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Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I have the honour to present a petition on behalf of the people of Minety in my constituency, whose pleasant rural village was invaded some 18 months ago by 57 Gypsy caravans over one weekend. The legal nightmare has continued ever since in a desperate attempt to remove these illegal campers.
The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons reaffirm that Planning Law applies equally to all sections of the community and provides those who apply the Law the necessary powers for prompt and effective enforcement.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), who has responsibility for community care. He is a Minister for whom I have a lot of respectbut I believe that he is not the appropriate Minister to respond to the debate. His presence confirms the muddled situation in respect of mechanised wheelchairs and the urgent need for the Government to introduce joined-up thinking on a matter of considerable and growing concern as to who should have responsibility.
While it is appropriate for the Department of Health to have an interest, the Department for Transport perhaps should be the lead Department. Indeed, that Department is engaged in a consultation exercise on this very subject.
Several constituents have contacted me to express concern as to the general safety not only of those who use mechanised wheelchairs, but of others who come into contactliterally in some instanceswith such vehicles on the pavement or elsewhere. There are also concerns over insurance, maintenance of the vehicles and the worrying fact that users are not required to demonstrate that they are competent to drive them. This is a very serious issue, and there have been numerous accidents, including fatalities.
I am most grateful to Mr. Richard Boyd, chief executive of the Essex Disabled People's Association, who has given me considerable background information for the case I am putting this evening. Mr. Boyd is a former chairman of the Essex police authority and a former council leader. He is also a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport. His record of public service, coupled with his current post, makes him a formidable champion for those with disabilitiesthat involves the need to improve matters in all respects with regard to mechanised wheelchairs and their users.
I would also like to place on record my appreciation of Colchester Shopmobility, which provides a wonderful service for those with disabilities who wish to come to the town centre and who use a range of mechanised wheelchairs. Colchester Shopmobility is an example of best practice that many other towns would do well to emulate. It is regrettable, therefore, that the borough council not only cut the funding in recent years, but has now drawn up plans to demolish Shopmobility's headquarters without as yet having found an equally suitable location and facility.
I have referred to the Department for Transport consultation, which ran from 10 November to 14 January. An outcome is awaited. It is regrettable, however, that the consultation was so short and that it embraced Christmas and new year, which made it very difficult for the voluntary sector to give this important matter the detailed consideration it deserves.
Pavement and road scooters are, and have been, a boon for elderly, frail, chronically sick and disabled people. The use of these vehicles has grown rapidly,
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especially in the past 10 years. Clearly, their purpose is to empower individuals and to open up the mainstream physical environment. Accordingly, they and their users interact with the wider public, be they pedestrians on the footway or road vehicle users on the highway.
It is self-evident that the scooters and their users are more vulnerable than other road users. Conversely, they present a potential danger to pedestrians. The legal and regulatory regime for scootersor invalid carriages, as they are quaintly described in lawis at best unclear and at worst a muddle. There appear to be no accurate statistics on how many scooters are in use. The sale of these products is effectively uncontrolled and unmeasured. No benefit is gained from a heavy-handed regulatory system, but I believe that, given a partnership with the voluntary sector, an improvement inand clarity aboutsupport for users and purchasers can be achieved.
Who in Government has a stake in good governance for the safe use and supply of scooters? I have sought advice from colleagues in the voluntary sector. It appears that there are five main players, each convinced that someone else has a larger role to play. The Department of Health, along with its Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, has a remit: it appears that scooters are medical devices. The Department for Transport also admits to an involvement, saying that "invalid carriages" are products that provide mobility for older and disabled people. It has focused on highway safety. In November 2004 it commissioned research on scooters for disabled people, as well as two-wheeled petrol or electrically powered scooters, off-road scooters and powered buggies. The collective term that I am using tonight is "mechanised wheelchairs".
The Department for Work and Pensions, through the office of the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), who is the Minister with responsibility for disabled people, admits to an interest as well. One would assume its focus to be on disabled people and the statutory, commercial and voluntary sectors that serve and support scooter users.
There is a fourth category: local authorities, which, through their trading standards function, must have a duty to enforceand an interest in enforcingsafety legislation for new or second-hand wheelchairs. And the police must have an interest, if only in dealing with inappropriate use or conflict between scooter users and other footway or road users. They were clearly involved in the investigation of a fatality last year, in which a scooter user in Essex was killed.
