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10 Nov 2009 : Column 58WH—continued

Having mentioned some of the obvious problems, I should like to mention that, having been granted this debate, I was approached by the British Lung Foundation, which wanted me to raise the problem of charges for oxygen on airlines. Although I told them that this debate was about public transport, that is still a problem. It may be something for another day, but I should just like to flag it for the Minister and say that that is just another problem that people face. There are other examples
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in respect of airlines, including some not always being as sympathetic to wheelchair users as others. We should be concentrating on such things to try to let our constituents with disabilities enjoy as full a life as possible on as equal terms with ourselves as possible.

I should like to bring to right hon. Members' attention the report on the findings of Trailblazers, which I am sure the Minister has seen, which involved 1,000 young people from the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, who became, as I would say from my retail experience, mystery shoppers, trying to see how easy it was to do things on the transport systems. Those findings are all pretty obvious, but perhaps we should highlight the fact that disabled passengers often feel like second-class citizens and that they cannot, as I have mentioned already, always access the first bus, train or taxi. The assisted passenger registration service on the trains needs 24-hour advance booking, making the possibilities for more flexible travel-suddenly wanting to go somewhere on a train, for example-much more difficult.

These are all problems that people face. As I said at the beginning, I acknowledge that things are and have been improving. Goodness knows that any of us could, and probably will, suddenly find ourselves with some disability. Although we can say that advances are being made, there is a need for urgency in respect of provision for disabled people, because their quality of life could be improved by improving disability facilities on public transport, and that would make a huge difference to them. As we come up to the Olympics and, more importantly, the Paralympics, we have a wonderful opportunity, all round the country, to ensure that we have some of the best public transport accessible to disabled people.

1.16 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr. Sadiq Khan): It is a pleasure for me, too, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams. It is also my maiden voyage with you in the Chair and I hope that I do as good a job as the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall). I congratulate him on securing this debate on an important matter: access to transport by disabled people.

On a personal note, I say to the hon. Gentleman that our previous interventions had been as one Whip to another, and I really enjoyed listening to his speech based on his personal experience working with DASH and others in the disabled community.

The Department for Transport is committed to ensuring that we have an increasingly accessible transport system that works for everyone. Indeed, one of the Department's five goals is to promote greater equality of opportunity for all citizens to achieve a fairer society. This morning I addressed a disability conference at Sadler's Wells, where we discussed many of the issues that the hon. Gentleman touched on. The conference is going on as we speak.

The hon. Gentleman was correct to draw attention to the fact that many of us may be disabled one day. He mentioned his mum and his father. There are more than 10 million disabled people in the country and, with an increasingly ageing population, transport has a key role to play in delivering on many of the Government's social policies. For example, transport helps enable
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people to access employment and services and to meet their friends and family; in other words, it helps them to lead independent lives. Nowhere is this more important than in the lives of disabled people.

We will of course continue to meet the requirements of existing and planned legislation. The Equality Bill, which is currently passing through the House and will shortly reach Report stage, will streamline and bring together in one place much of our equality legislation. Existing provisions in the 1995 legislation covering the transport needs of disabled people will be included in the Bill. Not only will the Bill include the existing provisions; there is a plan for it to include new ones aimed at making taxis more accessible. I know that the House divided on the Bill on Second Reading, but I hope that colleagues will reflect and will support its passage when it returns to our House.

All new buses and trains have to be accessible, including to wheelchair passengers, and we have set end dates by which all buses and trains have to meet our accessibility standards. We have made good progress in recent years. So far, 46 per cent. of rail vehicles and 62 per cent. of the national bus fleet comply with the regulations. In fact, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that, as a consequence of the leadership shown since 2000, in London 100 per cent. of our buses are accessible. That shows what leadership can do.

Mr. Randall: Of course, we acknowledge that that is a wonderful achievement. However, as I said earlier, one problem is that it is not just about vehicles being accessible; it is about ensuring that they are truly accessible in the sense that people can get on them, and about awareness.

Mr. Khan: The hon. Gentleman is right. Getting to the bus stop or the platform is often the biggest challenge, and I recognise that there is still some way to go on this. It is not just about making buses and trains accessible. There is no point in having a new, accessible bus if people cannot get to the bus stop or board the bus. The end-to-end journey is what matters, and if there is a weak link the individual will not make the journey by public transport or, worse, will not make it at all.

I welcomed the intervention from my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke). He knows from his own experience of moving private Member's Bills and his long time in Parliament the huge impact that small decisions by bus drivers or bus operating companies may have on the quality of life of people throughout the country. That is why we decided to invest in the access for all programme in 2006, with £370 million ring-fenced until 2015 to make stations accessible for those with reduced mobility or who are disabled. Work has been completed at 30 stations, and a £6 million small schemes fund is available each year for innovative and locally focused solutions to deal with access problems at stations. More than 1,000 stations have benefited from those innovations.

