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Session 2008 - 09
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Public Bill Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mrs. Joan Humble
Baker, Norman (Lewes) (LD)
Clapham, Mr. Michael (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab)
Cox, Mr. Geoffrey (Torridge and West Devon) (Con)
Donohoe, Mr. Brian H. (Central Ayrshire) (Lab)
Hammond, Stephen (Wimbledon) (Con)
Heald, Mr. Oliver (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con)
Leech, Mr. John (Manchester, Withington) (LD)
Michael, Alun (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
Mole, Chris (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport)
Morden, Jessica (Newport, East) (Lab)
Ruane, Chris (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab)
Tami, Mark (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab)
Tipping, Paddy (Sherwood) (Lab)
Walter, Mr. Robert (North Dorset) (Con)
Watson, Mr. Tom (West Bromwich, East) (Lab)
Wilson, Mr. Rob (Reading, East) (Con)
Chris Stanton, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

First Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 9 November 2009

[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair]

Draft Rail Vehicle Accessibility (Networks) Exemption Order 2009
4.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Chris Mole): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Rail Vehicle Accessibility (Networks) Exemption Order 2009.
It is a pleasure to be sharing this fridge with you this afternoon, Mrs. Humble,
The Government are committed to an accessible public transport system on which the estimated 11 million disabled people in the UK have the same opportunities to travel as other members of society. Without that, we know that disabled people’s ability to access work, visit friends and family, participate in leisure activities or access health care and education is limited.
We have taken strong action, and I believe that our record speaks for itself. We introduced mandatory accessibility requirements for all new rail vehicles more than a decade ago. Those requirements are commonly known as RVAR. There are already 5,600 compliant rail vehicles in service—more than a third of the national fleet—but we have not stood still. We have further strengthened the regime by taking powers to apply accessibility standards to older vehicles—those in service prior to the introduction of RVAR—when they are refurbished. We have also set 1 January 2020 as an end date for when all rail vehicles must be compliant.
Expanding RVAR to capture older rail vehicles used on public transport services means, however, that older heritage and tourist vehicles come within its scope, which is why we are here today. Requiring heritage and tourist railways to comply with modern accessibility requirements would clearly damage the experience of recreated train or tram journeys in which this country has such a glorious tradition. Furthermore, there are frequently physical reasons why it would be inappropriate for such operators to comply fully with accessibility standards. Their trains and trams were not designed with accessibility in mind and improvements would frequently require major and costly engineering work. In some circumstances, such improvements would simply be impossible.
We have no desire to destroy this country’s rich rail heritage, especially as many such operators already understand the value of improving access to their services, given that older or disabled people make up a significant proportion of their clientele. Indeed, the sector is one of the most responsive to the needs of disabled people, within the obvious constraints of the vehicles and services that they offer. We have worked closely with operators and disabled people to improve provision further with great success, and the order needs to be considered against that background. It might be helpful if I briefly summarise its provisions.
The order will provide an exemption for all heritage and tourist rail vehicles introduced into service prior to 1 January 1999 and operated on any of the many heritage and tourist networks named in the schedule. The list has been developed in partnership with the sector and other stakeholders, so we are confident that it is as complete as possible. The order will also exempt all heritage and tourist rail vehicles introduced into service prior to 1 January 1999 and operated solely within the confines of a depot, whether on an exempt or non-exempt network, and all rail vehicles operated on miscellaneous networks, regardless of date of entry into service. Those include networks used for industrial purposes, engineering or building works within the grounds of a private house, fairground rides and so on, which would also otherwise be within the scope of RVAR.
Vehicles covered by the exemption will be able to operate on any of the networks listed in the schedule without impediment. However, we know that some of the heritage and tourist operators covered occasionally run their vehicles for special events or excursions on networks that do not have an exemption since they primarily provide a public transport service, such as the Blackpool tramway—I thought that you might have an interest in that, Mrs. Humble. We do not want accessibility legislation to stop that practice, so the order allows individual vehicles to operate on those networks for a maximum of 20 traffic days each in any calendar year. The limit is similar to that in place for older buses and coaches, since it would not be acceptable for inaccessible heritage and tourist vehicles to provide mainstream public transport services. Should an operator wish to run its vehicles on a non-exempt network past the 20-day limit, it may apply for a vehicle-specific exemption order. That process will enable the potentially greater impact on disabled people of non-compliance to be considered on a case-by-case basis within the context of the type of service being offered.
