Transport CommitteeWritten evidence from Allied Vehicles (DAT 49)

1. About Us

Allied Vehicles is a converter and supplier of special purpose vehicles, employing around 370 people across the UK. In particular:

(i)Our Allied Mobility trading division supplies a range of wheelchair accessible cars, people carriers and minibuses to individuals, care providers, hospitals and community transport organisations. Allied Mobility is the largest supplier of wheelchair accessible vehicles to the UK Motability Scheme; and

(ii)Our taxi division, Cab Direct, provides a range of standard and wheelchair accessible vehicles to taxi and private hire operators. Cab Direct is the largest vehicle supplier to the cab industry across the UK, except in the small number of areas where we are unable to offer our products owing to historic licensing restrictions.

We are well-placed to contribute in an informed way to the Committee’s review as a result of our expertise in the design and construction of special purpose vehicles; our experience of working with disabled people to develop solutions to enhance mobility; and our extensive experience of working with the taxi industry, licensing officers and local authorities generally throughout the UK.

2. Overview

For disabled people—and especially those with mobility impairments—availability of accessible public transport is a crucial factor influencing the quality of daily life. It is imperative that the country does all that it can both to eliminate unnecessary barriers to accessing public transport and to promote positive innovations that further mobility and safety for disabled passengers.

A second key premise underpinning our response is that equality of access to public transport services should be a universal right for disabled people. It should therefore apply equally (insofar as is possible), to all forms of public transport and in all parts of the UK.

Unfortunately this is not currently the case. Firstly, national legislation has tended to skirt around the question of accessibility in relation to what is the most responsive and arguably most important form of public transport for disabled people—taxis. Secondly, at least insofar as taxi services are concerned, mobility provision for disabled people has developed in a piecemeal fashion, leading to vast discrepancies, both in accessibility and safety, between different localities across the UK. This, we say, is plainly wrong. As the Chair of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, reminds us: “the needs of a disabled person in Bradford are the same as a disabled person in Birmingham”1. Who would disagree with that?

Consequently we call on the Transport Committee to pay greater heed to the importance of taxis services—effectively the glue that underpins access to all public transport, at least for disabled people—and to recommend to Parliament new, national legislation on accessibility of taxi services. This will provide an opportunity both to simplify the existing minefield of local regulation and to deliver positive, practical improvement for disabled passengers by setting out clear, national requirements for accessibility and safety.

3. Importance of Taxi Services for Disabled People

3.1 Disabled people tend to depend heavily on public transport services in order to get to work, attend medical appointments, visit friends and family and otherwise participate in community life. However, to properly understand the impact that public transport has for disabled people demands consideration of all aspects of our transport network, among which taxi services hold a disproportionately high importance for people with disabilities. Accessible bus, rail and air services are of course vital components yet disabled people need the means to get to and from the bus/train station or airport, or to get directly to their destination. For many, taxis play a crucial, underpinning, role in connecting with other modes of travel, as well as providing the only viable means of travelling from home to work, shops or hospital.

3.2 Taxis in fact represent the quintessential form of demand responsive transport and have the potential to offer invaluable flexibility of mobility for millions of disabled people, who are otherwise unable to simply jump in their own car and drive themselves. Taxis are available 24x7 and provide a genuine door-to-door service. An Office for Fair Trading report found that disabled people use taxis 67% more frequently than non-disabled people.2 We urge the Committee not to overlook this vital component of the public transport system.

4. Inequity in Provision of Wheelchair Accessible Taxis

4.1 Unfortunately the degree of accessibility—and safety—offered to disabled people varies hugely across the UK. This, we say, is entirely unjustifiable. While it may be reasonable for local authorities to determine the best location for taxi ranks in their area or a corporate colour scheme for local taxi and private hire vehicles, the fundamental right for disabled people to enjoy equality of access to public transport, including taxis, should apply universally, whether you are a disabled person living in Liverpool, Llandudno or London. Unfortunately this is far from being the case.

4.2 There are two main issues with current legislation, as it affects mobility and safety for disabled passengers. Our observations here impact particularly on wheelchair users, although accessibility concerns for disabled users of taxi services also extend to blind and partially sighted people, deaf people, passengers travelling with guide and assistance dogs and those with other forms of reduced mobility.

