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Lord Berkeley: My Lords, I support the concept behind the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen. He is trying to achieve seamless journeys. I do not know whether he will achieve that; we shall have to explore the matter. The integrated transport White Paper, A New Deal for Transport, published two years ago, states at paragraph 3.93 on page 56:

I am sure that many noble Lords will have seen the new rolling stock. I believe that it offers many good facilities for disabled people. I hope that soon the insulting practice of making people in wheelchairs travel in the guard's van on some of the old trains will come to an end. That is an insulting practice and it is also jolly uncomfortable and cold for the people concerned. However, the seamless journey continues beyond the railway. Paragraph 3.93 further states:

    "For buses and taxis the implementation dates are being set following consultation. We have consulted on an implementation date of 1 January 2002 for taxis and a range of dates according to different bus and coach types".

That paragraph appears to indicate that the consultation went well and that implementation dates have been set. I shall be interested to hear whether the implementation dates are still valid. If something goes wrong, will disabled people have to go to court to

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secure what I consider are their rights in this regard, or is there some other means of securing them? I shall be interested to hear my noble friend's response.

Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, like all noble Lords who have spoken, I sympathise greatly with the sentiment behind the amendment of my noble friend Lord Swinfen. I hope that the Minister can reply to a few questions on this issue. First, what are the advantages--the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, has to some extent already mentioned this--and disadvantages to the travelling public of the contracts which have been drawn up between train operating companies and local taxi operators? No doubt all of us, whether disabled or not, have arrived at a station only to find that there are no taxis available. The travelling public, whether disabled or not, need to be certain that taxis will be available at stations. My understanding is that the contracts I have mentioned impose requirements upon the taxi operators concerned to make taxis available at all times of day, not just at peak periods. I hope that the Minister will comment on that matter and say whether those arrangements have helped both disabled and non-disabled passengers.

The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, also mentioned the situation at Eastbourne and Cambridge. I have received briefing from the Association of Train Operating Companies. The briefing informs me--as the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, said--that licensed taxis (that is, those which are wheelchair accessible) are certainly not prohibited from entering station forecourts and must be issued with a permit if they apply for one.

Further, I understand that the rail regulator is in the process of providing a code of practice on train and station services for disabled passengers. Will that code of practice--which must be obeyed by the train operating companies as a licence condition--be expanded to cover facilities for accessible taxis? That would be a totally secure means of solving the problem as the issue of the licence is dependent on abiding by the code of practice.

The amendment would guarantee the provision of accessible vehicles at stations. Reference has been made to the powers of the Disability Discrimination Act. Does Section 33--I understand that that is the relevant section--apply to railway stations? If that is the case, surely it would meet the problem. I am sure that we all have great sympathy with the case that has been made. I shall be interested to hear the Minister's response to my questions and to other points that have been made.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I did not intend to speak in the debate and I shall be brief. I too have been lobbied, quite properly, by the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC). I have co-operated with that body on a number of occasions in terms of putting across its point of view here. But it seems to me that the proposition here is a simple one; namely, that it should not be possible for

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a station manager or owner to issue an exclusive contract to groups of ordinary cars, or to groups of companies providing them. Outside London there are hackney carriages which comprise ordinary cars, as well as the black top variety. Only if black top cabs are able to enter a station forecourt are people with disabilities likely to be able to get a taxi which suits their needs. That is what this matter is all about. If the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, is satisfied with the Minister's response, that is one thing. However, if he is not, we shall be tempted to support him.

Baroness Wilkins: My Lords, I add my support to these three amendments which would enable disabled people to rest secure in the knowledge that they could complete their journeys rather than be abandoned at a station late at night at which point it is impossible to go further. I urge the Government to accept the amendments.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, it is probably sensible if I concentrate most of my remarks on Amendment No. 14. There has today been a wide range of representations in favour of the amendment from inside and outside the Chamber. I recognise the strong feelings. I do not believe that any noble Lord is against the objectives of the clause: effectively to provide guaranteed accessible transport at stations for people with mobility problems. However, there is also a significant degree of misunderstanding and, in some cases, misinformation in relation to how the contracts against which the amendment is directed would work.

I need, therefore, to address some central points. The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, asked me to indicate the advantages and disadvantages of allowing such exclusive contracts. I bow to no one in my respect for the taxi trade and the efforts which the taxi trade in London and elsewhere have made in converting their vehicles into accessible vehicles. There is a clear trade interest here, as well as the interests of the disabled. They do not always entirely overlap although they have much in common. But in relation to the exclusive contracts, there can be significant benefit, whether that is for the licensed taxi operation or a minicab operation. Although there are not many of these exclusive contracts around the country at present, banning them would deny the public as a whole, including disabled people, possible improvements in service.

