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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, can the Minister ensure that a public notice is displayed to that effect? It is clearly a problem and the situation is open to abuse. A notice displayed that any disabled person may request or require a wheelchair-accessible taxi as part of the undertaking of that contract, would meet some of the concerns of my noble friend.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am not sure whether it is a problem. I certainly doubt whether I have the power to order people to put up a notice. I shall certainly look into the question. Even if I do not have the power, I suppose I might manage the power to sign a letter to somebody during the Recess. I have got the taxi to the railway station and on that basis I shall try to answer the question about bridging the gap between the platform and the train. I can envisage in the future trains having a ramp built into them. That may well come about. I believe I spoke about this in

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Committee. I said then that it is a difficult issue. We shall have to discuss it with all the interested parties before we reach a final decision. That will be one of our priorities in the coming months. We are satisfied that we have the legal powers needed to reach a solution and to make sure that that solution, whatever it may be, actually works.

I turn now to the more substantive debate on my noble friend's amendments which are based on his concern that we shall be insisting on wheelchair-accessible taxis in all rural areas and that that may damage trade in areas where there is only a limited taxi trade anyway. I think that that encapsulates my noble friend's points—

Lord Renton: My Lords, it would also be to the disadvantage of disabled people.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, yes, but it could be to the disadvantage of absolutely everybody. I understand the point that my noble friend is making, but this is a difficult problem. I can understand the theoretical attraction of having what I would describe as a "mixed fleet". That idea has been around for a long time, but it is fraught with difficulties, not least of which is how the local authority will decide which taxi should provide full access and which should not. When I considered the matter after our Committee stage, I envisaged first that the drivers might meet annually and draw lots to see who would have to provide the accessible taxi. There is a huge difficulty in this regard. Any kind of selection and any kind of pointing of the finger at one taxi operator and saying, "You'll have to provide the accessible taxi but the other fellow does not need to", is fraught with a great deal of difficulty. That is the point of view of the licensing authority and the taxi owners. I think that there might be complaints from the poor man who drew the short straw and had to ensure that his taxi was wheelchair-accessible.

I shall not dwell on the other problem which has been raised by other noble Lords. I refer to what happens when some taxis are not wheelchair-accessible and somebody at a station or leaving a restaurant tries to hail a taxi. There is the problem of the odds of finding a wheelchair-accessible taxi at such a time. Sod's Law is bound to work and none of the taxis that pass will be wheelchair accessible, just as Sod's Law works on a wet night so that no taxi with its light on ever seems to pass me when I am looking for one. This is a real problem. We want to make sure that disabled people can have exactly the same freedom to travel and to get a taxi as able-bodied people and that they do not have to hope that the law of chance is operating benignly every time they want to hail a taxi. They do not want to be left in the position of merely hoping that they will be more successful than in the National Lottery. It should not be a question of mere luck if the first taxi that comes along is wheelchair-accessible. As I have said, there is a real problem with mixed fleets.

On the question of exemptions, we recognise that there may be local circumstances which preclude the effective and sustainable use of accessible taxis, and we have provided a power for the Secretary of State to grant an order exempting an authority from the requirements of the

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Bill. Some of the criteria that will be applied to, say, the concept of unmet need are set out in Clause 29 and relate to the circumstances of an area and the effect on the number of taxis in the area of requiring full accessibility. A judgment will need to be made in each case. The granting of the exemption will depend on the authority in question being able to meet the specified criteria.

I should not like to prejudge how many authorities would seek to use the provision. However, it may well be that some areas will choose to do so, and I know that that is a matter of particular concern. I have been asked why I am putting it that way round and not merely giving the authorities the right to come to a decision on their own without going to the Secretary of State. In recent years there has been an increase in the number of legal challenges against local authorities which have sought to make wheelchair access a licensing requirement in their areas. That can be costly and is always time-consuming. The provisions of the Bill will ensure consistency across the country and I believe that they will be welcomed by most local authorities because they should reduce the risk of a legal challenge.

Perhaps I may turn now to the point about vehicle development. In Committee I tried to make sure that I dealt with one of the real problems in this regard and I seek to do so again now. There is a mistaken belief that in future we will be requiring the universal use of the London-type "black cab". This is not so. The point continues to be widely misunderstood and misinterpreted by sections of the trade. We recognise the valid criticism which has been levelled at the current models of wheelchair-accessible taxi that, while they can satisfactorily accommodate the vast majority of wheelchair users, they are difficult—or indeed impossible—for many elderly and disabled people. We want to ensure that the accessible taxis of the future do not come under the same criticism and I want to make it absolutely clear that we are not talking about a universal requirement for the current purpose-built taxi designs.

In consultation with the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee and the taxi industry we shall be defining design parameters based on research and experience to provide optimum levels of accessibility for all disabled people. We would expect a range of manufacturers to address the market that will be created. Those design parameters, which will form the basis of the regulations, will apply to new vehicles only. I would also like to make it absolutely clear, as I have done already in writing to my noble friend, that the period over which these requirements will be introduced will be long enough for existing non-wheelchair accessible vehicles to have reached the end of their useful life. There is simply no question of us introducing requirements in such a way as to undermine the viability of existing businesses. As my noble friend has rightly pointed out to me on a number of occasions, that would be in no one's best interest. We have no intention of doing that.

Perhaps I may sum up by saying that noble Lords will have noticed that I have not said anything at any stage about when the provisions might take effect. We shall want to discuss this issue in much more detail with the industry and DPTAC before we come to any conclusion.

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I can assure your Lordships that the dates that will be fixed in regulations will the realistic and will be achievable by manufacturers and operators alike.

I hope that with those assurances I have been able to calm my noble friend's fears, which I understand coming as I do from a rural area. Taxi operators in rural areas have nothing to fear from—if I may describe it like this—the gentle and understanding way in which this provision will be implemented.

9.15 p.m.

Lord Renton: My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend. He has given the most open-minded reply he could have given in the circumstances. It is consistent with what he said on Second Reading. He has just told us that there will be no universal use of the black cab. That is good news. It is consistent with what he said on Second Reading—that he could assure the House that there is no intention to require every new taxi to be purpose-built.

I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken, especially the two noble Baronesses in the wheelchairs who speak from great personal experience. I always admire not just their sincerity but the articulate and influential way in which they express their views. Tonight was no exception. Several noble Lords have pointed out the need for flexibility, and there is a need. It would be wrong for us to be rigid in this matter.

The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, is an old friend, although not in the political sense. She and I, after all, live not far from each other. She referred to RADAR. I was once chairman of what I believe is the largest pressure group in this country; namely, MENCAP. I was always worried lest we should exercise a wrong judgment. Sometimes great pressure groups do exercise a wrong judgment, and I believe in this case RADAR did. Its attitude was rather urban-based, whereas as my noble friend the Minister pointed out in earlier debates, as many noble Lords know, we must think not just of London and the great cities but of rural areas too.

If we follow the national rules in the sense in which the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, referred to them, we shall have fewer cabs. That will not be in the interests of disabled people. I gather from what my noble friend the Minister said that the Government will be giving further serious thought to this issue before Third Reading. If I can be of further assistance, I am at their disposal. With the hope that we shall reach a workable, sensible, just solution, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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