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House of Lords

Monday, 21st June 1999.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Bristol.

Public Transport: Use by the Blind

Lord Addington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What action they are planning to take in the light of the findings of the Royal National Institute for the Blind report that one third of blind and partially sighted people never use public transport.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, the report highlights many issues that we are already tackling. The regulations that we are introducing under the Disability Discrimination Act, which require new buses, trains and taxis to be designed to be accessible to disabled people, include features to meet the needs of visually impaired people. We shall continue to work closely with blind people and their organisations to ensure that those improvements, together with greater emphasis on driver training and information, enable blind people to travel with confidence.

Lord Addington: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Will he agree that the most fundamental problem that faces many blind and partially sighted people in this country is the use of pavements? If such people cannot walk to public transport facilities, those facilities are useless to them. Will the Government inform the House what progress they have made under the proposed national walking strategy for making pavements more accessible to blind and partially sighted people, particularly in relation to issues such as the abuse of pavements by cyclists and parking on pavements?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, of course, both instances referred to by the noble Lord are already road traffic offences and action should be taken on them. The more general question of clutter on pavements needs to be tackled by local authorities. In some cases, areas regarded as pavements are, in fact, private property and therefore there is an inhibition on the powers of local authorities to act in those circumstances.

Lord Rix: My Lords, is the Minister aware that this morning the Minister for disabled people, Margaret Hodge, launched MENCAP's latest report on bullying of people with learning disabilities, Living in Fear? There is a large section in that report devoted to public transport, where apparently bullying by passengers and staff alike takes place. What steps can the Minister take to ensure that public transport companies lay down

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correct anti-harassment policies for their staff and passengers, including complaints procedures which are readily understood by people with learning disabilities?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, in relation to transport operators we have undertaken to try to ensure that better staff training exists for all those who deal with people with all forms of handicap as part of the buses package; for example, under the Disability Discrimination Act, which will amend conduct regulations in order to place duties on drivers to use the equipment provided in the main regulations. Similarly, the rail regulators' code of practice attempts to achieve the same objective among train operators.

As regards general passengers, we are taking steps in relation to buses, trains and London Underground to improve the knowledge of the public complaints procedure. It is true that there are difficulties of access at the moment and we are asking the operators to address such difficulties.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, naturally I share the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, about the RNIB's findings, more particularly as they affect blind and partially sighted people seeking work, and I am grateful to my noble friend for his reply. Is he aware of the deep appreciation felt, not least by Ian Bruce and Alyn Thomas for the RNIB, for the positive way in which my noble friend, Lord Boston, as Chairman of Committees, has pursued the suggestions made in the House to help noble Lords with severe visual impairments?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I appreciate my noble friend's remarks. I am sure that the Chairman of Committees will also be most appreciative. It is important that the Houses of Parliament show a lead in this area.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, even for an able-bodied person, the silent approach from behind of people on roller-blades can be terrifying? Can the Minister tell me whether roller-blading on pavements is an offence?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am not sure that I can say that it is an offence. Clearly, to use pavements in a dangerous manner, with the possibility of creating a danger to other pedestrians, is an offence. I do not believe that roller-blading is a specified offence, but I believe that the police have powers in that area.

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, as a partially sighted person perhaps I may thank the staff of this House. All those who have a disability, whether optical or otherwise, owe a great deal to them and perhaps I may at least convey our gratitude to them.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords--

Lord Whitty: My Lords, my noble friend's remarks are primarily for the House authorities and the staff, but I associate myself with them.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord. I have no wish to be rude to anybody.

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Does the Minister agree that a large number of older people are among whose who have sight disabilities? Therefore, in addition to the other inequalities that they face, they are often imprisoned in their own homes; they cannot drive and cannot use public transport. Can the Minister say whether they are included in the category of blind and disabled? They are often not included and we have to keep making this point.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that there are a large number of partially sighted and blind people with other forms of disability among the older members of the population. It is important that public transport policy is designed to increase access for those who would not otherwise have it, in particular those who cannot themselves drive a car.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, can the Minister say when he will implement Section 37 of the Disability Discrimination Act and oblige minicab drivers to accept guide dogs without extra charge and without discrimination?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, perhaps I can write to the noble Earl in that regard.

Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare: My Lords, the Minister has obviously read the RNIB report. Did he note that the blind and partially sighted are requesting that, within London Underground, stations should be announced? Those who come to work in London and go home every day by public transport have to sit and count the stops because they do not know where they are, or they have to search around for someone to tell them. Will the Minister look into that?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, yes. The issue of audible travel information is very important on the Underground, on train services and even at bus stops. It needs to be done in such a way that it is not intrusive elsewhere, but it is an important part of access to information for the blind.

Denis Nilsen: Poems

2.46 p.m.

The Earl of Longford asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will reconsider the ban on the publication of the poems of Denis Nilsen, a prisoner in HM Prison Whitemoor, since Mr Nilsen has stated that he will donate any proceeds to charity.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, under Prison Service standing orders prisoners are allowed to submit works of literary merit for publication but only through charitable

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organisations approved by the Prison Service. Mr. Nilsen has been advised of the correct procedures for doing that.

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister, but that is a fairly disingenuous reply. Not long ago I applied, on behalf of Mr. Nilsen, whom I have been visiting for five years, for permission to allow his poems to be published. Although the Minister may be excellent in all other ways, on that occasion he refused permission. There is no doubt but that Mr. Nilsen was refused permission. So let us be thankful for small mercies. Do not let us look a gift horse in the mouth. But the end is not yet, and I have to talk to people seriously concerned with prison writing as to the next step forward.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I want to make the situation absolutely plain. I am conscious of the great distress that the prospect of this publication may occasion to relatives and they have every right to have their anxieties attended to. Mr. Nilsen has been given permission for nothing. He has simply been told what are the provisions of Standing Order 4 and that if he wishes to pursue the possibility of publication under that provision, which is a pre-existing scheme, he can submit his request. I stress, because two newspapers at least have got it wrong and I received a most moving solicitor's letter today, that Mr. Nilsen has been given permission for nothing. He has been told that he can apply.

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