We have consulted the networks listed in the order, as well as the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, our statutory advisors, and other stakeholders. All are content with the order’s provisions, and a summary of the 49 responses received is included in the explanatory memorandum.
It is likely that some heritage and tourist operators will in future wish to introduce new designs of rail vehicle to their networks. Disabled people have a legitimate aspiration that accessibility will be considered during the planning and design stage, and such vehicles will therefore remain subject to the RVAR regime. Again, where it is not possible or desirable for the requirements to be met in full, a vehicle-specific exemption order can be applied for. That has been the case since RVAR was first introduced in 1998, and the order does not change that policy.
In preparing the order, we have considered carefully the interests of disabled people. We have tried to find a balance between them and the legitimate interests of railway enthusiasts who wish to preserve our rich railway heritage. We have consulted widely on the order with DPTAC and others, and the responses indicate that our position is widely supported as a sensible and pragmatic approach to the issue.
4.36 pm
Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): As the Minister said, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble.
I thank the Minister for his introduction, to which I listened carefully and in which he answered many of the questions that I might have asked, for which I am grateful. I emphasise that the Opposition recognise that the ability to travel on public transport is particularly important for disabled people, a number of whom are completely reliant on such transport to get from their homes to places of work, shops, leisure, friends, family, health care, education and so on. The Minister and all members of the Committee therefore accept that fully accessible public transport is essential for disabled people and must be safe for them to use. We therefore need rules on accessibility.
The Minister set out the current powers. The power to set minimum accessibility standards for rail vehicles, buses and coaches was granted to the Secretary of State for Transport as part of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and the specific directives for rail vehicles were introduced in 1998. Additional provisions were made in the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 to ensure that entire fleets of buses would meet accessibility standards by 2017, and trains by 2020.
The Minister said that much progress has been made on the overall network in relation to compliance by 2020, but exactly what percentage of vehicles currently comply, and will they all be fully compliant by 2020? As the Minister rightly said, there should be particular circumstances in which rail vehicles can be granted an exemption from meeting the minimum accessibility standards. The order seeks to grant exemptions to vehicles used on heritage and tourist networks, such as Snowdon Mountain Railway, the Blackpool zoo miniature railway, the Southend pier railway and Isle of White Steam Railway. I accept that those vehicles are old and historic. They were designed with a specific purpose in mind, which was neither commuting nor inter-city travel. To alter those vehicles to make them complaint with RVAR not only could be costly, but could alter their very character and effectively defeat the whole object of their existence.
I firmly believe, however, that heritage and tourist railway operators should do everything in their power to ensure that their services are accessible to disabled people, although it is unrealistic to enforce the same regulations that apply to commuter and inter-city rail, so I accept the order’s premise. However, will the Minister make sure that there are clear guidelines for network operators, and that exemptions will be granted only in extremis so that they do all that they can to make their vehicles fully accessible? I acknowledge that all new vehicles will be fully compliant, but there are a number of circumstances, particularly with the railways mentioned, in which more could be done, and exemptions do not necessarily have to be block granted.
Will the Minister confirm that the railways listed in the schedule to the order fall entirely in the categories of exemption we are discussing today? Grand Central is one of the operators listed, and it operates open access on the national networks. Will the Minister confirm that nothing in the order allows Grand Central to use the order for the national networks?
The order provides an exemption for heritage and tourist vehicles to be used on the national network for a maximum of 20 days a year without having to be compliant with RVAR. I understand the rationale for that and I am aware that the 20-day figure has been consulted on and generally accepted. However, will the Minister clarify why 20 days was chosen, rather than any other number? If there was any basis for choosing that figure, it might be helpful for the Committee to know.