First, a contact can ensure that taxis or minicabs would be available at all times of day--not just the peak hours which suit most drivers. At the busiest times there will always be a decent supply of taxis. However, as we all know, off-peak that is not the case. Yet passengers, in particular disabled passengers, need to be guaranteed that there is a vehicle present. These exclusive contracts are one way--it is probably the most effective way--to ensure that every time a train turns up at the station there will be a vehicle available for that passenger.

Lord Addington: My Lords, that is interesting, but what happens if one cannot use the taxi available?

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5.45 p.m.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I shall come to that point, if I may.

The first point is that an exclusive contract can, for the general public, provide a service which is not guaranteed in other circumstances. A contract enables the train operator to impose the condition of a proper supply of vehicles throughout the day at all times when trains arrive at the station.

An exclusive contract can also affect the question of fares. As noble Lords will know, fares are controlled by the local authority; but in many stations--Cambridge, for example--one may well be going outside the area controlled by the immediate local authority to one of the villages in Cambridgeshire. As an aspect of that contract, an operator can require control of fares which go beyond local boundaries which otherwise are not controlled. Noble Lords will be familiar with this: at times there is exploitation of that situation.

A contract can also be helpful to passengers in setting clear standards for vehicles on presentation and accessibility. That is where an exclusive contract could benefit disabled people in particular. A contract can be used to require the provision of accessible vehicles--taxis or minicabs--to serve railway stations. For example, a train operator could require that a specified proportion of vehicles should be accessible.

Several noble Lords referred to the situation at Cambridge. I understand that the train operator's contract requires that a minimum of 30 per cent of the total number of vehicles must be wheelchair accessible. It is also my understanding that that 30 per cent is a higher proportion of accessible cabs than operates in the fleet of licensed taxicabs overall in Cambridge. A survey by my department of local licensing authorities as at the end of December showed that of 147 licensed taxicabs in Cambridge only 30 were accessible to people with disability--that is a lower proportion than that required through exclusive contracts. That situation may well have improved since December. Nevertheless, that was the situation then. Therefore disabled travellers can benefit and can continue to benefit because the number of accessible vehicles can be increased over time until the figure approaches 100 per cent.

Noble Lords need to ask themselves what would happen if the amendment were passed. In the immediate situation, nothing would happen. If the amendment became law today there would be no change. That is because the amendment defines an accessible taxi as one,

    "which conforms to or is exempt from taxi accessibility regulations made under section 32 of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995".

That is a perfectly sensible definition. However, many noble Lords will be aware that, so far, regulations under the DDA have not been made. The amendment would not come into effect until those regulations are made and that will not be until after we have consulted on proposals for the regulations. That will take place during next year. Until those regulations come into

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force with proper arrangements for transition, taxi accessibility requirements (or the lack of them) are entirely the decision of local taxi licensing authorities. The position inevitably varies from place to place.

If the amendment were passed, the number of accessible taxis will not increase. That number is a matter for local authority requirements now. When the regulations for the DDA come into force, it will be a matter for those regulations. Until that point--perhaps somewhat paradoxically given the views of the supporters of the amendment--the only exception where it could be enforced now is where there is an exclusive contract of the kind the amendment seeks to avoid setting down specific requirements for accessible vehicles made by train operators under contract. Those train and station operators can impose requirements going beyond those of the local authorities.

Nevertheless, noble Lords may say that when the DDA regulations and the amendment come into effect they will guarantee accessible vehicles at railway stations. If we do not do that, is there a similar assurance? This is a more complex issue than may have been made out in the debate. There may be a contract with a taxi company. In that case, the vehicles would of necessity conform with the DDA regulations irrespective of the amendment. As an alternative, if the train company makes an agreement with the operator of minicabs because that seems to give the best service, the question of accessible vehicles becomes very relevant. I take the point that the DDA does not apply to minicabs. However, the DDA comes in in a different respect, under this amendment and amendments made during the passage of the DDA in this House.

Section 33 of the DDA expressly provides that the Secretary of State can designate transport facilities where the operator has made a contract with a private hire vehicle operator; and the Secretary of State can make regulations applying any taxi accessibility requirements to the private hire vehicles used under the contract. So an answer is already provided after the DDA comes into effect. Where a train operator judges that it is in the best interests of the passengers to let a contract to a minicab operator, the interests of disabled passengers would need to be taken into account. Under Section 33 the Secretary of State would be able to ensure that that is what happens. He could designate the station and impose taxi accessibility requirements on those vehicles. In that way the benefit of the contract would be achieved and accessibility could be ensured.

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