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Lord Gladwin of Clee: The proposals have received a somewhat lukewarm welcome from the taxi trade and organisations representing taxi drivers. They are not convinced of the practicality of the proposals and are

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concerned about the cost to them of the adaptations that will be required to provide disabled access to their vehicles. To a large extent, the trade is composed of single-owner drivers. If all licensing authorities required all taxis to be wheelchair accessible, the trade would be decimated in many provincial areas. I understand and appreciate that that is not the Government's intention, but there will be pressures on licensing authorities to require at least a percentage of taxis to be wheelchair accessible. The risk is that a number of owner-drivers would defect to the private hire sector which, of course, is not covered by this legislation.

For a number of disabled people, a taxi is their primary and, in some cases, only means of transport. It would therefore be tragic if, as a result of this legislation, the availability of taxis was to be curtailed. In order to allay the anxieties felt by the trade, can the Minister say whether the Government will consider the following? First, as wheelchair-accessible taxis or taxis with swivel seats will become the disabled person's public service vehicle, should not they be treated in the same way as other public service vehicles—that is, as far as the level of value added tax is concerned and the rebate on fuel excise duty?

Secondly, could regulations be issued requiring local authorities to introduce taxi-card schemes? Thirdly, will the Government think about including the private hire sector in this legislation? While there is a clear legal distinction between taxis and private hire vehicles, outside London there is considerable operational overlap. Taxis are often saloon cars, indistinguishable from those operated by private hire companies. Bookings of private hire vehicles are often made in exactly the same way as for taxis, by telephone for immediate use, and that is the way that severely disabled people and wheelchair users get their transport.

It seems illogical to licensed taxi drivers that the private hire sector should have no responsibility for providing disabled access to their vehicles, particularly when I understand that the Government envisage that private hire companies will be granted sole concessions at stations and airports. I am told that, for instance, unless you order a taxi with wheelchair access in advance, you cannot get one off the rank at Gatwick because a private hire company has the sole concession. That position will not change in the future because private hire vehicles are not included in the legislation.

When introducing the amendments, the Minister referred to consultation with the taxi trade. Perhaps I may ask him for an assurance that there will be consultation with the organisations that represent taxi drivers. I should be grateful if the Minister could comment either now or at a later stage on some of the concerns that I have raised.

Lord Addington: I have already ensured that the Minister should have in front of him a list of objections to—or rather, questions about—these amendments. The questions have been raised by my noble friend Lord Winchilsea and Nottingham, who cannot be present. They are questions which have been raised about these amendments by taxi operators. They sound sensible to

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me, but the people operating the service have questions and concerns. It would be helpful to the Committee if we had answers to those questions.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: On these Benches broadly speaking we welcome the Government's proposals. About 4.5 million people have a mobility problem and 500,000 people are wheelchair users. In London, as we all know, we have the two extremes. We have hackney carriages (the black taxis) licensed by the police, which have ramps for wheelchair access until, as the taxi drivers tell us, they are awfully sorry, but they have been stolen. In London we also have private hire cars—the minicabs—which are unlicensed, unregulated, inaccessible and too often unsafe. In other words, in London we have the extremes.

Outside London there are no such extremes. We have hackney carriages which, especially in the cities, are increasingly black taxis, but they can be saloon cars, which may be preferable in rural areas where one travels long distances. We have also private hire cars which are almost always saloon cars. But unlike London, as my noble friend Lord Gladwin said, because both are licensed and regulated by the local authority, the safety of the car and the character of the driver are checked. So there is considerable overlap between the two services.

The problems inside and outside London are very different. Inside London, black taxis are safe and accessible. Minicabs are neither, but should be. Outside London, hackney carriages and private hire cars are safe but both may be inaccessible. They should be accessible.

The Government's amendments, which recognise the difference between London, the cities, suburban areas and rural areas, are welcome, but I believe that the Minister has some questions put to him by my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, which need to be answered. Until my noble friend talked about Gatwick and the minicab concession and the fact that an integral part of public transport would be outside the requirements of public transport accessibility, I was not aware that the problem existed. The Minister must come back, if he will, with some ways of solving that problem.

As the amendments stand, we welcome the phasing in for existing operators. We welcome the agreement that, in rural areas especially, swivel seats in a saloon car may be more appropriate than running a black FX cab, although it should perhaps be remembered that the driver of a saloon car with a swivel seat may have to lift someone from a wheelchair into that swivel seat. At 16 stone, a disabled person may be too heavy for a driver. I recognise that the Minister has emphasised that taxi drivers who are themselves disabled will have some protection, but we are getting into difficult areas in which protection for the taxi driver is to some extent bought at the expense of rights of access for the disabled user. There are no easy solutions, and clearly there must be consultation. We share the Minister's concern that this is a very difficult area.

