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30 Jun 2009 : Column 53WH—continued

Chris Huhne: I entirely accept what the Minister says about the need for extra housing. Of course he knows, because I cited the evidence, that the borough has a good track record. The problem at the moment is that
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much of the private sector housing that would unlock that social housing is not being completed, because of the housing recession. That has nothing to do with the planning process. Therefore it is not relevant to the key issue of whether the consultation process was in line with the legal requirements. Does the Minister accept that the consultation process was, as I have outlined, not in line with the legal requirements?

Mr. Malik: The simple answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that on balance we do not accept that the consultation was illegitimate. I have said that there were difficulties in distribution but that, because of other measures that were taken, it was deemed adequate. He will be well aware that the cost of entry-level homes in his constituency is nine and half times the district’s lower quartile earnings figure. I know that he wants to focus on the consultation, but it is critical that I should focus on housing needs. It is difficult to disaggregate one little part from the larger plan, as he would like me to. It may help if I tell him that the consultation on the south-east plan was undertaken in accordance with the advice in planning policy statement 11.

The SDA is a long-established element in the sub-regional approach of the PUSH authorities to delivering their agreed target of 80,000 homes by 2026, and 6,000 of those are proposed at the Hedge End SDA. The core authorities’ own reporting shows more than 30,000 households currently in housing need. The hon. Gentleman is rightly concerned about aspects of the proposed SDA, and particularly the pressure that such development might put on local infrastructure. I am sure that he would agree that the funding already committed to transport schemes in the PUSH area will help to alleviate some of the pressures on the road network. There have been capacity improvements to the M27 between junctions 3 to 4 and 11 to 12 within the last year, and since the Solent travelcard scheme was introduced in 2004, there has been an increase of 250,000 journeys undertaken by public transport. Those are just two examples of the work being undertaken.

The pressures on infrastructure are not limited to transport, and in publishing the south-east plan the Government have set the strategic planning context for decision makers in the south-east of England for the period to 2026. Perhaps I should also point out that there might be opportunities in the development of the local development framework to raise some of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has raised and to shape development in the areas about which he is concerned. The plan also contains policies that focus on sustainable growth to provide the development that is needed, while ensuring the protection of the environment, such as the requirement for local authorities to carry out strategic flood risk assessments and to avoid a net loss of, or actively to seek a gain in, biodiversity. I know that he is concerned about those issues. The Planning Act 2008 introduced a community infrastructure levy which will allow local authorities to raise considerable funds for infrastructure in their areas. The Government consider that to be critical for the future delivery of infrastructure projects.

The proposed SDA at Hedge End represents a targeted approach to development that is a good thing for the economic development and sustainability of the south Hampshire sub-region and south-east England as a
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whole. I know that the hon. Gentleman may not be fully content with my response, but I am sure that his constituents can be fully content that they have a powerful advocate in their Member of Parliament.

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Charges for Oxygen (Airlines)

12.58 pm

Nick Ainger (Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire) (Lab): It is a pleasure, Mr. Jones, to serve under your chairmanship. I wish to declare an interest; I am a trustee of the Pulmonary Hypertension Association, as listed in the Register of Members’ Interests.

I wish to bring to the attention of the House the fact that some airlines charge large fees to those who need to use supplementary oxygen when flying. I am grateful to the 218 right hon. and hon. Members who signed early-day motion 1,444, in which I called on airlines to scrap those charges. I am also grateful to the Pulmonary Hypertension Association, the British Lung Foundation and the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign for their detailed advice and information.

Pulmonary arterial hypertension—PAH—causes high blood pressure in the pulmonary arteries, which carry blood from the right side of the heart to the lungs. The condition causes those arteries to thicken and narrow, which restricts blood flow in the lungs. The resulting symptoms are breathlessness, chest pains, angina, fatigue and fainting spells. PAH is relatively rare, but sufferers from other breathing conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and muscular dystrophy can experience similar symptoms, and require supplementary oxygen to help get sufficient oxygen into their blood. Along with medication, those symptoms can be managed with extra oxygen, which can be obtained from a cylinder or an electronic concentrator. Oxygen from either source eases breathing difficulties, allowing patients who otherwise could not undertake even gentle activity to regain mobility.

Oxygen is as indispensable to sufferers as the wheelchair is to those with walking difficulties. Unfortunately, that fact is not recognised by many airlines. It is hard to imagine a company refusing to allow people the right to bring a wheelchair into a building and then charging them to use a centrally provided one. However, that is what is happening to many oxygen users who want to fly. Many airlines refuse to allow patients to keep their oxygen with them on flights. Instead, they insist that affected passengers should buy oxygen directly from the airlines, sometimes at huge cost.

