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Lord Renton: I wonder whether the noble Baroness appreciates that it is the clear intention, as expressed to me, that under the proposed regulations all taxis shall be made accessible to wheelchairs. The only other vehicles the public will be able to obtain which are wheelchair accessible, supposing they and even disabled people want as much room in a vehicle as possible for passengers, are private hire cars. Private hire cars have no obligation to wait at taxi ranks, mainly at stations where taxis are so valuable. Therefore a rigidity will result from the regulations of which the noble Baroness has spoken.
Baroness Stedman: In many cities taxi ranks are normally adjacent to a depot or place where one can call for a private hire saloon car if one wants one. In rural areas, if there is no need for them and the local authorities are satisfied that there is a sufficiently mixed fleet to do the job that is necessary, they can recommend to the Minister that they have a remission from doing that job, and they will receive a certificate of exemption.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: We have had an interesting debate. It is impressive that Members of the Committee who would have wished long since to have been in taxis on their way home have decided to wait and debate this issue.
I find myself in a rather unusual position in that the Opposition support me on this amendment. As a normal rule of thumb, if the Opposition support me I wonder if I am right. In this case I think that I am right. I was relieved when eventually the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, made some gentle criticisms of the amendments I have put forward. My faith in my rule of thumb was re-established.
Perhaps I may deal with a number of the points which have been raised. The noble Lord, Lord Gladwin of Clee, suggested some budgetary concessions. He will not be surprised when I tell him that those are matters for my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and I shall go no further this evening.
The noble Lord raised a problem regarding Gatwick. I understand that Gatwick is unusual in having a private hire concession. However, there is nothing to stop private hire firms at Gatwick having accessible vehicles. In practice, wheelchair accessible taxis are available from Crawley after a short delay.
The noble Lord reminded me of an irritation at Glasgow Airport. Because two local authorities operate a most amazing systemboth authorities of the party opposite, I may sayyou can have a black cab if you travel from Glasgow to the airport, but if you travel from the airport back to Glasgow you cannot have a black cab. You must take a saloon car type licensed by Renfrew District Council. It seems the most amazing situation. But never mind. That is part and parcel of the restrictions which many people seem so happy to have in this trade.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I believe that the Minister accepts the point so well made by my noble friend Lord Gladwin of Clee about private hire cars having a monopoly of a public transport place, as appears to be the case at Gatwick, if one regards taxis as public transport. In place of those taxis we have private hire cars. The Minister has an obligation to tell the Committee how in that situation the needs of disabled people will be more adequately met.
I do not believe that what he said regarding Crawley is good enough. Whether the answer is a mixed fleet, given the experience of authorities in Stockton and so on, I am not sure. However, he must find a better answer than the reply he gave about Gatwick. Otherwise, we shall harry him about it.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am happy to talk to the British Airports Authority about the situation if the noble Baroness will promise to talk to her colleagues, the socialists on Renfrew District Council, about the monopoly that they have allowed on their taxi ranks outside Glasgow Airport. There is a bargain! I suspect that I may have success more quickly than the noble Baroness will have with Renfrew District Council.
Lord Gladwin of Clee: I am grateful to the Minister for that response. However, my reference to Gatwick was as an example. I understand that the Government envisage that private hire will gain sole concession at airports and railway stations. That is my understanding of a proposal made by the Government some months ago. I cited Gatwick as an example where that is occurring.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am not sure that I can answer that point at this time of night. I sought to answer it in relation to Gatwick. I recognise that there are some problems. I was not aware of that issue, but I promise that I shall draw the matter to the attention of my right honourable and honourable friends and perhaps discuss the matter with the British Airports Authority.
We envisage that the regulations will cover a wide range of design features to meet the needs of the population as a whole, including the elderly and disabled people with every kind of mobility difficulty. We shall consult fully on the detail of regulations. There are design possibilities coming in, I gather, which could indeed provide an answer to some of the problems in rural areas for a car that is perhaps less of a taxi and more of an ordinary motor car.
The suggestion that we propose to eliminate freedom of choice between saloon cars and wheelchair accessible cars is not correct. The taxi trade works on the cab rank principle. The person at the head of the queue takes the first cab on the rank. Members of the Committee will know that any attempt to go to the nearest taxi, even if the most convenient and on a pouring wet night, is usually not totally appreciated by the taxi driver at that moment at the head of the queue. So there is difficulty if one picks and chooses. Where there is choiceand we do not wish to eliminate itit is in the pre-booked part of the system. We believe that there the saloon car system will continue to exist.
I said at Second Reading that it was our clear intention not to require all taxis to be purpose built. Nothing has changed. Our only difficulty may be a matter of semantics. The aim of the proposals before us tonight is to set down design parameters for accessibility which can be met in a wide range of vehicles. Some may be designed from the drawing board as taxis, others may be adaptations of existing vehicles or vehicles that are beginning to appear. I am not the greatest car expert, but in my view some of the manufacturers are bringing forward rather odd-shaped vehicles with high backs and the like, which must be fairly readily capable of adaptation.
In either case, we are not talking about perpetuating and spreading the current design of the purpose-built London style taxis or forcing their adaptation on unwilling authorities, on the unwilling taxi drivers or unwilling consumers. I hope that that will help the noble and learned Lord, Lord Templeman.
I know that there is concern about the timescales and we have no intention of introducing requirements over such a period as would undermine the viability of the taxi trade. If it would help to clarify the point, I should be pleased to consider whether an amendment to specify timescales can be brought forward at a later stage.
My noble friend Lord Renton is particularly interested in the matter and he mentioned his concern about Huntingdon and the West Highlands. I thought for a minute that I was surrounded by the East Anglian Mafia, as one Member of the Committee after another gave me examples from East Anglia. My noble friend knows that from my background in the West Highlands I appreciate what he is talking about. On islands where the taxi trade is important, the amount of traffic is pretty limited. We
I would prefer the Committee to pass the amendments tonight rather than for me to accept my noble friend's suggestion. Obviously, as I always do, I shall reflect on the points made and draw them to the attention of my honourable friend the Minister responsible for local transport. I shall discuss with him the various matters raised by the Committee and if I feel there is the need for any fine-tuning or amendment, I shall be happy and more than willing to table it at Report stage. Any other Member of the Committee who feels that I do not see the situation correctly may also put down an amendment for that stage.
There is a difficult balance to find and we would be foolish not to recognise that. It is easy to deal with it in the large cities but I understand and fully appreciate the difficulties in the rural areas and countryside. It is essential that we realise that taxis are an important part of everyone's transport. That includes transport for disabled persons. I therefore hope that the Committee will accept that we in the Government feel that we have a reasonable balance between the interests of disabled people and the taxi trade and of all taxi users. I therefore hope that the Committee will agree with me and accept the amendments.