4.3 Wheelchair access to taxis has been available, to varying degrees, since the 1980s. In the nineties the Disability Discrimination Act gave the Secretary of State power to make regulations for the carriage of disabled people.3 This power, however, has never been exercised, there are still no national requirements and both the extent and quality of provision varies widely across the country.

4.4 DfT statistics4 show that provision of wheelchair accessible vehicles by local authority varies from 100% in some areas to none at all in others. We do not believe that this can be deemed acceptable in terms of equality of access to public transport services. Consequently there is a need for legislative direction, at a national level, to create a level playing field and improve availability of accessible vehicles in taxi fleets across the UK.

4.5 Equality rights, such as those enshrined in the Equality Act, of course apply throughout the UK. In practice, however, the degree of discrepancy in provision of wheelchair accessible taxis in local taxi fleets across England & Wales is very substantial. Neither should the scale of this issue, in terms of the number of people affected, be underestimated. (See Table A, below.)

Table A

Proportion of Accessible Taxis in Hackney Fleet5

Number of Local Authorities6

Total Population7

% of Wheelchair Users in Population8

Number of Wheelchair Users Affected

0–9%

116

12,556,900

2.35

295,100

10–24%

63

9,020,300

212,000

25–49%

43

6,915,600

162,500

50–74%

27

5,704,600

134,100

75–100%

66

21,041,600

494,500

4.6 Whereas 38% of wheelchair users in England & Wales live in areas where three quarters or more of the local taxi fleet is wheelchair accessible, 39% live in areas where less than a quarter of the local taxi fleet is wheelchair accessible. Almost 700,000 wheelchair users live in areas where less than half of the local taxi fleet is accessible to wheelchair users.

5 Unsuitable and Unsafe Provision of Wheelchair Accessible Taxis

5.1 Unfortunately, even where provision of wheelchair accessible taxis is required, the quality and extent of access available varies considerably. Ironically, in this case, regulation actually gets in the way of improved accessibility. This is because, in a number of local authority areas (only a handful, numerically, but including London), unnecessarily restrictive regulation limits taxis to only one or two types of vehicle.

5.2 A fundamental point raised by the many disability organisations with which we work is that “one size does not fit all”. People living with disability each have different needs and it is therefore it improbable that any monolithic solution will best meet the needs of every disabled individual. Anti-competitive red tape, such as taxi licensing regulations that rule out all but one or two types of vehicle, inevitably have the effect of restricting choice and, in so doing, stand in the way of advances in accessibility for disabled passengers.

5.3 In practice, these restrictive licensing anomalies (known generally as “London Conditions”) have the effect of preventing vehicles which offer enhanced wheelchair access, and which operate successfully as hackney taxis across 97% of UK local authority areas, from being available to wheelchair using passengers living in or visiting our own capital city (together with a handful of other authorities which still mirror “London Conditions”9).

5.4 Because making ready for wheelchair access and then correctly loading and securing the wheelchair occupant is both awkward and time-consuming in some styles of taxi, many cab drivers can become reluctant to accept wheelchair passengers. Such an attitude may be driven by fear of getting into bother for not securing the wheelchair occupant successfully or simply from reluctance to put in the additional time and effort required to deal with a “wheelchair fair”. Either way, many wheelchair users report repeated experience, when seeking to hail a cab, of drivers pretending not to notice them and driving on.10 (Note that this type of behaviour is also a frequent difficulty for disabled people with guide or assistance dogs.)

5.5 Cab drivers are under an obligation11 to accept wheelchair passengers seeking to hire their cab, provided it is possible and safe for them to do so. In many cases, where it is unreasonably difficult or impossible for them to do so safely (because of the design of their vehicle) drivers will, in practice, be right to decline such hires.

5.6 It is, however, also true that is many cases drivers who could accept the would-be wheelchair passenger safely opt not to do so because of the time and hassle involved. This is of course unacceptable and punishable behaviour, yet is can also be very difficult to prove and therefore to provide effective enforcement. While emphasising the legal position, public authorities can in practice do more to help wheelchair users by ensuring availability of more suitable accessible vehicles within local taxi fleets.