All those arms of authority admit to some responsibility, but it appears that at the end of each arm is a hand, with a finger that points to the next in line as being the main player. Three gaps, addressed by none of them, cause me concern. First, there is user safety, which encompasses operating skills and product suitability assessment, with regular reassessment of both. Wheelchairs must be fit for the purpose: machine must be matched to user. Secondly, there is mandatory public liability insurance to protect the user and the wider public from the repercussions of accident or damage. Thirdly, there is product safety, which includes a regime for routine maintenance and safety checks. That
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protects the user from poorly adjusted or poorly maintained vehicles, but also deals with the unscrupulous seller of second-hand equipment.
The authorities need to get a grip, join up their thinking and not dilute their concentration by focusing entirely on the highways use of a wide range of powered and unpowered wheelchairs, scooters, buggies or off-road machines. As a mechanical product, a pavement or road scooter has an anticipated life span of between 10 and 20 years. Given the age and physical, sensory or cognitive condition of most users, it can be assumed that such products may have up to five users during their operation life span. The machines outlive the users. Substantial anecdotal evidence from the voluntary sector suggests that soonif it has not already happenedmore scooters and wheelchairs will be sold or handled on the second-hand market than are sold as new.
The voluntary sector, often in partnership with the local authorities, is involved in Shopmobility schemesthere is one in Colchesterdisability resource centres, centres for independent living and disability advice. Many major supermarkets and shopping mall operators lend or hire footway scooters to their clientele. The second-hand market can be observed at boot sales, in the "for sale" columns in the local press and at retail outlets in most towns. Specialist distributors are often based at factory sites close to other out-of-town retail outlets. Those pools of activity form a wide reservoir of knowledge and experience of footway and road scooter use.
Who is actually looking at the situation? Who is plumbing that reservoir of expertise? Surely not just the Department for Transport, through its transport and travel specialist contractor. Most wheelchair users use the class 2 footway types of scooter, and should not go on to the highway. Why was the voluntary sector not instructed to act as the lead research focus? There are many examples of high-quality research undertaken by the sector, in which front-line information has been obtained rapidly. Why did the Department for Transport pay a commercial organisation, which has to get the real-life data from the voluntary sector anyway? Was not consideration given to the possibility that the same amount, or even less, paid directly to the voluntary sector would encourage development of that sector?
"Twenty years ago scooters would be 'matched' to the needs of the user, either by occupational therapists employed by social services, or health providers. Users would receive instruction on driving and manoeuvring in or near pedestrian or vehicular traffic."
Such support is not available from many of the outlets that today sell mechanised wheelchairs, nor from the rapidly expanding and unregulated second-hand market. Let us consider the not untypical case of the well-intentioned person buying a second-hand or new scooter for a needy relative. Currently in Essex, according to Mr Boyd, there is a waiting time of between 11 and 21 weeks for advice from social care. He told me:
Although my debate is about mechanised wheelchairs, Members might wish to know that the Department for Transport sub-divides "invalid carriages" into three classes. Class 1 consists of unpowered wheelchairs, self-propelled or pushed by a third party. Class 2 consists of powered, generally small vehicles that are for indoor or outdoor use, such as scooters used on the footway. They have three or four wheels, their travel distance is limited and they should not be driven at above 4 mph. Class 3 consists of powered wheelchairs or scooters, for use outdoors on footways and roads. They have a road speed of 8 mph, but should not be driven above 4 mph on footways.
I am told that currently, more than 60 models of class-2 scooters and wheelchairs, and 30 of class 3, are available on the market. The price of a new class-2 vehicle varies between £1,500 and £2,500; that of a class-3 vehicle varies between £2,000 and £4,000. A class-3 road scooter can weigh as much as 2 cwt. At a speed of 4 mphlet alone of an illegal 8 mpha 15-stone user hitting a child or elderly pedestrian would cause injury or even kill them. I ask the Minister to say whether a person driving a mechanised wheelchair on the road needs to have a driving licence. Does the vehicle have to be registered and display a number plate, and is third-party insurance a legal requirement?
The British Healthcare Trades Association brochure entitled "Get Wise: Highway Code for Electric Scooter and Wheelchair Users"I must admit that I do not have that publication by my bedsidecould form the basis of a minimum requirement of competence that anyone wishing to drive a mechanised wheelchair would need. Mr. Boyd tells me:
"The advice from Trading Standards in Essex has been consistent, that they share the concerns about safety, insurance and suitability of product to user, but feel that these issues have to be addressed by new legislation."
I hope that this evening I have conveyed sufficient concern to cause the Government to give serious consideration to the action that needs to be taken to ensure that safety is of the utmost importance to those who use mechanised wheelchairs, and to others who could be harmed by users who are not competent to operate such vehicles. I further urge the Government to engage the voluntary sector, in order to provide the expertise that experienced organisations such as the Essex Disabled People's Association and Colchester Shopmobility can offer.
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