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Session 2001- 02
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Standing Committee Debates
Private Hire Vehicles (Carriage of Guide Dogs etc.) Bill

Private Hire Vehicles (Carriage of Guide Dogs etc.) Bill

Standing Committee C

Wednesday 12 June 2002

[Mr. Frank Cook in the Chair]

Private Hire Vehicles (Carriage of Guide Dogs etc.) Bill

10.30 am

The Chairman: Before we begin our formalities, I have an announcement about clause 5.

When the Bill was introduced, the House authorities considered that expenditure would arise from the provisions of the Bill, thus requiring a money resolution. An expenses clause was consequently included in the measure as clause 5.

Since Second Reading there have been further discussions, including some with the Department that will have to implement the Bill. It is now considered that any expenditure that arises will be minimal, so a money resolution is no longer needed. Clause 5 is therefore redundant and should be left out of the Bill. As a consequence, when we reach clause 5, I shall put the question on clause stand part forthwith with the intention that it should be negatived.

Clause 1

Carrying of guide dogs, hearing dogs and other assistance dogs

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 4, leave out from beginning to end of line 19 and insert—

    '37A Carrying of assistance dogs in private hire vehicles

(1) It is an offence for the operator of a private hire vehicle to fail or refuse to accept a booking for a private hire vehicle—

    (a) if the booking is requested by or on behalf of a disabled person, or a person who wishes a disabled person to accompany him; and

    (b) the reason for the failure or refusal is that the disabled person will be accompanied by his assistance dog.

    (2) It is an offence for the operator of a private hire vehicle to make an additional charge for carrying an assistance dog which is accompanying a disabled person.

    (3) It is an offence for the driver of a private hire vehicle to fail or refuse to carry out a booking accepted by the operator of the vehicle—

    (a) if the booking was made by or on behalf of a disabled person, or a person who wishes a disabled person to accompany him; and

    (b) the reason for the failure or refusal is that the disabled person is accompanied by his assistance dog.

    (4) A person who is guilty of an offence under this section is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following: New Clause 1—Carrying of guide dogs, hearing dogs and other assistance dogs: Scotland—

    'In section 20 of the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 (c. 45) (regulations relating to taxis and private hire cars and their drivers) the following subsection is inserted after subsection (2A)—

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    ''(2AA) The Scottish Ministers may by regulations make such provision as appears to them to be necessary or expedient in relation to the carrying in private hire cars of disabled persons (within the meaning of section 1 (2) of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (c. 50)) and such provision may in particular prescribe—

    (a) requirements as to the carriage of guide dogs, hearing dogs and other categories of dogs;

    (b) a date from which any such provision is to apply and the extent to which it is to apply; and

    (c) the circumstances in which an exemption from such provision may be granted in respect of any private hire car or private hire car driver, and in this subsection ''guide dog'', ''hearing dog'' and ''other categories of dog'' have the same meaning as in subsection (2A) above.

    (2AB) Regulations under subsection (2AA) above shall be made by statutory instrument subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of the Scottish Parliament.''.'.

Mr. Gerrard: I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cook. I hope that we shall have a productive and not too onerous morning considering the amendments. I thank my colleagues who have given up their time to take part in the Committee. Although we shall not deal with contentious issues, it is important for the Committee to meet and to consider and agree to the amendments.

Clause 1 is the most important part of the Bill and amendment No. 1 is the major issue that we shall consider this morning. The Bill will amend the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which places a duty on the drivers of licensed taxis to take guide dogs and other assistance dogs and not to make an extra charge for doing so. Nothing was done about private hire vehicles in the 1995 Act and the clause will extend the provisions of that Act to private hire vehicles. I shall not go through the principles behind it; the key point is that people who have assistance dogs rely on private hire vehicles more than most of us, for the obvious convenience of having door-to-door transport.

Private hire vehicles are already licensed in some parts of the country through local authorities, many of which include in their licensing requirements a statement that guide dogs and other assistance dogs should be carried, but the provision is patchy. The intention is therefore to ensure that it is consistent throughout the country. There is an anomaly in London, where there is no licensing for drivers at present, although I hope that there will be in the near future.

In the Bill as drafted, clause 1 essentially copied the provisions in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 for licensed taxis and applied them to private hire vehicles. To make that work properly, however, we must recognise that the hiring of private hire vehicles works differently from the hiring of taxis. A taxi is generally hired on the street, with the person hailing it and the taxi taking the fare. If the taxi refused to take a fare that involved a guide dog, the driver would be committing an offence. The contract is between the person taking the taxi and the driver; no other person is involved.

The situation is different for private hire vehicles, which cannot be legally hailed on the street, and which are generally booked through an operator. Someone

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rings the operator, books the private hire vehicle and waits for the operator to send out a driver. Two people are involved in providing the service, and amendment No. 1 will cover both. Subsection (1) of the proposed new section will make it an offence for the operator to refuse to accept the booking if it is requested for a disabled person and the reason for the failure or refusal is the assistance dog accompanying the person. We cannot force operators to accept bookings, as there may be other reasons for refusing the booking. For example, they may not be prepared to send a driver that distance. However, an operator cannot refuse a booking because an assistance dog is involved.

Subsection (2) of the proposed new section is identical to one of the subsections in the original draft and will make it an offence to make an additional charge for carrying a dog, and subsection (3) will make it an offence for the driver to refuse to carry out the booking once the operator has accepted it. Both operator and driver are covered, which is necessary given the mechanisms in place for private hire vehicles. That is the reason for the major amendment to the original draft—to ensure that we cover both the operator and the driver involved in the contract, not just the driver.

