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Lord Rix: My Lords, I thank the opposition Benches for joining this short debate and, in effect, supporting me. Obviously I am not going to press this amendment to further debate or to a Division. I am exceedingly grateful to the Minister for her warm-hearted and fully fleshed-out response. It is exactly what I was hoping for. We now have a statement in Hansard, which the Disability Rights Commission will be able to consult when they issue their codes of practice.

I also thank the Minister. I have had occasions to thank her on many occasions in this House. The first time was over the question of SERPS, but that is going back rather a long time. I think SERPS is coming up again later today—but there we are. I shall not be here to hear what goes on.
 
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I welcome this truly excellent Bill and the manner in which the Minister has listened to the advice, which all sides of the House have offered, and considerably improved what is already an extremely good Bill. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Higgins moved Amendment No. 5:


"SCHOOL BUSES
In the 1995 Act, after section 47 there is inserted—
"47N SCHOOL BUSES
The provision of this Act and the regulations made under them shall apply equally to school buses regardless of whether they are provided by local authorities or privately.""

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment stands in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale. The provisions of the Bill and regulations made under it should apply equally to school buses, regardless of whether they are provided by local authorities or privately.

We raised this matter at earlier stages. The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, kindly wrote to me following those debates and dealing with this matter. There are still one or two points that seem to be remarkably obscure. Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, could clarify the position for us.

In his letter, the noble Lord said that the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 allows for accessibility regulations to be made for other services and for smaller vehicles—22 passengers or fewer—but such regulations have not yet been introduced. It is of course 10 years since the passage of the Act. Is it the Government's intention to do anything about that?

The remainder of my remarks will be confined to those buses that carry more than 22 people. If it is operated by a local authority and providing no one pays, it would seem that it is exempt. I am not clear to what extent such local authority buses, while exempt, will meet the provisions of the Bill.

The other matter that I am still uncertain about is the situation for school buses provided by parents. Again, the noble Lord said in his letter that a group of parents using a minibus that they own or have leased or chartered to carry, provided that the cost is divided, would probably not be within the scope of the Bill. That is certainly so, because he has introduced the question of a minibus again, but I am not clear what the position is for a bus operated by a group of parents who have clubbed together for their children. The crucial issue would seem to be whether it is operated for hire or reward; that is the point we are not clear about. If they club together and, presumably, contribute equally to chartering the bus, is it obliged to provide adequate
 
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facilities for disabled children going to school? Perhaps the Minister could clarify that, since there seems to be some uncertainty in the letter. I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I apologise for my noble friend Lord Davies, who would wish to be here, but is at the moment handling the Railways Bill.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, we commiserate with him.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, my noble friend might also commiserate with me, because in his absence I am taking on the transport amendments of this Bill, which previously I have been able to depend on my noble friend to deliver for me.

As the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, acknowledged, my noble friend Lord Davies wrote to him. Let me be clear: school buses are already required to comply with accessibility regulations under the DDA 1995 if they are operated as public service vehicles, regardless of whether they are operated by local authorities or privately.

The noble Lord was right about what a public service vehicle is. It is defined in the Public Passenger Vehicles Act 1981 by whether it is carrying passengers in return for payment. The term used in the Act, as the noble Lord identified, is "hire or reward". Accessibility regulations can be made to apply to PSVs—public service vehicles—of a prescribed description and used in prescribed circumstances.

The existing public service vehicle accessibility regulations apply to new vehicles used on local or scheduled services on or after 31 December 2000 with a carrying capacity of more than 22 passengers. Local services and scheduled services both include in their definition a requirement that passengers are carried as separate fares. Any such PSV used on a school service, where hire or reward is taking place, is already caught by accessibility regulations. Whether the service is provided by a local authority or a private operator makes no difference. What does make a difference is whether any passengers are carried as separate fares, which includes payment for the right to travel as part of a larger payment.

The first question of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, was about when regulations would be made for smaller vehicles. The first point is that a vehicle comes within the framework of accessibility is if it has more than 22 seats. If the answer to that is no, the accessibility requirements do not apply; if there are over 22 seats, they do. We have no timetable in place, but we have said that we would consult further on any future extension of the regulations before we did so. Although that was done 10 years ago, we do not believe that it has yet been deemed appropriate to proceed with extending the regulations to vehicles with fewer than 22 seats.

6 p.m.

The first question to ask about school buses and the degree to which the requirements apply to them is, "Are there more than 22 seats?". If there are not, they
 
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are exempt; if there are, we go to the next question, which is, "Is the vehicle operated for hire and reward?". The operators of such vehicles will normally require some form of operating licence or permit. On a bus provided by the local authority or bus operator, provided that a fare is paid, even if only by some of the students, when others are entitled to free transport, the vehicle would be a PSV.

We then go on to the third question, which is "What happens when the bus is provided by parents?" The situation is then more complex. A bus with a driver which was chartered by a group of parents from a third party would be a PSV, because the bus has been chartered for the hire and reward of the bus driver and bus company. However—and this may be the situation that the noble Lord had in mind—a group of parents who use a vehicle owned, leased or chartered by them jointly to carry their own children would probably not be regarded as a PSV, provided that the cost is divided equally among them, and one of the parents drives, because no hire or reward is taking place. In practice, in my experience, many of those vehicles have fewer than 22 or even 16 seats and would be exempt in any case. The situation would be different, however—subject to the size of the vehicle—if one parent owned the bus and other parents paid for their children to be carried. In those circumstances, the vehicle would clearly be operated for hire or reward and would be a PSV.

For buses provided by a state school, provided that the passengers made no contribution to the cost of travel and no contribution was made on their behalf, no hire or reward is taking place and the vehicle is not a PSV. When contributions are made for travel, it is a PSV. Since private schools charge pupils fees for the whole of the education service that they provide, they would probably be regarded always as operating buses for hire or reward, because the transport service is part of the overall service by which the fees are charged.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, the Minister says "probably". Can she clarify that?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the problem is in defining what is covered by the fees for the education service. On the assumption that a private school will do nothing for free, because everything is part of the fee paid by the parents and included in its fees package, either explicitly or generally, it would be covered by the regulations. The closer a school bus arrangement in either the private or state sector comes to the equivalent of car share, the more likely it is to be exempt. The clearer it comes to the convention of PSV, which states that some parties are paying for some passengers, either directly or indirectly, it is on the PSV side. But behind all that lies the dividing line of whether the vehicle has 22 seats or more.

The first question is size and the second is, "Is it a PSV, and what are the tests for a PSV?". The test is hire or reward; if there is hire or reward, it does not matter whether the provider is a local authority, a state school or a private school as long as people are paying. The closer the situation is to a car share, the less likely it is
 
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that the vehicle qualifies as a PSV; the more it is clear that some or all are paying, the likely it is that it will be a PSV, subject to there being more than 22 seats.

I do not know whether that helps the noble Lord. I am slightly departing from my brief, but I am confident that my explanation is accurate. I hope that with my comments, the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.


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