The Pulmonary Hypertension Association conducted a secret shopper exercise. It found that of the 22 airlines surveyed, only five allowed people to bring their own oxygen cylinders on board, and only nine allowed the use of oxygen concentrators. Some notable exceptions aside, almost every airline that refused permission told the secret shopper that she could be supplied with oxygen by the airline throughout the flight—for a fee. The charges mostly range from £55 to £250, but in some cases are much higher.

The British Lung Foundation became involved in the case of Mr. Palmer, who suffers from PAH. He was told by the Emirates airline that he would have to pay an extra £1,972 to be supplied with oxygen on his flight to Australia. In another case, the same airline told a sufferer from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis that he would be charged £2,800 to use oxygen on a flight from Manchester to Dubai. In both cases, the airline backed down when the passengers called in the British Lung Foundation. However, not all airlines back down, and many people are told to pay up or lose out.

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One PAH sufferer said:

That was not justified on the grounds of either security or safety; the airline was prepared to allow the device on to the plane, but only if the passenger could come up with a huge premium.

Another lady described the bureaucratic nightmare of trying to access oxygen on Ryanair. She said:

The Guardian quoted one passenger as saying:

Although some financial help is available from charities for those who need help in paying the charges, it can be an unnecessary drain on the charities’ resources. The Pulmonary Hypertension Association has told me that in the past seven years the charity has paid about £50,000 in grants to cover the cost of airline charges for its members. The association said:

Ultimately, the high charges mean that airlines are at risk of pricing oxygen users out of the air travel market.

Emirates has announced that it will scrap the charge altogether in response to “feedback from customers”, but not many airlines have followed suit. The fees that they continue to charge amount to a tax on the disabled. That practice needs to end. I shall read on to the record the names of airlines that charge and those that do not. I list first those of the 22 airlines surveyed that no longer charge. British Airways, easyJet, Flybe and Virgin Atlantic do not charge; and after the campaign by the three organisations that I mentioned earlier, Cathay Pacific and Emirates no longer charge.

I now list the airlines that charge. Air Canada charges 150 Canadian dollars. Air France charges €182. Alitalia charges the cost of a second seat. BMI charges £100. El Al charges £75. First Choice charges £150 for short-haul flights and £250 for long-haul flights. Iberia charges £124. KLM charges €100. Lufthansa charges €150 for short haul and €300 for long haul. Ryanair charges €148. South African Airways charges £150. TAP charges €150. It is pretty much a lottery, particularly for those travelling on longer-haul flights, who seem to be charged most.

All airlines should allow people who are dependent on supplementary oxygen to travel at no additional charge, if they have medical clearance to do so. There seems to be no reason why that cannot be achieved. Legislation establishing the principle that disabled people
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should not be discriminated against when travelling is already in place. European Union regulation 1107/2006 obliges airlines to carry passengers’ medical equipment free of charge. Airlines that charge interpret oxygen cylinders as not coming under that category, but stronger guidelines could oblige them to change their view.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission told me that it

It says that it is

The Department for Transport’s code of practice “Access to Air Travel for Disabled Persons and Persons with Reduced Mobility” advises that air carriers may approve the carriage of small gaseous oxygen or air cylinders for medical use, and recommends that portable oxygen concentrator devices should normally be allowed if they are battery operated. The Department clarified that guidance in response to inquiries from the British Lung Foundation, stating:

That is quite clear. The code of practice states that air carriers can make a charge to provide passengers with oxygen. However, the Department has also told the British Lung Foundation:

Airlines can thus be in no doubt that the charges that they are currently levying run contrary to the spirit of the rules. It is clear that stronger guidance—or legislation, if necessary—is needed if the practice is to be stamped out permanently. In the USA, the Air Carrier Access Act came into effect on 13 May 2009 and requires all airlines on flights that depart from, or arrive in, the US, and US airlines wherever they are in the world, to allow passengers to use their own portable oxygen concentrators free of charge, as long as they have been tested and labelled as meeting federal airline administration requirements. The United States believes that there should be no charge.

Airlines will, of course, need to follow security procedures, but if some airlines currently allow passengers to take their cylinders or concentrators on board, and if airlines are obliged to carry concentrators in the USA, the necessary security procedures clearly exist already and could be made compulsory in the UK and throughout Europe. To refuse patients the right to carry medical equipment that has been certified as safe, and then to charge large sums for alternative provision, is outrageous. Some airlines have responded to the campaign and changed their charging policy, but it is still a lottery. I trust that the Department will work with its European partners to produce crystal-clear guidance to airlines stating that they should not be charging for the service. I hope that the Minister will respond positively to end this blatant discrimination by some airlines against disabled passengers.