Of those disabled people who prefer black cabs, some 30 per cent. say that they could not manage a saloon car, whereas of those who prefer a saloon car, only 3 per cent. could not manage a black cab. So it is clearly right to impose accessibility on hackney carriages. Any

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customer who prefers a saloon car can always hire one by telephone. As my noble friend Lord Gladwin said, it may be right to expect government assistance to make hackney carriages more physically accessible.

I realise that there are difficulties, especially as the trade is seeking to maintain a distinction between hackney carriages and private hire cars. I respect those views. I realise that outside London many hackney carriage drivers with saloon cars do not want a black FX imposed upon them as new ones cost about £24,000. Even secondhand ones—a Metro, for example—cost between £8,000 and £10,000. Having a black taxi cab often stops the private owner using it for private purposes when not plying for trade.

In my city some 10 years ago, we required all hackney carriages to become black taxis within 10 years as they were replaced. There was huge resistance from the taxi trade and a number of insults were thrown around the place. Now virtually all licensed hackney carriage drivers are delighted with the change. The reason is that when the Government deregulated the quota system for hackney carriages at places such as railway stations anyone could then buy a plate. It was not limited by the local authority estimate of the trade available. That meant that many people came in and bought a plate in order to skim off the cream of the trade in the few weeks preceding Christmas.

However, by requiring all hackney carriage plate drivers to drive an FX we have kept out the cowboys. The trade has been "professionalised" and the existing hackney carriage drivers have substantially benefited. Most of them now welcome the change that we imposed on them, although they resisted it furiously at the time. Of course, local people retain the choice between black cabs and private saloon cars and they wish that choice to remain.

Perhaps I may make an additional point that has not been mentioned—the need to train the taxi drivers who will be required to have vehicles which are fully accessible. Too many taxi drivers are rough, quick and impatient with disabled people. They do not know how to handle them, in an almost literal sense. Even the best intentioned face a dilemma: the longer they take and the more careful they are, the more the meter ticks up, the more the fare rises and the more displeased the disabled person will be.

Those are the dilemmas and the Government are doing their best to tackle them. We all accept they they are delicate and difficult issues. However, we broadly welcome the amendments. We welcome the phasing, the exemptions, the timing, the flexibility and the promise to consult. We hope that with these amendments hackney carriages will become what they should become—a recognised part of public transport, networking disabled people with able-bodied people and with full access. We support the amendments.

12.45 a.m.

Lord Renton: I listened carefully to the noble Baroness and was most interested in what she said.

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However, I believe that her conclusion is inconsistent with her earlier arguments. We shall have a chance of considering that further at the Report stage.

I have no objection to the new clauses under Amendments Nos. 97, 98 and 99. However, those in Amendments Nos. 93 to 96 inclusive worry me a great deal. What worries me most is that they appear to be in conflict with what was said by my noble friend Lord Mackay in reply to the debate on Second Reading. Several Members had raised the issue of taxis and accessibility to them. My noble friend said:

    "I can assure the House that there is no intention to require every new taxi to be purpose built; nor do we intend to subject taxis to all the requirements in Part III of the Bill on service providers to make reasonable modifications. I can also assure the House that, in framing the new access standards, the Government will be mindful of the problems facing taxi operators in rural areas. Coming from the West Highlands as I do, I am well aware of such difficulties".—[Official Report, 22/5/95; col. 890.]

It is good to hear my noble friend express such understanding.

What worries me is that because of the power being taken to lay down certain standards to achieve uniformity and, in particular under Amendment No. 96 wheelchair accessibility, we would be creating inflexibility. From correspondence and conversation which I have had with the Minister concerned, Mr. Steven Norris, I understand that the Government will use those new clauses in such a way as to ensure that at some future date all licensed taxis outside of London, like those in London, will have to be wheelchair accessible unless exemptions are granted. If that were so, it would be contrary not only to the interests of taxi operators, as the noble Lord, Lord Gladwin, said and the noble Baroness rather suggested, but contrary to the interests of disabled people, who require all kinds of taxis to be available to them. Of course, it would also be against the interests of the public in general if we imposed obligations upon the taxi trade which led to there being fewer taxis outside London. That would be very unfortunate.

I do not have the facts and figures, but my information is that in East Anglia a number of taxi businesses have gone out of operation, and that was without anything of this kind happening. Therefore, we must be very careful about imposing obligations on the taxi trade, not only, as I have said, in its own interests but also in the interests of disabled people and the public in general.

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