Local Transport Bill [Lords]

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Clause 50

Carrying of passengers in wheelchairs in vehicles providing local services
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Knight: I have raised this matter with the Minister before. She gave me an encouraging reply, but I should like it to be placed on the record again, particularly as clause 50 relates to the carrying of passengers in wheelchairs in vehicles providing local services, and clause 51 contains supplementary provisions. I should declare an interest as chairman of the all-party historic vehicles group, but I should like the Minister again to confirm that nothing in clause 50 or clause 51 can be used to prevent historic vehicles from carrying members of the public as part of a balanced passenger transport provision. That is particularly important for tourist areas where historic vehicles—some of them are not even powered by the internal combustion engine; some are steam vehicles—are still used to carry passengers. It would be an over-the-top, heavy-handed approach if they were caught by this provision.
Ms Winterton: As the right hon. Gentleman set out, clause 50 will apply certain duties under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to drivers of taxis and private hire vehicles who provide local bus services, known as taxi buses, using a wheelchair-accessible vehicle. The duties include helping a person in a wheelchair to get in and out of a taxi, carrying them in safety and comfort and not making an additional charge for doing so. The clause signals the Government’s clear commitment to delivering more accessible taxis and to making it easier for disabled passengers to use public transport. This discussion refers back to our earlier discussion in which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned historic vehicles. I can assure him that this provision will not affect that. The clauses are about duties on drivers. As I said, accessibility regulations fall under part V of the DDA and relate to vehicle standards. They would be covered in that way.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 50 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 51

Carrying of passengers in wheelchairs: supplementary provisions
Norman Baker: I beg to move amendment No. 259, in clause 51, page 45, line 6, leave out ‘may’ and insert ‘shall’.
This simple amendment would change the word “may” to “shall”. In my view, a licensing authority ought to maintain a list of vehicles falling within subsection (2) of proposed new section 36A of the 1995 Act if it is serious about undertaking its responsibilities under that Act. It is important that it has an up-to-date picture of which vehicles are available in its area and which are not. If it only has the option of maintaining a list, there may be areas where that information is not available.
In addition, when an authority, either a different one or the same one, is proposing, say, a quality contract scheme it is important to understand the range of vehicles that are available in an area when it draws up conditions that it wishes to see under the quality contract. However, under these provisions, it may not have that information available, which is a gap that ought to be filled. Those are the reasons why I believe that the word “may” should be changed to “shall”.
Ms Winterton: The amendment is to a clause that was inserted into the Bill in another place in response to a very well-argued proposal made by Baroness Chapman, who is certainly a doughty campaigner on this issue. The clause, in conjunction with clause 50, will place certain duties on the drivers of wheelchair-accessible taxi buses—that is, taxis and private hire vehicles used to provide local bus services—when carrying passengers in wheelchairs. The provisions will make it optional for local authorities to maintain a list of such wheelchair-accessible vehicles. Once such a list was in place, the duties in section 36 of the 1995 Act would apply to the drivers of taxi buses designated as wheelchair accessible. Those duties include helping a person in a wheelchair to get in and out of a taxi, carrying them in safety and comfort and not making an additional charge for doing so. Failure to observe the duties could lead to a criminal prosecution and fine.
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The amendment would place an obligation on all local licensing authorities to maintain a list of vehicles being used to provide wheelchair accessible taxi buses. However, we do not think that that is either necessary or desirable. As I have said, the Bill allows local licensing authorities the option of maintaining the list if they have wheelchair accessible taxi buses that provide services in their area and they decide to designate them. That is in line with the Government’s general policy on taxis.
Local licensing authorities are normally given particular powers, but they are able to use their own discretion about whether to use them. There are about only 200 taxi buses that provide local bus services, although we hope that that figure will rise as a result of other provisions in the Bill. Only some of those taxi buses will be wheelchair accessible. Also, not all local licensing authorities will have taxi buses operating in their area, so there will be no need either to designate wheelchair accessible taxi buses or to maintain a list.
I understand the thrust of the amendment, but it would place an unnecessary burden on local authorities. I hope that I can therefore persuade the hon. Member for Lewes to withdraw the amendment.
