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

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Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): In support of my hon. Friend, I would argue that the onus should fall on the person booking the vehicle to declare the need for a dog's assistance. The driver turning up for the journey might have an allergy and be unable to stay in the same vehicle as the animal. In those circumstances, he could legitimately refuse to accept the fare.

Mr. Boswell: My hon. Friend assists the Committee in making that point. No one is trying to overturn the substance of the legislation, which is to stop wilful discrimination against disabled people who need the assistance of a dog. That is not at issue. I hope, however, that the hon. Member for Walthamstow will reflect on the spirit of what my hon. Friend and I have said and try to ensure that an operator does not stumble into a position that had not been anticipated and for which no easy recourse is available. I am not asking for a categorical answer now, but I hope that he

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will reflect further and ensure that the duties are fair. There is an implied duty on the client to declare their need for assistance up front if they are reasonably to expect that it will be available when they need it.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston): I take it that this is the appropriate time to discuss new clause 1.

The Chairman: Indeed.

Mr. Clarke: Thank you, Mr. Cook. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow and the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) in welcoming you to the Chair. Given our visit to North Korea some time ago, I may refer to you as ''our great Chairman'' or ''our dear leader''.

In common with my colleagues, I am delighted with the progress that my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow has made with this excellent Bill, and with the time that he has taken to consult everyone affected by its implications. As one of its sponsors, I thought that Scotland would be included at some point. Following the discussions that my hon. Friend mentioned, I am delighted that it will be included as a result of the new clause.

My brief questions are technical, and if my hon. Friend the Minister does not have the answers today, perhaps he will be willing to write to members of the Committee. Can we assume that our colleagues in the Scottish Executive, who represent the Scottish Parliament, supported the measure, and were 100 per cent. in favour of including Scotland? I very much hope that they were.

Proposed subsection (2AB) states:

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

Have the Scottish Executive expressed any views yet? Does the reference to annulment mean annulment of the statutory instrument put before the Scottish Parliament, or the right later to repeal a statutory instrument that has already been approved? I hope that the Minister will be able to see the distinction. If not, perhaps the advice given to him will clarify it. It would be welcome if ''annulment'' means what I think it means: that a statutory instrument put before the Scottish Parliament will be approved and will therefore apply to Scotland. As my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow said during consideration of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, in which my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) was also involved, this is an evolutionary measure that would develop, and is another indication of the improvements that we can make in partnership with the Scottish Parliament.

I hope that my technical questions were not too difficult; if they were, perhaps the letter will serve to satisfy me in due course.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey): I congratulate the hon. Member for Walthamstow on bringing the Bill to this stage. I fully support its aims and wish him every success with it. However, it needs to be as watertight as possible. The hon. Gentleman obviously appreciates

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that, as he has tabled amendments. The hon. Member for Daventry has got me thinking. I hope that he will not think me pedantic, but I have been trying to think of different scenarios and how they may or may not be covered by the Bill's provisions. One scenario concerned me slightly. I should like to share it with the Committee to see whether there is a problem, and if so, how we can get round it.

Some local education authorities hire vehicles to transport young people to school or college. Presumably the Bill would cover those vehicles. Small private hire firms are often used. A driver can say no if he has an exemption certificate, but what would happen if another passenger who had an allergy to dogs was included in the contract? Would that be a basis for refusing the contract? I have only just thought of that point. It is a possible, if unlikely, scenario and it would be useful to cover it.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson): May I say how pleased I am to be sitting under your careful and watchful eye, Mr. Cook? I am particularly pleased to be able to support my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow to ensure that his Bill can deliver its desired aims. It is a pleasure to be here not just with my hon. Friend but with other right hon. and hon. Friends who have long fought on disability issues.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) has a distinguished record in this area. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood and I shared an office many years ago. He had a private Member's Bill, which, alas, was unsuccessful, and I had one the following year, on an entirely different issue, which was successful, so I know how difficult it is to pilot private Member's legislation through the House. Again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow on his work. My hon. Friends the Members for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen), for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon), for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith) and for St. Helens, North (Mr. Watts) have a keen interest in this subject, and, if I can spare his blushes, I know that the hon. Member for Daventry has followed these matters with interest for many years.

Much was said on Second Reading about the difference that assistance dogs can make to the lives of so many disabled people. Being unable to use local transport services with their dogs, a companion whom many describe as a lifeline, must create problems for many disabled people. One correspondent who wrote to the Department said:

    ''Imagine how you would feel if you couldn't get a minicab when you needed one, particularly if you cannot drive a car. Imagine how it feels to be told you are not allowed into a club, restaurant, pub, theatre or a shop purely because you rely on a guide dog to help you around. These problems affect guide dog owners every day.''

Imagining is all that many of us can do, but for many disabled people it is a daily experience. I am delighted to see that this piece of legislation will help to plug a small but important gap in what people would see as discrimination.

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In some parts of the country the situation with private hire vehicles has changed in response to the campaigns orchestrated by the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association and the Royal National Institute for the Blind. Many local licensing authorities have already introduced their own requirements under existing legislation for drivers of private hire vehicles to carry assistance dogs, but unfortunately that has not given us the national coverage that we so much want. The Bill ensures that the provision is uniform throughout the country. Disabled people who use assistance dogs are uncertain about the policy when they move from one area to another. I am therefore particularly pleased to be associated with this Bill, which will tackle that aspect of discrimination against disabled people and give them the confidence to travel around the country.

The amendments in this group bring the Bill into line with private hire legislation, which, strange as it may seem to the man in the street, is significantly different from that applying to licensed taxis. The role of the operator is, perhaps, the most significant difference. With taxis, a hiring is made directly between a passenger and a driver, but with licensed private hire vehicles it is, of course, the operator who accepts the booking. It was therefore important to ensure that there would be duties relating to an operator to ensure that they did not turn down a booking purely on the grounds that an assistance dog would accompany the passenger, and the amendments address that particular concern.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston asked about the important Scottish aspect of the Bill. He asked whether the Scots were 100 per cent. in favour of it, and I understand that they certainly were. There is a technicality here, which he probably understands better than I. I believe that the Sewel motion has not yet been approved by the Scottish Parliament.

Mr. Clarke indicated assent.

Mr. Jamieson: My right hon. Friend is nodding—no one else in the Committee is doing so—because he clearly understands the Sewel motion. Perhaps he will explain it to me, sometime. However, the Bill will be enacted in the Scottish Parliament.

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is explaining clearly exactly what is going on, and I am grateful to him for doing so. The Sewel motion relates to Lord Sewel, who, as a Minister at the Scottish Office, was involved in drawing up the Scotland Act 1998. In due course, he worked with the Scottish Executive. What my hon. Friend has said so far certainly pleases me, and I am delighted by the news that he has given me.

11 am

Mr. Jamieson: I am glad that my news has been good news to my right hon. Friend. I am also glad that he has explained the Sewel motion to me and the rest of the Committee. It was indeed the intention that the

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Bill be enacted in Scotland as well. It would have created some disappointment in the House had that not been so.

I know that both Government and Opposition Members and, in particular, disability organisations welcome the legislation. I therefore hope that the Committee will accept the amendments in order to deliver the benefits for disabled people that we all want.

 
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