Con): The Minister will know, however, that under the 1995 Act to which she referred, the Government introduced regulations in 1998, but 50 exemption orders have already been granted against those. Can she report progress? Can she give any end date, such as the Joint Committee of both Houses on the draft Disability Discrimination Bill gave some time ago in a report, which said that complete access would be provided for disabled people by 2017?

Charlotte Atkins: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Disability Discrimination Bill will enable the Secretary of State to set an end date by which all rail vehicles must comply with the Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations 1998. The Government's preferred date is 2020, simply because 2017, the date that he mentioned, would double the cost of implementing the measure. Of course, that does not mean that there will not be progress as we go along, as we have ensured that the parts of vehicles that are refurbished will be required to be accessible and to meet the regulations.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I have already written to Ministers about Northfield railway station, where for someone in a wheelchair who wants to travel into Birmingham, it is reasonably easy to get to the platform, but if they want to come back from Birmingham, they face no fewer than 39 steps down, including the step off the train, to get to the street. Does my hon. Friend understand that my constituents do not want Northfield's story of the 39 steps to become as famous as the other one? The SRA's comment that this will not be an early candidate for investment is simply not acceptable, and the matter needs to be considered again.

Charlotte Atkins: As I have said, the SRA will consult shortly on its accessibility strategy, which includes options for prioritising spending from the access for all fund. If, as is likely, passenger numbers are a factor in deciding which stations take priority, Northfield is not expected to be in the first tranche for investment in step-free access, but might benefit from investment in less expensive works. Central Trains would be expected to find a reasonable alternative means of transport, such as a bus or taxi, were a passenger unable to reach the platforms. We encourage the operator to seek part 3 funding for additional improvements.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): Does the Minister accept, however, that this is not just a question of access at stations? Many disabled people find travelling by train far too daunting because of poor lighting, inadequate service announcements and the lack of a handrail where one should be provided. Will she do her best to see that those matters are addressed with a sense of urgency? I understand that the Joint
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Committee on Mobility of Blind and Partially Sighted People asked many months ago for a meeting with other key parties and the Minister of State, Department for Transport. When will that meeting take place?

Charlotte Atkins: I am not sure when the meeting will take place, but I will certainly write to the right hon. Gentleman about it. The recent rail passengers transport report found that despite existing problems, a large majority of wheelchair users would encourage other users to travel by train. We take the issue of accessibility extremely seriously, and try to ensure that operators do as well. Through various franchise agreements, we are ensuring that information at stations and accessibility is a top priority for operators and station management.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): But is the Minister aware that, unfortunately, operators do not regard that as a priority? Indeed, many do not have as many staff on stations as there were under the old British Rail regulations. This needs a little bit of lateral thinking, because the problems are ongoing. On Saturday, GNER passengers were decanted on to a platform where there was no lift, no help and no way of getting to the other side of the station. It really is time the operators faced up to their responsibilities—at this moment, not in five years' time.

Charlotte Atkins: As my hon. Friend knows, it is important that operators take this seriously. Eighty per cent. of all journeys by passengers are from stations with visual customer information systems and public announcement systems, and more than half of all journeys are from stations that are step-free. However, we have to accept that a reasonableness test applies here, as we cannot expect such changes—for example, to deal with a problem concerning a bridge between platforms—to be made overnight. We are mapping the stations that are accessible and providing that information to disabled people so that we can assure them that their needs will be met.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend also look into disabled access to ticket machines on platforms, particularly those where trains arrive from north of the border? I recently had an unpleasant experience whereby a ticket machine rejected a Scottish £10 note and no assistance was available. I wonder what would have happened had I been a disabled person with no one to turn to. If the operating companies have some difficulty in accepting Scottish taxpayers' money, will they let us know?

Charlotte Atkins: I am grateful—indeed, delighted—that a Scottish Member is investing in the English railway system. Where disabled passengers cannot access the ticket office to use the train service, ticket inspectors must not impose a penalty, but instead offer to provide the correct ticket at no extra cost.
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Parking Charges

2. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey) (LD): How much money was raised by local authorities in England from vehicle parking charges in (a) 1997 and (b) the latest year for which figures are available. [211840]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Charlotte Atkins): Total parking income raised by local authorities in England in 1997–98 was approximately £638 million. The latest figures are for 2002–03, when it was just over £966 million.

Simon Hughes: That works out as an increase of roughly 50 per cent. over the period. I hope that the Minister agrees that reasonable costs and reasonable penalties are entirely acceptable as a way of managing traffic. However, is she willing to consider issuing guidance to local authorities regarding the one thing that really winds people up, is unfair and could be done away with? Should not somebody who just goes over the time limit get a lesser penalty than if they had stayed there for much longer?

Charlotte Atkins: We do provide guidance, but the hon. Gentleman will know that central Government have no involvement in parking as such. We do not control parking charges, nor do we set the appropriate levels. Local authorities are best placed to determine the types of parking facilities in their areas. They should ensure that parking is part of an integrated transport strategy to deal with congestion, but also that council tax payers are not paying for facilities that should be paid for by local car owners and drivers.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): The most zealous car parking attendants are those from private companies that local authorities have contracted to run their car parking. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should remove the anomaly in the law whereby those private operators can go to the criminal court for car parking offences, but the individual cannot go to the parking adjudicator to adjudicate on them?

Charlotte Atkins: My hon. Friend knows that it is up to a local authority to ensure that it controls such parking wardens, and that companies that operate in its area make sure that those wardens behave appropriately. No one wants drivers to be persecuted by parking attendants who extort unreasonable penalties from them.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Does the Under-Secretary accept that the question of vehicle parking charges is directly connected to the problem of the lack of facilities for car parking, for example, in Stoke-on-Trent, for commercial businesses? As she knows from her constituency, serious problems arise as a result of inadequate planning arrangements to ensure that there are proper car parking facilities for big businesses. Furthermore, does she agree that it is disgraceful that
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Norton Bridge station, which also serves her constituency, is now proposed for closure? I am writing to her about that as a matter of outrage.

Charlotte Atkins rose—

Mr. Speaker: Just the first supplementary will do.

Charlotte Atkins: The hon. Gentleman knows that the council that serves his constituency and mine has managed to develop a parking strategy whereby it has alienated people in Cheadle and Biddulph while making a loss on car parking charges. Clearly, it is up to local authorities to ensure that they plan appropriately and provide the necessary car parking facilities. That should happen within a strategy that considers congestion in town centres and ensures that local authorities do not make matters worse but try to improve them. They should ensure that car drivers have parking facilities and do not park on the streets, thereby creating a bigger problem. Such problems are happening in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and in mine.

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