Norman Baker: I am not sure that the amendment would be an unnecessary burden on local authorities if they had to make a nil return each year, which is what the Minister implied in relation to not many local authorities having taxi buses. If there are only 200 taxi buses in the country—she accepts that the number should increase—one way to secure an increase is perhaps for local authorities to realise through the mandatory compilation of a list just how few they have in their areas and how difficult it is for those with disabilities to get around because of the absence of such vehicles.
The Minister has given me no confidence that the current system will engender an increase of the kind that she and I wish to see. She also has not taken account of the other points that I made, such as the need to be able to take a quick metaphorical photograph of how many vehicles there are in an area, for future planning purposes. However, I do not intend to go to the stake over this, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 51 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 52

Permits in relation to use of vehicles by educational and other bodies
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Stephen Hammond: I rise to ask the Minister to clarify the intention of the clause. The Transport Act 1985 enables permits to be granted to educational, religious, social, welfare and other bodies so that they do not need a public service vehicle operator licence. Is it the purpose of the clause to take that to a new level? I understand that the 1985 Act covers all possible vehicles, so does the clause mean that if a vehicle carries fewer than nine passengers no permit will be required, and that therefore an educational body that operates a vehicle with fewer than nine seats will not require a permit as per the 1985 Act?
Ms Winterton: Clause 53 will make amendments that are consequential to the provision in clause 52, which extends the scope of section 19 permits to cover vehicles with fewer than nine seats. Such vehicles are not what most of us would consider a bus. That will allow educational and other bodies to provide transport services for their members. Clause 52 will also strengthen the requirements on bodies to keep records to aid better enforcement.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 52 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 5 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 54

relaxation of rules relating to community bus services
Mr. Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 243, in clause 54, page 47, line 33, at end insert—
‘(4A) In subsection (2)(b) after “permit”, insert “or has undertaken such training for drivers of vehicles for the purpose of community transport as the Secretary of State shall by order define.”.
(4B) In subsection (2) after paragraph (c) insert—
“(d) the driver is not employed by, nor is the vehicle owned by, an operator whose annual turnover is more than £150,000 per annum, or such higher amount as the Secretary of State may by order define.”’.
As I said on Second Reading, any proposals with the consequence of helping community transport will certainly enjoy my support, and the clause will do that by allowing larger vehicles to be used for community transport and by removing the prohibition on paying drivers of community transport vehicles.
The clause is very welcome, but not perfect. I have two major concerns, which are reflected in my proposals. The first proposal is important, because it goes to the question of safety. We want to introduce words that would ensure that community transport drivers were adequately trained. Later this year, a new certificate of professional competence will be introduced for drivers of other buses and coaches. The CPC will be issued on behalf of the Department for Transport, in accordance with the law, and will be a requirement for all professional bus drivers, in addition to a driving licence.
Rightly in my opinion, the CPC is not a requirement for drivers of community vehicles—we want to establish greater community transport. However, there is specialist community transport training available in the form of MIDAS—the minibus driver awareness scheme. Therefore, although community transport drivers do not face the higher test, the lower test would help to ensure safety. MIDAS addresses issues such as driver confidence and passenger safety and comfort. That is a useful way forward and something that the Secretary of State could define by order: community transport drivers would get the specialist training required for their vehicles, giving reassurance to those using that transport but without having to fulfil the much higher test.
Another proposal looks at what we might call the social businesses or the not-for-dividend sector. A number of community transport schemes provide an excellent service, but I am concerned at the scope for some non-professional bus operators to take advantage of a loophole in the legislation. There are a number of operators who turn over large amounts and who, potentially, would not require a licence.
I want to ensure that cowboy operations do not take advantage of the rules for community transport providers. The amendment relates to those community transport organisations, which are clearly focused on being not for dividend, although they follow some commercial strictures. For example, we all know that Ealing Community Transport provides an excellent service across the country and it decidedly could not be called a cowboy. However, unless there is a turnover test—I am not sure that I have got the turnover level right—the clause could become a loophole for cowboys to provide a service under the guise of community transport, which is a term that should describe organisations that provide transport in communities for those who have difficulty getting around or that provide a service in excess of the norm. Perhaps a number of charities and others would use it.
