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12.23 pm

Mr. Boswell: I simply wish to congratulate the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on his Bill and to echo his thanks to all those people who have been involved in its preparation and consideration in the House, including the officials, the representatives of the disability organisations and those hon. Members who have participated. We wish the Bill every success as it passes to another place.

12.24 pm

Mr. Tom Clarke: I join the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and, I think, the whole House in warmly congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on the excellent Bill that he has piloted through the House. We all hope that it will achieve its Third Reading and, of course, that it will be enacted in due course.

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I wish to express two main thoughts in this brief contribution. The first is about the empiricism of the House as we develop legislation. The second is about the sheer persistence of my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, who deserves to be congratulated most warmly on seizing the opportunity that this Bill offers to extend rights to people who would otherwise be denied them.

On the point about empiricism, my hon. Friend will recall—as he was proactive in the House when the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was introduced—that, as I said earlier, there was no intention to introduce transport provisions into it, even on its Second Reading. In due course, some of us, including my hon. Friend, pushed hard. Eventually, we achieved provisions on access to stations, to trains, to bus terminuses, to buses, to taxis, but not, alas, to private hire vehicles, which has been achieved today. I think that that shows the House at its best. It shows that the sort of determination that we have seen from my hon. Friend succeeds.

I thank my hon. Friend, too, for the sensitivity with which he has extended the Bill to Scotland. People in Scotland do not like paying out all that much, but the fines are perfectly agreeable and should, of course, be consistent with those in the rest of the UK. It is right that we should work in partnership, as we are doing, with the Scottish Parliament, which in due course will introduce a statutory instrument putting the Bill into effect in Scotland.

For all those reasons, I say again that my hon. Friend has done a fine job in the reforming tradition of one of his greatest predecessors, Clement Attlee, and long may he continue to do it. I know that people in disability organisations are profoundly supportive of what he is doing today. We thank him sincerely for his excellent efforts.

12.27 pm

Mr. Heath: I join other Members who have warmly congratulated the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard). We can be as brief as we need to be on Third Reading, as we explored the issues in Committee.

This is a good Bill. It will not make a difference to a huge number of people, as the hon. Gentleman said, but for those whom it does affect, it will make a substantial difference, across the country, to their way of life. The Bill has not been imposed on Scotland and Northern Ireland but it has been welcomed and embraced by people there who wish to be involved with it.

As some Members know, I chair the all-party group on eye health and visual impairment. We take no credit for the hon. Gentleman's initiative in the Bill or for that of the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) in her parallel measure, the Copyright (Visually Impaired Persons) Bill, which I mentioned earlier. Perhaps, however, at long last, the House is taking seriously issues of visual impairment, and we are able to provide more focus on an area that has been neglected for too long. Two major stepping stones have been put in place in this Session, and I hope that both Bills succeed in another place. The House, the hon. Member for Walthamstow, the Minister and all involved with the Bill are to be congratulated on what they have done.

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12.28 pm

Mr. Pond: I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on what is a very significant contribution. If I may, I would like to pay tribute to organisations such as the RNIB, Guide Dogs for the Blind and Assistance Dogs UK, whose briefings have informed our debate effectively.

Clearly, private hire vehicles are an important part of the network of accessible transport for people with disabilities. For some of those people, in some areas, they constitute the only available form of transport. If I may, I want to share with the House the experiences of one of my constituents, who is also a friend, Mr. Wayne Busbridge of Ifield road, Gravesend. He is visually impaired and has an assistance dog. In my discussions with him in preparation for this morning's debate, he told me:

He said that some private hire vehicles even try to charge him for his dog—as much as £10 a time. He said that the worst experience is turning up at taxi ranks and drivers refusing to take him, even when there are no other taxis at the rank and it is clear that he is being left stranded. He has talked about his experiences in a strange town or city. If a taxi drives away, he has no other means of getting to where he needs to go. He feels vulnerable and often waits 40 or 50 minutes while the telephone operators in cab firms search for someone who is willing to take him. It is important that the Bill has its Third Reading.

I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) for his persistence. He assisted the debate considerably, and I am sure that the whole House was saddened to hear of the demise of Griswald, which we hope was not too closely associated with the damage that she did to the upholstery of my hon. Friend's car.