5.7 In addition to issue of convenience, lack of space within vehicles such as the “London style” cab and other smaller types of hackney taxi also result in serious safety concerns for disabled passengers. Limited internal flat-floor room means that while it may be relatively easy to push a wheelchair user from the pavement into to the cab (sideways), it is unreasonably difficult, or impossible, to then manoeuvre the wheelchair user into the correct position for travel.

5.8 The result is that wheelchair users are either denied the opportunity to travel or are left to travel sitting in a sideways position. Evidence from a survey of “wheelchair accessible” taxis in Manchester and London showed that 96% of wheelchair passengers were left to travel in a sideways position.12

5.9 Travelling in this way represents a very serious risk for disabled people. Neither the passenger (through a passenger safety belt) nor their chair (thought wheelchair restraints) can be properly secured to the vehicle. This position clearly flies in the face of all road traffic and automotive safety best practice.

5.10 Many—possibly most—wheelchair users may accept travelling in a sideways manner as the norm (as, for example, it once was for car users in general to travel without wearing seatbelts), simply because in some areas, this is the only manner of travel offered to them. Yet disabled people travelling in this way frequently report discomfort and anxiety arising from their chair tending to tip to one side or the other, as the vehicle slows or accelerates. They also report tired arms, as a result of hanging on to parts of the vehicle in an effort to steady their wheelchair.

5.11 The consequences of travelling sideways can, however, be more serious still. Sitting sideways is the worst possible position in which to be sitting, in the event of a crash—to such an extent that European legislation now prohibits provision of sideways-facing seats in M1 vehicles (ie all passenger cars with up to nine seats, including taxis). So it is illegal for an able-bodied person to travel sideways yet, as we have seen, in some parts of the UK restrictive licensing conditions result in 19 out of 20 wheelchair users travelling in this manner.

5.12 Sadly the Birmingham coroner, investigating the tragic death of a young girl during a relatively minor accident involving the taxi in which she was travelling, found the fact that she was seated sideways in her wheelchair to be a contributory factor and a matter for wider concern.13

5.13 Everyday difficulties, both in terms of ease and safety of access, arise primarily in those areas which claim to require wheelchair access but still retain vehicle specifications based on the need for a horse-drawn carriage to turn full circle outside the Savoy Hotel in The Stand. Whilst the vast majority of local authorities have now moved away from such criteria—which restrict market choice and prevent the use of more wheelchair friendly cabs used elsewhere throughout the UK—many thousands of disabled people remain adversely affected by those few authorities which still retain “London Conditions” (See Table B.)

Table B

Local Authority

Population14

% of Wheelchair Users in Population15

Number of Wheelchair Users Affected

Coventry

315,700

2.35

7,400

Harlow

81,700

1,900

London

7,825,200

183,900

Maidstone

149,800

3,500

Peterborough

173,400

4,100

Reading

154,200

3,600

Telford & Wrekin

162,600

3,800

Trafford

217,300

5,100

Total

9,079,900

213,300

5.14 More than 200,000 wheelchair users are unnecessarily prevented from travelling in taxis conveniently and safely, or from travelling at all, simply because of antiquated red tape which bars access to more accessible vehicles, thousands of which operate successfully across 97% of UK towns and cities.

6. Current Legal & Advisory Framework

6.1 There is already a considerable body of governmental recommendation, guidance and legislation mitigating in favour of a more accessible and more diverse range of taxi types within taxi fleets across the UK. Some key examples are briefly summarised in the following paragraphs and we will be delighted to assist with further detail, should that be helpful.

6.2 Regrettably the key point that we make here is that, despite this body of policy direction, Parliament’s well-intentioned efforts over recent decades have, thus far, resulted in a mixed picture across the country, where accessibility to taxi services remains patchy in availability and variable in both convenience and safety.

6.3 The Equality Act 2010 sets out a number of general provisions designed to define and protect the rights of disabled people to be treated in a manner as close as possible to that of other people, together with placing specific responsibilities on taxi drivers and on public bodies to act in accordance with these principals.

6.4 Taxi drivers, for example, are required to “carry the person in the vehicle in the wheelchair” and to “take such steps as are necessary to enable the person to travel in safety and reasonable comfort”.16 As indicated above, however, it is difficult for drivers to comply with these obligations if the nature of their vehicle makes it unreasonably difficult or impossible for them so to do.