These proposals are important. Will the Minister give reassurance that the turnover test is not necessary? If it is not necessary, will she explain how cowboy bus operators will be prevented from using the clause? Will she also us why the lower level of driver training cannot be put in place relatively cheaply to provide some reassurance to those people who will use community transport?
Ms Winterton: The measure is extremely popular and it has been widely welcomed by the community transport sector for two reasons: it will allow community bus services to use larger buses and remove the restriction that prevents drivers of those services from being paid. That welcome from the community transport sector is one reason why I was surprised that Opposition Front Benchers voted against the Bill on Second Reading. We will all have received representations from our constituents who have tried to run those excellent services but have been constrained in how they can do so.
The clause relates to the section 22 permits that are available to the operators of community bus services. The services we discussed before were the section 19 aspect of community service. Section 22 permits allow a non-profit-making voluntary body that is concerned with the social and welfare needs of a community to provide local bus services for the general public. Unlike section 19 permits, they can be issued only by the traffic commissioners, who must be satisfied that the body using the permit has adequate maintenance arrangements.
As I said, operators who provide services under the permits are restricted to using vehicles that can carry between nine and 16 passengers. The clause will enable buses with more than 16 passenger seats to be used to provide community transport services under section 22 permits.
Also under current legislation, drivers of such services cannot be paid, as I said. However, many people, particularly from the community transport sector, told the Government that that places an unnecessary restriction on the provision of the services, because it is often not possible for community groups to find enough volunteer drivers to run them. The clause will remove that restriction.
Graham Stringer: I hope that the answer to this question, which my right hon. Friend might send in a letter, will allow us not to have a debate on new clause 1. Will these drivers be subject to the same vetting procedures as drivers of hackney carriages and private hire vehicles? Will they have to be a fit and proper person? Preferably, they will be vetted in relation to whether they are on the sex offenders register.
Ms Winterton: The clause will require operators of community transport services to check that every person driving a vehicle on their behalf is not on the sex offenders register.
Stephen Hammond: Does that include a Criminal Records Bureau check?
Ms Winterton: I want to address the point on the public sex offenders register, which is what I think the—
5 pm
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
5.33 pm
On resuming—
Ms Winterton: I refer back to the point that I made in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley, which referenced his new clause, which would require operators of community transport services to check that everybody driving a vehicle on their behalf is not registered on the sex offenders register. I want to make it clear that the Bill does not provide for that, but I emphasise the existing safeguards and checks on community transport drivers. Much of the work of community transport organisations will be done under a contract to a local authority or other public body, which can make it a condition of contract that the drivers used have all been subject to a criminal record check. Where necessary, that check can be to the enhanced level of enclosure to provide all the information to the Criminal Records Bureau.
In addition, the Government are now implementing the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, which obtained Royal Assent in November 2006, and which was introduced specifically in response to recommendation 19 of the Bichard inquiry report. The Act provides the legal framework for the new independent safeguarding authority scheme. Under the SVG Act, those who exclusively transport children and/or vulnerable adults are subject to the requirements of the new scheme. The ISA’s role will be to consider all relevant information relating to the risk of harm posed by persons seeking to work with children or vulnerable adults in either a paid or voluntary capacity, and to bar those considered unsuitable for such work. The scheme will be launched in October 2009; that will allow systems to be developed and legislation laid, and it will give organisations time to prepare for the introduction of the most robust and thorough vetting and barring scheme.
I will ensure that the Home Office is aware of the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley about drivers of community transport. As I said, new clause 1 is not included in our debate, but I shall ensure that the Home Office is aware of what has been said.
As for amendment No. 243, moved by the hon. Member for Wimbledon, I can tell him that safety is obviously an important consideration in the operation of community transport. However, we have to consider whether there is a problem and if so whether what he proposes is the right solution. Section 22 operators are a relatively rare breed, and we obviously cannot draw many conclusions about their safety record from that small sample. When we consider the much larger body of community transport that operates under section 19 permits, which includes both paid and unpaid volunteer drivers, there is no evidence that volunteer drivers are unsafe compared to those driving similar vehicles commercially.
