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Lord Renton moved Amendment No. 106:

Page 20, line 44, at end insert (", when required).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is a probing amendment. With it are grouped Amendment No. 109, which is the substantive one, and some consequential amendments; namely, Amendments Nos. 113 to 115, 117 and 120.

Perhaps I may first thank my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish for his understanding of my reasons for moving these amendments. He corresponded with me and we discussed the matter. I am very appreciative of his capacity for listening. That is very important in Ministers, if I may say so without appearing to be patronising.

The purpose of this amendment is to ensure that local licensing authorities shall have a discretion when granting new licences for taxis to decide which ones should be wheelchair accessible, but they shall have an obligation to require that all taxis shall conform with the regulations which will be made relating to the carriage of disabled people otherwise than in wheelchairs. In other words, we anticipate that under the regulations all taxis and all saloon cars used for carrying disabled people under the Hackney Carriage legislation, shall be easily accessible to them. Indeed, there ought to be a swivel seat, possibly in the seat next to the driver, to enable disabled people to get into the car.

When my severely handicapped daughter wants to get into my ordinary car, I have no difficulty. I have a swivel seat (which cost me only £20, not the £450 that was mentioned) in order to allow her to get onto the seat easily. It can then be turned round so that she is facing the front. Then I fold up the wheelchair. I used to put it in the boot when I had one; now I have a small estate car and it goes in there comfortably.

I suggest that discretion and obligation are achieved by Amendment No. 109. I need not read it out; it is self-explanatory. I should add that the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, and my noble friend Lord Holderness added their names to the amendment, but neither could be here today. Nevertheless, they asked me to say that they strongly support the amendment.

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For the benefit of the noble Baroness I shall put forward some figures produced by the Public Office of Census Surveys. The first is that we have a population of 55 million people. The second is that around 6 million of them are disabled in one way or another, including large numbers of mentally handicapped people who may or may not be physically disabled. Of that 6 million people, 430,000 use wheelchairs. That is one in 120 of the total population. Of those 430,000, only 7,500 are wheelchair bound; in other words, if they want to get into a vehicle, they have to stay in their wheelchairs. That means that we are only concerned with 7,500 people. Many of the 430,000 wheelchair users can and do use saloon car taxis, if there is some adaptation to enable them to get in and sit down.

Your Lordships will remember that at the Committee stage my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish added to the Bill what are now Clauses 27 to 30, the effect of which is to require that all taxis shall become wheelchair accessible unless the Secretary of State makes a regulation under Clause 29 enabling a licensing authority to apply to him for an exemption order. Only then would the local authority have a discretion in the matter. If we are to have—and I suggest we need to have—some flexibility as to the types of taxi used in each area and, in particular, how many of them should be wheelchair accessible, is it not better to leave it to the discretion of the local licensing authority, which knows the area, rather than cause delay and add to the cost of administration by requiring the licensing authority to apply to Whitehall for exemption? Generally, local people know better than the gentlemen in Whitehall. If Amendment No. 109 is accepted, Clause 29 will be unnecessary and should therefore be deleted from the Bill.

I suggest that it is not a sensible policy to insist that all taxis be wheelchair accessible in the years to come. It is all right in London and the big cities where there is a great demand for taxis anyway. But in the smaller towns like Huntingdon, which I know so well, and out in the country, it will lead to there being fewer taxis. Nobody can deny that. If any noble Lord can deny that, I hope that he will say so. I will give way immediately. There would be fewer taxis and that would be to the disadvantage of disabled people and the community as a whole. Therefore, flexibility should be the aim. We need some of each type of vehicle and we should let the local licensing authority decide how many wheelchair accessible cabs there should be.

Finally, I remind your Lordships once more that it is only a small percentage of the many disabled people who live in wheelchairs. I beg to move.

8.45 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, it is right that as the Bill stands licensing authorities should be able to make a case for exemption of their areas where they can show that there is no significant level of unmet need. But the criteria used in determining that should be decided nationally and applied consistently and in consultation with the appropriate bodies. As it stands the Bill already produces sufficient flexibility in that area.

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Transferring discretion from the Secretary of State to local licensing authorities will only weaken the Bill. For that reason, we are opposed to this amendment.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Renton mentioned the number of people who use wheelchairs on a permanent basis.

Lord Renton: My Lords, it is 7,500.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, it is a figure I do not deny because I simply do not know. He is forgetting that it is either one in 10 or one in six of us who use a wheelchair on a temporary basis for some part of our lives. That means that the number of people using wheelchairs at any one time is probably considerably higher than the figure he gave. At the time of temporary illness or disability those people will not be able to use their own cars.

I entirely agree with my noble friend that there should be some flexibility. As I understand it, the Bill produces quite a lot of flexibility already. I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench will be able to indicate whether or not he knows of any developments in the design of a vehicle that will meet both the requirements of my noble friend as well as of those who use wheelchairs for their general mobility. The time will come when clever people will be able to produce a vehicle that will do both. It may not look like the London black cab but it would be welcome if we had a more versatile vehicle.

Baroness Darcy (de Knayth): My Lords, the noble Lord's amendments would, as he explained, give local authorities powers to decide whether they wished to have wheelchair-accessible taxis as opposed to the powers in the Bill whereby local authorities may seek exemption for all accessible taxis accessible to both wheelchair users and ambulant disabled people from the Secretary of State who must then consult DPTAC, as the Minister explained when speaking to his earlier amendment.

I want to stress at the outset that we need taxis which are easily accessible to both wheelchair users and ambulant disabled people, some of whom I know encounter difficulties in using the London-type wheelchair-accessible taxis. But it is my understanding that, thanks to initiatives being pursued by the Department of Transport, Clauses 27 to 33 of the Bill are concerned with a new breed of taxi, one that is equally accessible to wheelchair users and ambulant disabled people and, indeed, the able-bodied public at large.

The noble Lord, Lord Renton, said that it would be better to leave it to the local authorities to decide. If these amendments go through it will be for the individual disabled person to convince local authorities that disabled people should have access to local taxis. That could be very difficult indeed for the individual disabled person when the local authority is being backed by powerful local taxi business interests. The amendment seems to allow mixed fleets. Such flexibility is already possible under the Bill. Even if all local taxis are made accessible, local areas will also be served by hire cars that need not be accessible.

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The noble Lord, Lord Renton, argues for flexibility but truly mixed fleets—some inaccessible and some accessible taxis—do not solve the problem. Waiting for taxis in the cold and in the rain can be difficult enough for anyone. Waiting for the accessible taxi from a mixed fleet could be very difficult indeed for a disabled person. In London today, with its current mixed fleet, I have heard of several instances of disabled people missing trains as a result of having to wait 30 minutes or so for an accessible taxi to arrive. Indeed, on 13th July Bert Massie, the director of RADAR, wrote to Steven Norris, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, saying:

    "Even though almost half of London's taxis are accessible, last week eight empty taxis passed me before I could get one that I could stop that I could get my wheelchair into".

Another difficulty would be, if local authorities were allowed to renege too easily on their responsibilities under the national regulations, with or without the encouragement of local taxi firms, that disabled visitors would not know whether the taxis in an area they went to were accessible. That would discourage the use of taxis by disabled people who need to know in advance of a visit what they can expect in the area. We need all taxis that are able to ply for hire to be accessible to all disabled people—ambulant, in wheelchairs, blind, and partially sighted. The amendments introduced by the Government at the Committee stage have been tremendously welcome. It is therefore with sadness, because I admire the noble Lord, Lord Renton, who is, I hope, my friend in a non-political sense, but with no hesitation, that I oppose these amendments.

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