6.5 The Equality Act also requires that all public authorities should have due regard to:

“the need to promote equality of opportunity between disabled persons and other persons”;

“the need to take steps to take account of disabled persons’ disabilities, even where that involves treating disabled persons more favourably than other persons”; and to

“advance equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it”.17

6.6 The Equality Act further places a “positive duty” on local authorities to make whatever “reasonable adjustments” are practically possible in order to promote equality for, amongst others, disabled people. Such adjustments may, very reasonably, include an adjustment to policies, such as licensing policy, in order to facilitate more accessible services.

6.7 The key point made by disability organisations—that “one size doesn’t fit all”—has also been identified at a national level. An OfT study18 of the taxi market identified that:

“As disabled people have a range of different requirements, it is important that there is a range of taxi vehicles that are able to meet their varied needs.”

6.8 DfT guidance to local authorities on taxi licensing issues states :

“Normally, the best practice is for local licensing authorities to adopt the principle of specifying as many different types of vehicle as possible. Indeed, local authorities might usefully set down a range of general criteria, leaving it open to the taxi and PHV trades to put forward vehicles of their own choice which can be shown to meet those criteria. In that way there can be flexibility for new vehicle types to be readily taken into account.”; and

“It is suggested that local licensing authorities should give very careful consideration to a policy which automatically rules out particular types of vehicle or prescribes only one type or a small number of types of vehicle.”19

6.9 Guidance is also available from the Department for Health, which states:

“Wheelchair users should not travel with the wheelchair at an angle or facing sideways.”

6.10 Despite these statements, it remains that case that some taxi fleets offer no or very limited numbers of vehicles with any wheelchair access, whilst others retain restrictive licensing conditions that prevent some of the UK’s most accessible and most popular wheelchair accessible taxis being made available to disabled passengers and result in wheelchair occupants travelling sideways and unsecured in public hire taxis.

7. Case Law

7.1 The importance of the equality duty for public authorities has been further clarified through subsequent case law. In Roads v. Central Trains, for example, the court held that substantive equality meant:

“ . . access to a service as close as it is reasonably possible to get to the standard normally offered to the public at large … [it] is not a minimalist policy of simply ensuring that some access is available to the disabled: it is so far as is reasonably practicable, to approximate the access enjoyed by disabled persons to that enjoyed by the rest of the public.”20

Being unable to hail an accessible cab, or only being able to travel unsafely in an accessible cab, clearly means that wheelchair users in many parts of the UK have not achieved equality with non-disabled taxi users.

7.2 In 2009 a disabled woman, Alma Lunt, resorted to legal action, which was supported by our company, against her local authority for causing discrimination by preventing the sale of a more wheelchair friendly cab, the Peugeot E7. Despite being widely used in most parts of the UK, Liverpool’s then licensing policy—which was at that time based on the London Conditions of Fitness—precluded vehicles such as the E7 from operating in Liverpool.

7.3 In Lunt the court found that the “reasonable adjustment” duty placed on public authorities:

“Seeks broadly to put the disabled person as far as reasonably practicable in a similar position to the ambulant user of a taxi.”21

Justice Blake went on to conclude that taxi fleets which, for whatever reason, prohibited the use of more wheelchair accessible vehicles:

“showed serious difficulties for a class of wheelchair users that was wider in extent than Mrs Lunt personally, and that of that class there are some, like Mrs Lunt, who could not access the safe and secure position at all.”

7.4 Given the above, the court ruled that Liverpool City Council, by refusing to make a reasonable adjustment to its licensing specifications, had discriminated against a portion of its own residents and the Council was directed to reconsider its decision.

7.5 Notwithstanding the change that Lunt occasioned in Liverpool and, subsequently, various other towns and cities, this remains a wider problem, as some local authorities still retain almost identical Conditions of Fitness. Neither is Mrs. Lunt alone in having a larger than average size of wheelchair.