Road accident statistics are generally based on vehicle type rather than usage. The minibus category is split three ways—between purely private use, the voluntary sector and the commercial sector. The safety record is pretty high across the board. Only recently did it become a legal requirement for commercial bus drivers to undergo formal training, as distinct from passing the appropriate driving test, although the requirement does not come into force until September. At the moment, therefore, we do not have much evidence about its effect on road safety.
I accept that the amendment would not require the full rigours of the commercial training regime to be imposed on voluntary drivers, although that would be the logical outcome of the arguments being put forward. The voluntary sector itself provides a great deal of training. For good reasons, it has always done so. Apart from the question of public safety, it would not be sensible to put rather expensive vehicles into the hands of incompetent drivers.
I am not opposed to training, but the question is one of proportionality. We have to bear in mind that if we were to require the community transport sector to undertake what could be fairly rigorous training, it would place quite a burden on it. We must put that in the context of the later part of the amendment, which is about a scheme being not for profit.
The existing regulation-making power could be used to impose a training requirement on the drivers of vehicles used under section 22 permits. That is already in the Bill, so that part of the hon. Gentleman’s amendment is unnecessary for technical reasons. Although I am rejecting the amendment, I assure him that I do not rule out the introduction of a driver training requirement if a real need for it is identified in future.
Stephen Hammond: The Minister says that the amendment is technically unnecessary because there is something else about training in the Bill. Will she tell us where in the Bill it is?
Ms Winterton: As it happens, it is under section 21 of the Transport Act 1985.
Stephen Hammond: Divine inspiration.
Ms Winterton: I turn to the second part of the amendment, which would place a limit on the annual turnover of a community bus operator. It has always been a requirement of the permit regimes for the voluntary sector that buses are not operated with a view to profit, either directly or indirectly. I understand that the bodies that currently operate under section 22 permits are very small, and that the services that they operate are, almost by definition, ones that would not be of interest to a commercial operator.
We hope that such services will expand; members of the Committee have already made points about the rural bus sector. Such services provide the community transport sector with a lot of opportunities to expand, but I do not imagine that it will be in a position to compete with commercial operators, nor do I believe that it would want to. That part of the amendment is, therefore, not necessary either, because it is already covered in the permit regime. I hope that has answered the questions asked by the hon. Member for Wimbledon.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about cowboys, and I draw his attention to section 22(3) of the 1985 Act, which states:
“A traffic commissioner shall not grant a community bus permit unless he is satisfied that there will be adequate facilities or arrangements for maintaining in a fit and serviceable condition any vehicle used under the permit.”
I hope that I have illustrated that although I understand the hon. Gentleman’s points about safety and not-for-profit restrictions, those matters are adequately covered under the current system.
Stephen Hammond: The Minister has come a long way towards my position. In 1985, the Conservative Administration obviously had the foresight to bring in measures that she believes I do not need to insert into the Bill. I think that she would none the less agree—this is one reason why I wished to explore the matter—that the clause potentially allows a larger number of drivers in the community transport field, in some cases driving bigger vehicles than they have driven before. The whole matter of safety must be considered, and I hope that the Minister will think again. My amendment does not specify what has to be done, but it gives the Secretary of State the chance to define safety training by order at some stage. That is extremely important, as my concern is that the Bill will widen the field of people who operate the vehicles in question.
Norman Baker: It is my understanding that drivers who want to drive public vehicles with more than 16 seats have to acquire public service vehicle approval. Far more training would be required to drive a vehicle with 16 seats so, in a sense, although I am sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman’s point, I assume that the extra training is already in place to some degree.
5.45 pm
Stephen Hammond: The hon. Gentleman may be right. Some of that training might be in place. None the less, specialist training is available for community transport under MIDAS, which is why I hoped that the Minister would mention it.
I come now to my point about cowboys. The Conservative Administration again showed great foresight in 1985. I was talking not about vehicles and safety requirements, but those operating them as a commercial route and not following all the necessary requirements, when the route was intended to be a community transport route. I hear what the Minister had to say, but that is not the representation I have received from various parts of the industry. There is real concern that rogue—rather than cowboy—operators might try to use the community transport clause that we all support and want to work as a means of getting round some of the provisions that would usually be set, which is why the test is in place.
I have listened carefully to the Minister and to her reassurances that my amendment is technically not necessary. I shall be watching matters closely. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 54 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 55 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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