Implicit in the order is the fact that the Secretary of State is satisfied either that some vehicles do not need specific regulatory requirements, because that is technically impossible, or that their non-compliance will in no way hinder the comfort or safety of disabled passengers. Therefore, as the Minister rightly said, there has been consultation. However, will he place it on record that there was not just consultation on procedural matters and that the process was extended to matters of content? Will he also inform the Committee of any issues arising as a result of that consultation?
Ultimately, this is an uncontroversial matter and, pending the Minister’s response to my few questions, I do not intend to detain the Committee very much longer.
4.42 pm
Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble. On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I am happy to support the order. It is fair to say that we all support the need for accessible public transport. This sensible order ensures the future viability of heritage and tourist routes, and miscellaneous services, that are unable to comply with accessibility legislation. I do not intend to repeat what the Minister or the hon. Member for Wimbledon have already said, but I have one or two additional questions on which the Minister might be able to add some clarity.
Is there any concern that train operators might attempt to designate certain rail services as heritage or tourist routes to bypass the accessibility legislation? Will the Minister clarify the criteria used to distinguish the heritage and tourist network? Are there any current services in operation that do not fall under the remit of the order and do not currently comply with accessibility legislation? Have disability groups made any objections to the implementation of the order? Have any concerns been raised about whether restriction on the use of restored vehicles might discourage restoration work from being carried out? For example, if a historic vehicle is considered for restoration, but no permanent heritage or tourist route has been arranged and no decision has been reached on a permanent home in a museum, is there any concern that the 20-day restriction might stop that restoration from taking place?
4.44 pm
Chris Mole: I am pleased that there is such extensive consensus on an order that is clearly intended to meet the needs of both disabled passengers and the heritage rail industry.
The hon. Gentleman also asked if there was clear guidance to operators so that they would understand that exemptions would be made only in exceptional circumstances. Officials in the Department work with operators during design and manufacture to ensure that the number of exemptions is minimised. When necessary, there is consultation with DPTAC and others, and there is the potential for parliamentary scrutiny.
The hon. Gentleman asked about networks listed in the order that are in the heritage category. For an exemption to apply, the order requires that services be heritage, tourist or recreational, and that they were brought into service before 31 December 1998, when manufacturing accessibility requirements were first introduced. On the 20-day limit, I advise the hon. Gentleman that there is similarity—consistency, if you like—with provisions that have been in place for the operators of heritage buses and coaches for almost a decade, which are regarded as working well. That model has therefore been transposed to the rail industry.
The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington asked about replica heritage and tourist vehicles. Operators wishing to build replica vehicles can already do so under the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which allow the introduction of vehicles belonging to a class of rail vehicle introduced before 31 December 1998, when mandatory accessibility requirements were first applied. The order makes no change to existing policies.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about non-listed current services that might be non-compliant. All new rail vehicles must be accessible; older rail vehicles may not be compliant if they are used on a non-exempt network, but they must comply when refurbished, or by no later than 1 January 2020.
4.49 pm
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
5.4 pm
On resuming—
Chris Mole: The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington expressed concern that an operator might be able to bypass requirements through self-designation as a heritage or tourist railway. I assure him that there is no risk of that, as the exemption applies only to those networks listed in the schedule to the order.
That point enables me to return to question asked by the hon. Member for Wimbledon about Grand Central taking advantage of the order. I can advise him that Grand Central is not listed in the schedule—he might have mistaken Great Central for Grand Central. There are safeguards in place to ensure that the exemption cannot be used to provide public transport services.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked whether there was substance to the consultation. The consultation response is published on the Department’s website. The consultation covered a range of questions in depth, including that of 20 days, museums with no networks, newly restored vehicles, operation in depots, the Blackpool tramway and narrow gauge. I hope that that reassures him that there was substance to the consultation.
To sum up, the Government have an excellent record in this area. We have tried to achieve a balance between the interests of the public—particularly those with impaired mobility—and those of the heritage rail industry. I commend the order to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
5.6 pm
Committee rose.

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