7.6 A DfT study of the dimensions of wheelchair users, with their chairs, recognised that average wheelchair size is steadily increasing. Three quarters of wheelchairs are over one meter in length and 15% are greater in length than the DfT-defined “reference wheelchair”.22 Combining these figures with Department for Health statistics23 reveals that there are 757,000 UK residents who for whom it is difficult to safely access a traditional “London-style” cab and a further 199,000 people who are entirely unable to safely access these cabs (or, for that matter, the only other taxi vehicle currently available for sale in London) at all.

8. Way Forward

8.1 The issues illustrated above have a severe impact on the mobility and safety of hundreds of thousands of wheelchair users. The bald fact is that vehicles exist and are used successfully across most of the UK which could address these issues, at no cost to the public purse. All that is required is a more proactive application of the “positive duty” on public authorities and a more diverse and inclusive approach to taxi licensing policy.

8.2 Whilst Mrs. Lunt was ultimately successful in her struggle and is now able to utilise more suitable wheelchair accessible vehicles in Liverpool, few individuals will have the courage, determination and persistence, nor the financial backing, to endure years of struggle and legal expense. Nor should it be left to individual disabled people, or organisations, or indeed local authorities, to wind an arduous, long road towards equality of access to what is the most vital public transport service available to disabled people.

8.3 Instead, Government should act, swiftly and decisively, to implement binding national legislation in order too:

Specify a minimum proportion of wheelchair accessible vehicles to be available in all local taxi and private hire fleets;

Set minimum safety standards in the design and construction of wheelchair accessible taxis; and

Prohibit local authorities from operating restrictive licensing policies which limit choice and preclude access to wheelchair accessible taxis which meet required accessibility and automotive safety standards.

8.4 The Publicly Available Standard for M1 category wheelchair accessible vehicles, recently published by the British Standards Institute (BSi), provides a ready-made platform for setting national safety standards for wheelchair accessible taxis.24

8.5 We urge the committee to:

accept responsibility for improving mobility and accessibility for disabled people wishing to use taxis;

recognise the scale and seriousness of the problems here illustrated; and to

recommend urgent, decisive action by Parliament to ensure equality of access to and equality of safety within taxis for wheelchair users in all parts of the UK.

8.6 We thank the committee for considering our evidence and would be pleased to provide further detail, in person, before the committee.

January 2013

1 Dai Powell, speaking at Law Commission Steering Group, March 2012

2 Office for Fair Trading, Regulation of Taxi and Private Hire Services in the UK [2003] ss 5.37 – 5.38

3 Disability Discrimination Act [1995], s 33

4 Department for Transport, Taxi Statistics [2011]

5 Department for Transport, Taxi Statistics, 2011

6 Department for Transport, Taxi Statistics, 2011

7 Office for National Statistics, Population Estimates, mid 2010

8 The National Health Service estimates that there are 1.2 million wheelchair users in England, to which we have estimated a further 0.1 million for Wales.

9 Coventry, Harlow, Maidstone, Peterborough, Reading, Telford & Wrekin, Trafford.

10 See evidence presented by, among others, Disabled Motoring UK; Baroness Chapman

11 Equality Act 2010, s 167

12 Wheelchair User Experience, Lowland Market Research [2008]

13 Razum Begum (14), died in February 2009.

14 Office for National Statistics, Population Estimates, mid 2010

15 The National Health Service estimates that there are 1.2 million wheelchair users in England, to which we have estimated a further 0.1 million for Wales.

16 Equality Act 2010 ss 165 - 167

17 Equality Act [2010], s 149

18 Regulation of Taxi & Private Hire Services in the UK, Office for Fair Trading [2003] s 7.38

19 Department for Transport, Best Practice Guidance on Taxi and Private Hire Vehicle Licensing [2010]

20 Roads v. Central Trains Ltd, [2004] EWCA Civ 1541

21 Rv Lunt & Allied Vehicles v Liverpool City Council [2009] EWHC 2356 (Admin)

22 Survey of Occupied Wheelchairs, CEDS, for the Department of Transport [2005]

23 The National Health Service estimates that there are 1.2 million wheelchair users in England, to which we have estimated a further 0.1 million for Wales.

24 PAS 2012 Specification for M1 Vehicles for the Carriage of One or More Passengers Seated in Wheelchairs.

Prepared 13th September 2013