Although we understand that disabled people want improvements immediately, we must strike a balance between their needs and the operating constraints of the transport industries. Our largely Victorian railway system poses a challenge in providing 100 per cent. accessibility, so we must identify where we can achieve the most benefits from our investment, not just for disabled people but for all passengers, including older people and parents with babies.

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The hon. Gentleman touched on an important point about finite places, and tension between mums and dads with buggies and people whose only form of moving about is in a wheelchair. He will be aware that legislation is in place to ensure that bus drivers and others understand the priorities if, for example, those with buggies do not understand, appreciate, empathise with or give space to those in wheelchairs.

In his excellent speech, the hon. Gentleman touched on the role of taxis, which are an important link in the transport chain. We have recently consulted on accessible taxis, driver duties to disabled people, and training. I announced recently that the Department intends to make regulations to impose a duty on drivers of accessible taxis, as well as private hire vehicles, to assist disabled passengers into and out of the vehicle, and to transport them in safety and comfort.

The Department will also invite bids from local authorities to participate in demonstration schemes or pilots to assess disabled people's needs and how to match the taxi fleet to those needs. He also touched on the Trailblazers report. I had the benefit of meeting the group recently and receiving its report, and as a result of the impression that it made on me, I have actioned a number of points. I will write to the hon. Gentleman to let him know exactly what I have done, because I know that he has a huge interest not only in DASH but in other such organisations.

We must think not only about local journeys. Disabled people should be able to travel further afield just like the rest of us, and to enjoy holidays wherever they want. We continue to monitor compliance with the European regulation that came into force in July 2008 on the rights of disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility when travelling by air. We are also involved in negotiations on the European Commission's proposals, which were published in December 2008, for new regulations, including rights for disabled people and passengers with reduced mobility using maritime transport and international bus and coach services.

The issue is not just about physical access. We know from our research and as highlighted by Trailblazers and other groups for disabled people that other barriers prevent people from taking advantage of the improvements that have been made to the transport system, not least the attitude of operating staff. Since 2002, we have had regulations in place that make it unlawful for transport operating staff to disregard the needs of disabled passengers, including wheelchair users. For many operators, disability awareness training is now an integral part of staff training, but we must do more, and we are working with GoSkills on how awareness training can be incorporated into the certificate of professional competence for bus drivers.

The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that not only does Trailblazers have a mystery customer remit, but Passenger Focus will extend its empire from rail to bus. I have had a mystery tour around the country using buses, and he is right in saying that bus drivers can do simple things, such as parking the vehicle next to the pavement, using their mirrors to ensure that older or disabled people have sat down before moving off, braking gently, and other things to improve the quality of life for disabled commuters when getting on and off buses.

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We recommend that both front-line and management staff are trained and that their skills are regularly updated. Last year, the Department's advisory body, DPTAC-the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee-published a training framework for use by those preparing and running courses. The Olympics-this will please the hon. Gentleman, as a London MP-will provide the opportunity to demonstrate the benefits of that training when many disabled people come to London for the games. Crossrail will also ensure that all the facilities that it provides will be accessible to disabled people. Security and fear of crime are also barriers for many people, including disabled people. We remain committed to reducing crime, fear of crime and antisocial behaviour wherever it occurs on the transport system. The Department's secure stations programme is contributing to that.

Another point raised by the hon. Gentleman was the need to know and to access information before making a journey. Later this year, the Association of Train Operating Companies will launch a new station journey planning website, and my Department has contributed £500,000 towards that. The site will include access information for every station in the country. is the Department's website and offers free information for door-to-door, multi-modal travel around Britain. We are considering how to include more information on accessibility, and how real-time information can be provided direct to disabled passengers. In Reading, such information can be sent to a mobile phone; that will improve the quality of life for many people about whom the hon. Gentleman and I care passionately.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the cost of transport. Last year we extended the concessionary fares scheme to allow disabled people to travel free on off-peak buses anywhere in England. In addition, half fare discounts are available on coaches, and the disabled person's railcard offers one third off many rail tickets. To illustrate the scale, the £1 billion for the concessionary bus fares scheme enables 11 million people in England to have access to free buses after 9.30 am and before 11 pm.

For those who cannot use public transport or do not have access to a car, community transport remains an important means of mobility, so we are encouraging collaboration with third-sector organisations, particularly in community transport solutions. Those organisations and local authorities have a critical role in targeting resources at local authorities' needs. The Local Transport Act 2008 removes some of the restrictions on vehicles used for community transport, and allows drivers with section 22 permits to be paid.

Delivering improved accessibility does not rest only with the Department for Transport. I accept that we must work in partnership with operators, manufacturers, delivery agents such as local authorities, and disabled people. Many accessibility barriers need local solutions, which is why we have introduced accessibility planning into the local transport planning process to allow a clearer and more systematic approach to ensuring that the needs of vulnerable groups in accessing jobs and key services are considered. We must not forget, for example, how important the pedestrian environment is for getting about. We are evaluating the accessibility planning process to see how that is working in practice.