I confess that I am a dog owner. I was feeling rather edgy in our earlier discussions in case the organisers of the Westminster dog of the year competition were listening. In last year's competition, my dog, Camden, was guilty of many of the activities listed in new clause 1, and was so in close proximity of the judges. I had to explain that he was very obedient but hard of hearing, and that I had been telling him to sit.

I have shared the experiences of my hon. Friend the Minister, and we must be clear that such embarrassments do not normally afflict only the owners of assistance dogs. As other hon. Members have said, they are highly trained dogs and it is unlikely that they will cause difficulties in, or damage to, private hire vehicles. We must not allow discrimination to hide behind the suggestion that they would cause such damage.

It is important that the Bill brings private hire vehicles into line with taxi cabs, removes the inconsistencies that apply around the country and makes sure that people such as my constituent Mr. Busbridge no longer have to wait at taxi ranks in fear, feeling vulnerable and facing the indignity of not being able to get to where they want to go.

12.32 pm

Bob Spink: I congratulate the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on introducing the Bill. It shows that we recognise and respect the needs of

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everyone in society. I am sure that the wonderful people who run and attend the Phoenix club in Castle Point will be delighted that the Bill is likely to make progress today. They will welcome it as an excellent Bill that will help some of them. Having said that, I hope that we can move on quickly so that we can discuss the Pensions Annuities (Amendment) Bill and help pensioners equally.

12.33 pm

Mr. Dismore: I shall be brief in warmly congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on piloting his Bill through the House, particularly as it is a ten-minute Bill. I know from my experience that trying to make law with a ten-minute Bill is very difficult.

In the earlier debates, I raised a series of reservations and concerns about the Bill, and my hon. Friend amply dealt with them in his reply. I now wish to be much more positive about the Bill. It is important to take forward the rights that it contains, given the situation in my constituency in outer London. The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) will share the view that, in outer London, the availability of black cabs is less than in central London, so people rely much more heavily on minicab services.

My constituents who depend on assistance dogs have told me that they have been refused the use of minicabs. I have taken the issue up with the minicab company concerned, which has taken steps to ensure that the problem did not reoccur. I am pleased to say that, when problems have arisen in my constituency, we have been able to deal with them amicably and on a voluntary basis. Nevertheless, I fully accept that that is not necessarily the position throughout the country. I therefore welcome the Bill as an important step in meeting the needs of those who depend on assistance dogs. I fully accept that those dogs are always well behaved and well trained. They provide a very valuable service.

12.35 pm

Mr. Edward Davey: In the spirit of joining the congratulations that have been offered to the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), I would say that the way in which he has conducted the passage of the Bill throughout its stages has been exemplary, and has shown the private Members' Bill process at its very best. I was delighted when the hon. Gentleman asked me to be a co-sponsor, and I thank him for that. I have been appreciative of both the communication that I have had with him on the Bill and the communication that I have had with various charities, in particular the RNIB and the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association.

At an earlier stage in our proceedings, the hon. Gentleman put his finger on it when he said that we were not giving any extra privileges to the people who will benefit from the Bill. He then said that we were giving them the chance to enjoy the access to transport and the freedom of movement that others enjoy. That is not a large thing to ask. Indeed, it is a small thing. It is good that there is great support for the Bill from Members on both sides of the House. We all have been seeking to remove inconsistencies and discrimination, and more importantly, to increase independence. I think that the Bill does these things well.

The hon. Gentleman said that the Bill will affect only 5,000 to 6,000 people, but that it was important that they had their rights recognised. From the information that I

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have received from the various charities involved, I can add that it is not a small matter for the 5,000 to 6,000. It can literally change their lives, so it is very significant for them.

In a recent survey carried out by the RNIB, it was found that one in seven of a sample of 500 visually impaired people said that they regularly used regulated taxis and private hire vehicles, and that they were the most frequently used forms of transport. One in five stated that he or she used taxis or private hire vehicles once a week. The people that the hon. Gentleman was talking about are frequent users of these vehicles. That is why the Bill is so much needed to help them.

It has been interesting throughout our debates to note the increasing range of activities in which dogs can help human beings. That suggests that this will not be the only time that we see legislation of this sort brought before us. I hope that policy changes will be made by the Government as well. We should utilise the amazing skills and attributes that dogs have. In my experience and that of my constituents, they can completely change the lives of people with physical impairments. I hope that through the experience of the Bill, the House will have heard and acknowledged these benefits and will return on future occasions to improve legislation still further. I very much support the Bill on its Third Reading.

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