I shall refer briefly to new clause 1. It will allow the Bill to be extended to Scotland. To do that, we had to consider our relationship with the Scottish Parliament and its powers. Since Second Reading, approaches have been made from the Scottish Parliament and Ministers to make it clear that they want to be able to extend the Bill's provisions to Scotland, and new clause 1 will allow Scottish Ministers to introduce a statutory instrument to do that. The Bill will then cover England, Wales and Scotland, although that still leaves a gap: Northern Ireland. Interest has been expressed from Northern Ireland, but it has not been possible to get the necessary technical agreement from the Northern Ireland Assembly to allow us to introduce an amendment. I hope that we shall be able to do that on Report. By then, the necessary resolution should have been passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly, and amendments covering Northern Ireland should have been tabled.

That is the reasoning behind the first group of amendments, which constitute the major change. Many of the amendments that we shall come to later are relatively technical and tidy up the legislation. The key change is to ensure that both operator and driver are covered—not just the driver, as would have been the case with the original draft of the Bill.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): May I echo the sentiments that have been expressed about enjoying serving under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook? It is always a constructive experience, and I hope that it will be a reasonably brisk one, as usual.

I should like to place on the record my gratitude to the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), who introduced the Bill. It is good in principle and, like the amendment, has been presented in a characteristically exemplary and clear fashion. The hon. Gentleman supplied additional material and has obviously had a constructive working relationship

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with the Department. That is the right way to proceed, because we all have to understand that, with private Members' legislation, the aspiration is one thing, the delivery another. Delivery is terribly important, although the wider principle is the greater one.

I have a general point to raise about disability issues. A number of hon. Members, particularly on the Government Benches, have been very much involved, as I have, in the all-party disability group. My experience in this place is that, on disability issues, it is quite difficult to put any significant distance between members of individual parties. Our only worry is that not all our colleagues from all parties take the same interest in the issue as we do—but enough of self-congratulation. This is a very sensible Bill, and we shall approach it in that spirit.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that, if I raise any queries, I do so not as some sort of pettifogging exercise, but in an attempt to get the legislation absolutely right, within a framework that we find perfectly acceptable. I have only two or three comments to make on what he has rightly said is the substantive clutch of amendments.

I think that my first point solves itself, but it would be useful to consider it for a moment. It concerns what might be termed ''mixed motives'' in turning down a booking. An example—not a particularly happy one, in view of recent discussions—is the primary purpose rule for immigration. An operator or driver might have more than one motive. To put it more seriously, if a case went to court, there could be a rather messy evidential argument about whether the main motive for turning down a booking was the presence of a guide dog.

To put it another way, if someone was maliciously inclined and happy to cock a snook at the legislation, they might try to find a pretext for turning down a booking. They might have done so because they did not like the dog, but they might say that they had gone over their hours, they were out of their normal range or whatever. One assumes that, if push ever came to shove and there were proceedings in court, the matter would be sorted out perfectly well and the extent of the bearing of the different motives would be explored. However, it is worth at least pausing to consider whether the expression used is correct. I say that not as a lawyer but as someone who is always anxious that we get legislation right.

My second concern relates to the respective duties of the operator and the driver, which the hon. Gentleman has properly set out. I consider that they mesh perfectly, because they are parallel duties. The operator is told that he cannot turn down a booking on the grounds of disability, and the driver is told the same. I do not think that it is necessary to have anything securing that in the driver's contract of employment or engagement with the operator, because certain compliances with the law are implicit in any such arrangement. A driver who signs a contract with the operator is required to comply with road traffic laws and not to exceed speed limits. I am unsure whether the difficulty needs to be tied up explicitly.

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10.45 am

I come now to a more substantive concern. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right to tie the provisions to the operator in the first instance because of the booking system, which represents the interface with the customer. It will be a nice legal matter, but the contract with the customer resides with the operator—not the driver—whose responsibility it is to provide a transport service from A to B.

It is not clear in amendment No. 1 whether anything about the disability has to be disclosed in the initial booking conversation. Two circumstances are possible. In the first, the disabled person might say that he requires an assistance dog to travel with him, leaving the operator in no doubt. If the operator then told the client to get stuffed, it would be a clear breach of the proposed law. Alternatively, it might simply be assumed with nothing expressly said about it, in which case the operator might find himself in difficulty.

The biggest difficulty applies to circumstances where the operator is a single-vehicle operation. For perfectly good reasons, the vehicle might be subject to an exemption certificate. It is unlikely to happen—most private hire firms are not like that—but it is not impossible. An owner-driver could take the message on the phone. If the operator has to take a booking and cannot turn it down on the grounds of a person's disablement or requirement of a dog's assistance, but has no vehicle available to discharge the service, will it cause a difficulty that amounts to an unreasonable burden? The driver might turn up at the person's home and say, ''Good Lord, I didn't know that you had a dog with you''; no other vehicle might be available. In those circumstances, would the operator be obliged to secure another vehicle, perhaps through hire, or would the obligation have been discharged by virtue of the operator's not discriminating against the person?

The legislation is all about discrimination and about motive. We want to stop private hire firms and their drivers using a person's need for an assistance dog to turn down a booking. That is not in doubt. I am worried, however, that we could create difficulties for an operator who, with the best of motives, genuinely cannot meet the requirements.


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