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1.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Jones. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger) on securing this debate. I also congratulate the British Lung Foundation, the Pulmonary Hypertension Association UK and the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign on their work to raise the profile of this issue in many ways and with many parliamentarians, including those who have signed early-day motion 1444.

This debate gives me the opportunity to respond to some of the points raised and to set out the current position. After that I shall turn to the position of airlines, in particular, UK airlines—the point of immediate concern—and then expand on how we might proceed. By definition, aviation is an international business. Many of the airlines to which my hon. Friend referred are international companies based in other parts of the world—not just in Europe, but beyond—and the issues that arise are common across the world. Furthermore, a substantial body of international law governs the operation of airlines. That legislation, whether created by the International Civil Aviation Organisation or, for European states, the EU is designed to support and help aviation consumers, whoever they might be.

Rights of disabled people and those with reduced mobility, from whatever cause, are established under European regulation 1107, to which my hon. Friend referred. The regulation is fully supported by the UK Government and enforced through statutory instrument 2007/1895. However, as he will know, the regulation does not impose specific obligations on airlines to carry or provide oxygen in the cabin. However, to help the UK air transport industry to comply with its obligations under the regulation, the Department published a revised code of practice entitled, “Access to Air Travel for Disabled Persons and Persons with Reduced Mobility”. Section 7 of the latest edition of the code, published in July 2008, includes a section on oxygen advising that air carriers may approve the carriage of small gaseous oxygen or air cylinders—not exceeding 5 kg gross mass—required for medical use, but notes that carriers will wish to ensure that these do not pose a risk to security.

Nick Ainger: I quoted the charges, but I also have a list of the airlines that do not allow patients to take on board their own oxygen cylinders. That list consists of the majority of airlines that I quoted as charging for alternative provision. It is clear that the majority of airlines in this survey are not abiding by those guidelines.

Paul Clark: I think that my hon. Friend is talking about the list that he read into the record earlier. However, many of those airlines fall outside the jurisdiction of the EU, let alone the UK. He is right about the range of options. Some carriers might charge for supplying their own oxygen or allow passengers to bring on their own oxygen cylinder. He is also right that a number of those 22 airlines do not permit the latter, but do allow—I was just coming to this point—portable oxygen concentrator devices to be brought on board. But some airlines do not allow those either.

The code of practice issued by the UK Government notes that as an alternative to oxygen cylinders, passengers could use their own portable oxygen concentrator devices.
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It recommends that airlines should normally allow such devices to be carried, if they are battery powered and not dependent on the aircraft’s power supplies. Although air carriers are not required to do so under EC regulation, some might decide to supply medical oxygen to passengers on request. The code acknowledges that it would be possible to charge for that service to cover the provision of oxygen. It will be apparent, therefore, that European law, which cannot legislate for airlines such as Emirates or Singapore Airlines, aims to strike a balance between the needs of particular groups and airlines’ commercial requirements. However, there are further considerations, including those raised by the campaign to which my hon. Friend referred, which has raised awareness of this issue.

The Department wants to encourage airlines to make clear their conditions of carriage, so that passengers considering travelling on a particular airline are aware of its policy and can make an informed choice when they purchase their tickets. Indeed, I took on board my hon. Friend’s comments about the stress through which people can be put to try to find out that information. That is why I went online to check out a number of airlines. I typed in “medical oxygen” and “oxygen supplies” to see what would come up. Although some websites were better than others, all of them carried the necessary information. We must continue to work with the transport industry—not just the airline industry—to ensure that it provides accessible information and meets people’s requirements.

Dr. Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green) (Lab): My wife uses oxygen, so I have been listening carefully to my hon. Friend the Minister. Earlier, he talked about stress. I have found that stress is not restricted to the airlines. We took cylinders with us when we travelled on Eurostar. I was kept behind in Paris for an hour because the officials thought that I was going to blow up the bloody plane. People feel stressed with hotels and trains. My wife has a card, which should enable her to get some assistance. However, we have found that company officials do not know anything about how to obtain oxygen. As has been wonderfully demonstrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger), it is an issue that is not sufficiently well known.

Paul Clark: As I was saying, there is still a long, long way to go. My hon. Friend recognises that a person has to reassure themselves with regard to both safety and security, and that the right processes are in place. That may even include taking a short blast from the gas that is in the cylinder. Unfortunately, we live in a climate in which we must check everything. My hon. Friend raised a very important point about awareness training for staff who are operating both public and private transport systems.

Earlier this year, I considered accessibility planning and awareness training for people who plan transport systems within our towns and cities, which is a very important role. Let me draw the attention of my hon. Friends to the code of practice concerning aviation to which I referred. The first item in section 7 says:

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