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Equality Bill

Equality Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Joe Benton, David Taylor, Ann Winterton
Abbott, Ms Diane (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab)
Baird, Vera (Solicitor-General)
Baron, Mr. John (Billericay) (Con)
Boswell, Mr. Tim (Daventry) (Con)
Brown, Lyn (West Ham) (Lab)
Drew, Mr. David (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op)
Featherstone, Lynne (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD)
Foster, Michael Jabez (Parliamentary Secretary, Government Equalities Office)
Griffith, Nia (Llanelli) (Lab)
Harper, Mr. Mark (Forest of Dean) (Con)
Harris, Dr. Evan (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD)
Hesford, Stephen (Wirral, West) (Lab)
Howell, John (Henley) (Con)
Mason, John (Glasgow, East) (SNP)
Osborne, Sandra (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab)
Penrose, John (Weston-super-Mare) (Con)
Sheridan, Jim (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab)
Thornberry, Emily (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab)
Alan Sandall, Eliot Wilson, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 2 July 2009


[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Equality Bill

Written evidence to be reported to the House
E61- Equality and Diversity Forum (additional memorandum)

Clause 157

Exemption from taxi accessibility regulations
9 am
The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): I beg to move amendment 286, in clause 157, page 116, line 33, leave out ‘Great Britain’ and insert ‘England and Wales’.
The effect of this amendment is to restrict the application of clause 157 to England and Wales.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments 287 to 293
The Solicitor-General: The amendment relates to the application of the clause to Scotland. An error was made in the first place.
Amendment 286 agreed to.
Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I will not trouble the Committee for too long. I just think that now is a useful opportunity to ask the Solicitor-General to look again at the provision before we return to it on Report. She will be aware that in February the Department for Transport published a consultation paper on improving access to taxis. I think that all the responses are back, but I have not seen any information from the Department. I think it is in order to discuss the matter because one option in the consultation document requires primary legislation. Given that we are transferring measures from the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to the Bill, a change is needed in the provision on which the Government were consulting.
Will the hon. and learned Lady touch on where the consultation process has got to, describe the responses and say what the Department for Transport is likely to do? If primary legislation is the option favoured by the Government, the measure will need to be amended. A specific option is to allow local authorities to enforce section 36 of the DDA on taxis to ensure that the policy takes place in actuality rather than just in name.
Without veering too far from the Bill, it might be helpful to explain the changes. The Government have been consulting on how to improve access to licensed taxis and equality of opportunity for disabled people. A number of local authorities have implemented an accessible-taxi policy, but a lot have not and only about half the licensed taxis in the country can be described as wheelchair-accessible. I assume from the words “can be described” as wheelchair-accessible that that is being generous.
In one third of licensing authorities, less than 10 per cent. of taxis are wheelchair-accessible and 16 authorities have no wheelchair-accessible taxis. Just copying across the DDA regulations to the Bill means that that state of affairs will continue, which is not satisfactory.
The Government have been consulting on a policy to improve access to taxi fleets in line with the objectives under the clause to improve access to jobs and enable people to have better access to services and other social networks. That is squarely within the goods and services measures in the Bill and their attempt to improve accessibility for people. Recent court cases have highlighted or challenged local authority policies that require a proportion of taxi fleets to be wheelchair-accessible. The Government were looking at using regulation-making powers under the DDA to require local authorities to have an accessibility standard for a taxi fleet in their area and ensure compliance. One policy option is primary legislation that would require changes under the Bill. Another is the introduction of an accessible-taxi standard by 2025. The third option is the introduction of a standard in line with the existing enhanced standard by 2025, or application of an interim standard in urban areas and areas with high levels of illness by 2020.
Those options clearly have different costs. The first, unsurprisingly, would be the most expensive, with a value of around £2.7 million, although the benefits have not been calculated. The benefits would be significant and, I suspect, would outweigh the costs. It would be helpful if the Solicitor-General set out where the DFT has got to. If changes are needed in primary legislation, they are clearly not here now. If there are to be such legislative changes, perhaps she will say whether we are likely to have them on Report and when that is likely to be, because it might be a good opportunity to introduce the amendments.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): As the Committee may know—my hon. Friend does—I preceded him some time ago in holding Conservative Front-Bench responsibilities on disability. It is obviously an area of great importance in terms of services. The important thing is that there is adequate supply of vehicles to get people with disabilities to where they wish to go, which should be the main objective. I am not for a moment suggesting that that objective is not shared between us—it is. However, there is a long history in a range of subjects, from the conduct of further education colleges, for which I had some responsibility at one stage, through accessible taxis to a variety of other cases on which the House legislates and local authorities do as little as possible until the last possible moment and are then forced and dragged into doing better. Intervening legislation since the DDA was designed to sharpen up their act, and I supported that.
