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Mr. Edward Davey: The Minister said that the Government will issue guidelines to the industry and to other affected parties, but in his list he did not mention licensing authorities. Can he reassure the House that guidelines will be issued to licensing authorities, because that would deal with some of the points that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) rightly raised?
As has been pointed out, the dogs in question are highly trained animals. It is therefore unsurprising that we intend that the provision cover only dogs trained by recognised bodies that are to be prescribed in regulations. It is therefore highly unlikely that they would behave in such a manner. If they did, they would be of little assistance to their owners.
Mr. Dismore: I hear what my hon. Friend says, but that is not in the Bill. It refers to prescribed charities in certain circumstances, but does not mention assistance dogs for the deaf or blind. That is a genuine drafting problem. If what my hon. Friend says is correct, so be it, but that does not appear in the Bill, except in connection with assistance dogs for people with other disabilities.
Mr. Jamieson: My hon. Friend has made his point, as indeed he did in his previous contribution. Notwithstanding that, we hope that the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet will seek the leave of the House to withdraw the motion.
Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): This has been an interesting debate, and I shall try not to repeat what has already been covered by the speeches from both Front Bench spokesmen, because they have already dealt with some of the points that came up. Sometimes during the debate it has felt as if we were discussing something totally new that had never been thought of before, and that none of the potential problems had ever been considered. On the contrary, since the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was passed we have had legislation imposing exactly the same obligations on the licensed cab trade as are proposed in the Bill. A great many local authorities already include the provisions in the Bill in their licensing requirements for private hire vehicles, and require drivers to take guide dogs.
The problem is not that that does not happen, but that it does not happen everywhere. There is inconsistency between one local authority area and another, so that people with assistance dogs, especially when they are travelling away from home, cannot be confident that they will be able to use private hire vehicles. The problem is the lack of consistency across the country.
The attempts that we have heard to construct convoluted scenarios for the problems that guide dogs might cause ignore the fact that we already have experience, and we are not dealing with something completely new. We may be spending too much time trying to find all the extreme examples of things that might go wrong with the Bill, when the fundamental issue is really very simple: rights of access for people with disabilities.
Mr. Gardiner: Does my hon. Friend agree that our hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) perfectly illustrated the fact that the only way one can tell whether a minicab driver has run over a assistance dog or a lawyer is that there would be skid marks in front of the assistance dog?
I want to address some of the issues related to new clause 1 and amendment No. 2 concerning damage, and dogs being excitable. A lot of them have already been covered; the legal advice that I have been given makes it clear that there is nothing to prevent someone from suing now, and the Minister agrees. Again, we have the benefit of the experience of the licensing authorities that already make that requirement. In the very unlikely event of a guide dog causing damage, there is nothing to stop people suing now, so it is unnecessary to add the provisions to the Bill.
Clearly it is important that excitable dogs should not make cars dangerous to drive, but as several hon. Members have already explained, the very nature of assistance dogs makes that scenario highly unlikely. We should also remember that private hire vehicle drivers are used to dealing with difficult situations and customers. Unfortunately for them, that is part of the business.
There is nothing to say that a private hire vehicle driver has to accept every booking offered. If a driver is offered a booking to the airport and he does not want to drive all the way across London to Heathrow, he can say no. The Bill will simply stop discrimination. The driver and the operator will not be able to say, "I'm not going to take you because you've got your assistance dog with you." If, in the very unlikely circumstance that the driver turned up for a booking and the dog was unruly or the passenger drunk or abusive, there would not be the slightest problem if the driver refused to take them for that reason. It is an offence only if he refuses to take them because the dog is an assistance dog.
The definition of an assistance dog is the same as in section 37 of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. It works for black cabs, and I see no reason why it should not work for private hire vehicles. The very detailed guidance issued by the Department to drivers, people with disabilities and the local authorities, which are the licensing authorities, covers the definitions clearly.
It would be a mistake to look for additional reasons for exemption. A number of issues were raised in relation to exemptions, such as phobias and medical grounds. The guidance issued under section 37 of the 1995 Act to licensing authorities for black cabs specifically refers to drivers having severe asthma aggravated by contact with dogs, allergies or acute phobias. Those are given in the guidance as the sort of reasons that would allow a driver to apply for exemption. The guidance also makes it clear that the driver would be expected to produce to the licensing authority the medical evidence required for such an exemption.
People have asked what is the point of the provision on having regard to the physical characteristics of the private hire vehicle in proposed section 37A(6). This relates to the driver's medical condition. As with black cabs, if a driver claims that he cannot have a dog in his cab because he is allergic, questions about the physical characteristics of the vehicle become relevant when considering whether a medical exemption should be granted. Is there a partition between the passengers and the driver, for example? Do the physical characteristics of the vehicle have a bearing on the medical condition that is being claimed?
We should get the scale of the exemption into perspective. I believe that so far three exemptions have been granted to drivers of black cabs. This will not be a huge problemvast numbers of people will not suddenly require exemptions. We should recognise the scale of the problem and approach it with common sense. It affects about 5,000 to 6,000 people who own guide dogsthey are the people who suffer problems, not the drivers. However, there are about 150,000 drivers, and the average driver will never have to deal with this situation, or only extremely rarely.
I suspect that anyone who uses private hire vehicles, as I quite frequently do in my constituency, will soon realise which firms are reliable and which give a good service and they will use them. People who own assistance dogs
Some of the amendments are unnecessary, as they cover points that are already dealt with in the Bill; for example, the ability of a driver or operator to sue for damage if necessary, or to refuse carriage provided that the reason for refusal is not simply the assistance doghe can certainly refuse to take an abusive or unruly passenger whether or not they are using an assistance dog.
Some of the points raised about exemptions and definitions may not be included in the Bill, but they are already in practice under section 37 of the Disability Discrimination Act and provisions for black cabs. We are familiar with them. We do not want to introduce inconsistency; what works for black cabs should work perfectly well for private hire vehicles and it makes sense to amend the Act in the form currently taken by the Bill to achieve that consistency for different classes of vehicle, rather than to make that aspect more complex. We should not look for problems that do not exist.