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Mr. Pond: I am reliably informed that few vehicles that are used as minicabs are not sufficiently large to take an alsatian, which is the largest assistance dog. Surely that practical point does not need to detain us for too long.
Mr. Dismore: I agree, and I hope that the point will not detain us. My speech has been longer than I intended because I have taken a lot of interventions. The debate has been important because we have aired the issues well.
Mr. McCabe: I appreciate that my hon. Friend is desperate to move on, but I want to consider his previous point. He said that amendment No. 10 would give the driver the power to stop the vehicle and order the blind person and the dog out. Does he seriously mean that he is prepared to table an amendment to a Bill that aims to protect blind and disabled people, to allow a driver to stop in the middle of nowhere and order the dog and the blind or disabled person out because the dog is irritating the driver? Is he seriously proposing that?
Mr. Dismore: As my hon. Friend says, the Bill is about the "carriage of disabled persons", but the long title also refers to "carriage" of "guide dogs". We must therefore consider the animal welfare issues that affect the dog as well as protecting the disabled person who is being guided. As I said, perhaps proposed new section 37A(6) deals with the problem of the dog being uncomfortable in
There are serious road safety considerations to be taken into account. The driver is responsible at all times for controlling the vehicle. The dog could jump about, try to get into the passenger's lap, or look out of the window. I admit that my dog used to do that. That could cause a serious problem for vehicle control. If the vehicle had an accident, the person who was hit would sue the driver. Would the driver have a claim against the owner for not controlling the dog? That takes us back to tort, which we discussed at the beginning of my contribution.
Mr. Gardiner: Everybody understands that a driver has a responsibility to his passenger and other road users for the safety of his vehicle and his conduct on the high road. None the less, a less nuclear approach might be to provide that the driver must stop the vehicle until the animal has been brought under control. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) said, it may be too much to evict the passenger and the animal from the vehicle.
Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend makes a tempting point and there is some merit in his argument. The point may well be one that is addressed in the other place. It is a question of doing justice and striking a balance between the passenger and the dog, the minicab operator and other road users. A slight difficulty arisesespecially if the minicab driver is working to a scheduleof how to deal with a dog that cannot be brought under control. As always, my hon. Friend has come up with a sensible compromise in respect of the points that I am making. It is a shame that he did not table his own amendment to that effect, as we could then have explored that possibility.
In my amendments, I have tried to draw attention to one or two drafting problems in the Bill, and I am interested in hearing the response of my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow. If, as I hope, the Bill proceeds to the other place, some of the points I have made might receive further consideration, although I hope that my hon. Friend and the Minister will be able to respond to them today.
Mr. Boswell: So far, the debate has been fascinating. The group of amendments was introduced succinctly by my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman), and has been spoken to by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) at rather greater lengthand, to be fair, in greater detail and with a lawyer's perceptiveness. It is also fair to say that the hon. Gentleman has triggered a clutch of questions and counterpoints, which is the proper role of the House of Commons. We sometimes hope that such matters might be dealt with more expeditiously in Committee, but we all agree on the importance of their being properly resolved before a Bill passes to the other place.
Conscious of the time, I should like to say on behalf of the Opposition that although the debate has been wide ranging, we should have some regard to the generality of the issues involved. I do not often quote my own remarks, but I shall do so briefly. In the Standing Committee, in response to comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), I said:
As all hon. Members have said, we want the Bill to succeed. As the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) remarked, it is all of a piece with the development of law from the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 through subsequent amending legislation. It would remove or repair an omission by including private hire vehicles in the provisions, along with public carriage vehicles.
A huge complex of law and practice is building up in the field of disability discrimination, dealing with the sensitive handling of guide dogs and other assistance dogs as well as the strict letter of the law, and nearly all of it seems to work perfectly well. This morning, only one reference has been made to the admission of guide dogs and assistance dogs to public restaurants; as far as I know, when that has happened, no major concerns of public health, order or nuisance have arisen. I see no reason why the provisions of the Bill should give rise to exceptions.
I believe that I am right in saying that under the existing law covering black cabs, only three drivers have required exemption. That is entirely proper and it reflects the scale of the problem that might be encountered if the Bill is passed. The problem will not be large, although I agree with the hon. Member for Hendon that that in no way absolves the House from the obligation to get the provision right.
I listened with great interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet, whose introduction of the amendments was somewhat qualified, and to the extensive discussion of the whole group of amendments led by the hon. Member for Hendon. After listening to the latter building up his argument, the nearest analogy I could think of was a famous story of an Australian outback farmer in the 1920s. He ordered a new Rolls-Royceno doubt, he farmed on a fairly large scaleand the company was intrigued by his special emphasis on having a glass partition; it was the main selling proposition. When asked delicately why the partition was so important, he is reputed to have replied, "Because it stops the sheep licking the back of my neck when I'm driving." With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I felt that the debate was starting to stray into that sort of territory. Of course there will be hard cases, but he is a lawyer, unlike me, so he knows that hard cases make bad law. We have to think about them, but we also have to deal with them and get past them.
The subject with which the Bill deals invites a jocular attitude, and that has been the mood in the Chamber today, but a serious point has been made that whereas guide dogs normally behave in an exemplary manner, are trained to do so and can be proved to have been trained to do so, a bigger concern for cabbies and operators of private hire vehicles is the behaviour of the human cargo and the various things that can go wrong. I suspect that the many hon. Members who are avid readers of The Economist noticed the story in the American section last week about the United States hot dog eating competition. It was wonby a considerable marginby a Japanese gentleman, who was, in the words of the newspaper, able only narrowly to avoid a "Roman incident".
I shall not dwell on that subject at length, but I am reminded of one of my modest attainments in Parliament. It is no great confession, but in the Jubilee Room some years ago I won the national biscuit dunking competition. I hasten to add, lest there be any question of interest, that I did it for charity and the only prize was the award of a golden biscuit. The runner-up, my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), was greatly distressed and was heard to say under his breath, "I'd like a blood test, please." On the whole, that was rather odd given that neither of us is a member of the union Amicus. Let me conclude that point by mentioning the fact that after my triumph, I was invited to comment in a television interview and in the best style of "Match of the Day" described myself as feeling as sick as a parrot.
People can be sick in taxis, as can dogs. What we must not do is use the pretext of an extremely rare occurrence to scupper, dilute or destroy this excellent measure. To the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) I say that I regard the Bill as a parallel to that other legislative brick that we laid this year, the Copyright (Visually Impaired Persons) Bill. I very much hope that the Bill before us today will succeed as well.
I want to touch on the case for any amendments of comfort along the lines of those proposed by the hon. Member for Hendon. We want to carry the minicab trade with us and meet its reasonable concerns, ensuring that people are not treated unfairly when they comply with the law. I believe that the Bill does that. Legislation prescribes that something should happen, and we should not need further legislation to absolve people who have found an excuse for it not to happen. As my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point said, it is a matter of striking the right balance. Having listened carefully to the debate, I judge that we have got the balance about right.
There is a powerful business case for this, too. If cab drivers can be shown to be friendly and welcoming to people with assistance dogs, that is good business. There may be cases in which that cannot happen, and that is what the legislation is trying to pick up on, but to remove oneself from a significant section of the market, with