Mr. Harper: My hon. Friend has highlighted an interesting issue about the difference between hackney carriages and taxis, which is what the regulations apply to, and private hire vehicles. The point of the clause is to allow for an exemption if the local authority thinks that, by insisting on some accessible taxis, all the taxis would flip over to being private hire vehicles. As well as thinking about what the consultation on improving access to taxis does, the Government ought to think about whether it makes sense for that regulation to apply for taxis but to have nothing similar for private hire vehicles. We could have all the taxis threatening to switch over to being private hire vehicles and the local authority saying, “Fine, okay then”, but we could then end up with no accessible taxis at all.
For disabled people, the important thing in the difference between taxis and private hire vehicles is that private hire vehicles have to be booked in advance. It would not be acceptable if disabled people were not able to get transport without having to plan ahead, just as everyone else can. If they could only book ahead, that would be a diminution of their freedom and ability to move. Will my hon. Friend comment on that?
Mr. Boswell: My hon. Friend has read my mind—that was to be the second part of my remarks. It is an early hour of a Thursday morning, so I cannot resist the temptation, because it reflects a great human spirit, to quote a Labour Foreign Secretary of many years ago and of great repute, Ernie Bevin, who once defined his wish for free movement as wanting to be able to
“go down to Victoria station... take a ticket and go where the hell I like”.
That is exactly the point about taxis: people do not want to feel that because they have a disability they have to tie themselves down to pre-purchase. They should be able to use taxis.
I want to respond to my hon. Friend’s point so, in parenthesis, my experience doing the Front-Bench job, when I was bringing a large number of people with disabilities into the House, was somewhat mixed. There were occasions—I appreciate that the clause does not refer to the metropolitan area—when we went to New Palace Yard and found some difficulty in getting the taxi to accommodate.
My first concern is a generic one about the extent to which the duties bite across the whole of the fleet, which may be available to disabled people, and how that will be balanced out. Secondly, I appreciate that we do not want to create another inspectorate at the centre, but I want from the Government a handle on the extent to which adequate provision is being made.
My third point concerns the criteria under which local authorities may bring this measure forward. As explained in the explanatory notes, it appears to be a fairly rigorous test: they would have to apply and make a case, which would have to be run past the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee. I hope that would happen and that it will be a rigorous test.
Clearly, one could refer to islands where it might be more difficult to provide such a service. However, the normal presumption should be that the taxis will be accessible and there should be as few exemptions as possible. If there are to be exemptions, they should be properly evidenced and explained, not just nodded through.
Clause 157 sets up the framework, but it is important that we have an understanding that it will not be a fiction and used as a whitewash whereby local authorities walk away from their duties or find ways to avoid them, and that it will not lead to a diminution of service across the piece for disabled people, which is a common concern of the Committee. I think that all that can be achieved, but I would like the Solicitor-General’s assurance that it will be.
The Solicitor-General: We decided last year to take a fresh look at how we can achieve our objective of enhancing accessible-taxi provision, and there was a consultation that closed on 24 April. We asked members of the public, groups and organisations whether the regulations were the right way to deal with the issue. We are still analysing all that. Many of the issues raised by hon. Gentlemen have absolute reality and I accept that completely. The possibility of people migrating to become private hire only is an issue that we must countenance. The possibility that there could be an area in which there were no accessible taxis because of the provision is something we need to look at.
There are protections within the four corners of clause 154, which deals with the issue properly, whereas clause 157 deals with exemptions. There has to be a consultation—the hon. Gentleman referred to the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee. The Secretary of State has to be satisfied that any exemption is appropriate, and he or she can put terms upon it. However, I readily accept that there is a need for us to come back and say to the House what we will do about the issue.
Mr. Boswell: I appreciate that the Solicitor-General is in some difficulty because she does not speak for the Department for Transport, but will she ensure that it at least takes seriously the continuing monitoring of the situation, as well as setting up the framework on day one, which I am sure it will do plausibly and sensibly? However, it is delivery that will matter.
The Solicitor-General: Yes, I will, and we will have the responses to the consultation analysed by September. The Bill will be discussed on Report at the other end of recess, so we will have an opportunity to discuss this again. On that clear undertaking, for the time being I invite the hon. Member for Forest of Dean to allow the clause to stand part of the Bill.
9.15 am
Mr. Harper: That is helpful, and I am grateful for confirmation of when the Solicitor-General expects the Bill to be considered on Report. We will look at the Department for Transport response to the consultation. I note that private hire vehicle drivers and operators were asked to respond to it. It will be interesting to see what they say, as well as what taxi operators say.
Given the Solicitor-General’s clear assurance, we will wait for the consultation and then discuss on Report what should be done.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 157, as amended, accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 158 and 159 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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