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I again congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge on his speech, and on bringing this important matter to the Department's attention. I re-emphasise that accessibility remains high on our agenda. We have achieved a great deal, but there is still a long way to go if we are to achieve our 2025 goal in the Government's strategy for improving the life chances of disabled people to ensure that they live more independent lives.

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Centre for Defence Medicine

1.29 pm

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): I had better start with an apology, because it is actually the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine. That error is entirely my fault. I am extremely grateful to have the opportunity to speak about the work done by military and NHS clinical staff at the centre at Selly Oak hospital. Over the years, the centre has been mentioned in Parliament-usually in response to ill informed comments, which have not always been confined to the press. I want to put on the record the centre's achievement, in its entirety.

The centre was formally opened by Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal in 2001. A year later, in 2002, it was given approval by Her Majesty the Queen and could use the title "Royal". It was fitting that the Princess Royal performed the opening ceremony, as her husband, now Vice-Admiral Timothy Laurence, wrote the original Ministry of Defence report advocating the creation of the centre for defence medicine.

The first RCDM staff arrived at University Hospitals Birmingham in September 2000, when seven nurses joined the accident and emergency department. They have since been joined by almost 600 doctors, nurses, therapists and support staff, who work throughout the trust.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) for allowing me to trespass slightly on her territory. I hope that I can justify that on two grounds. Incidentally, I am glad to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) is also present. The first ground is that the trust very much covers the south of Birmingham. The other excuse, which is probably much more important, is that I was in the Department of Health when the decision was made to restructure the way in which medical care was delivered to our armed forces.

Setting up the centre was not uncontroversial. I remember participating in Adjournment debates that made me extremely unpopular in places such as Gosport. Military medicine has extra dimensions beyond the usual care for patients. Military commanders need advice on how to maintain the health of their troops and how to deal with injuries suffered on or away from the battlefield. They usually operate in extreme conditions-extreme in terms of climate, terrain and personal security. Just to complicate things, there are tropical diseases and wound contamination.

There is now agreement that free-standing dedicated military hospitals cannot provide the best clinical care. Much of the criticism in the past was based on the mistaken assumption that unless there were dedicated hospitals and wards for servicemen, they would receive second-rate treatment. The opposite is true: what matters is the appropriate setting and clinically optimal care.

The British Medical Association, in response to today's debate, stated that

The BMA wants to see the necessary improvements to provide the best health care overall for our military
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patients, using the best that the NHS has available but ensuring that the care is given in an environment with the appropriate military ethos.

I should like to remind the press and the media that they, too, have a responsibility, which goes beyond their daily circulation figures. Of course when things go wrong, they need to be highlighted. I am glad to say that most recently the press and the string of visiting politicians have acknowledged the excellent work done at Selly Oak, but some may wish to look back and reflect on some of the things that they have said and written in years gone by. Sad to say, we still get stories, such as that in The Sun on 24 September, that are simply factually inaccurate. They fail to understand that counting "military beds" tells us little. Misrepresentations of that type damage the morale of recovering injured soldiers and clinical staff, and morale is a component of fighting power. Stories such as those worry troops, staff and families alike.

The Defence Medical Services is the collective term for some 6,500 trained regular uniformed medical personnel from the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air force. The hospital treatment of armed forces personnel is carried out through the use of NHS facilities under partnership arrangements. The Defence Medical Services staff are grouped into five MOD hospital units across the country. I am referring to Derriford, Frimley Park, Peterborough, Portsmouth and Northallerton, plus the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine. On average, the total number of military in-patients in NHS hospitals across the UK, for all illnesses and injuries, is about 60 to 75 personnel, although the numbers fluctuate.

The Healthcare Commission, which checks health services in England, reviewed Defence Medical Services earlier this year and found that rehabilitation services were "excellent" and that the system of regular reviews of best practice in trauma and rehabilitation services meant that care was "continuously improving and innovating". Patient diaries, kept for personnel recovering from injury in hospital to help with short-term memory loss, were described as "innovative".

Most recently, the excellent work done by the RCDM, led by Brigadier Chris Parker, was recognised at the military and civilian health partnership awards in Edinburgh in November 2009. Moira Kane, from 202 field hospital, Birmingham, won the deployed health care award for her work as a senior nurse in the emergency department at Camp Bastion. Dr. Heidi Doughty, also from 202 field hospital, who is a colonel in the Territorial Army, won the reservist of the year award for her pioneering work on improving blood platelet donation by soldiers to injured colleagues. The ortho-plastic team at Selly Oak, led by Professor Keith Porter, won the team of the year award. Those who watched the BBC documentary "Wounded", which followed the treatment of two seriously injured soldiers, will be familiar with the team's work.

Having been critical of the press, I can pay tribute to the Birmingham newspapers; the Birmingham Mail and The Birmingham Post have always been fair to the centre, acknowledged its achievements and drawn it to the public's attention.

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