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Lord Renton: My Lords, I apologise to the House. That is very negligent of me. Perhaps I may quickly read that. The trouble is that it is limited to those areas in which an exemption order is in force. That is the trouble about that. As I said at an earlier stage, this business of exemption orders introduces a sort of bureaucratic impediment to the flexibility which we all need because it requires a licensing authority to apply to the Secretary of Statethat is, the Department of Transportin order to be exempt from the other provisions which are stricter. We do not know on what grounds exemption orders will be granted, how far they will go and what flexibility they will introduce.
I must confess that I had not observed that indirect way of introducing swivel seats, but it is not quite good enough. I should much rather see it written into the construction and use regulations that are to be made. That is why I have tabled the amendment.
As I mentioned in earlier debates, my very severely handicapped daughter prefers to drive in a saloon car next to the driver instead of in a black cab taxi. She certainly hates being in a wheelchair for too long, although she has to spend most of her life sitting down. But when she is put in the ordinary back seat of a black cab, because she is very small she cannot see out. She happens to be cared for 100 miles from my home in Huntingdon and I am very anxious that she and others like herand there are an enormous variety of cases of disabled people that we should envisagewill not be forced merely to sit in the back seat of a cab. I personally find that a swivel seat is desirable for getting my daughter seated, and that is why I mentioned that.
Let us take stock of the position we have reached according to what the Government have told us and according to previous legislation. In London all taxis are to be black cabs but if a disabled person wants to travel in a saloon car, it seems to me that he will have to travel either in a private hire car or in a minicab, which is also a type of private hire car.
The Department of Transport has said that it wants all taxis in England and Wales to be as in London. Clause 28 of the Bill seems to make that possible, in spite of what my noble friend wrote to me and in spite of what my noble friend has wisely said at each stage of the Bill about the need for flexibility.
However, I believe that in Scotland real flexibility will be achieved as a result of Clause 33(3) which states that the regulations may provide the circumstances in which an exemption from wheelchair provisions may be granted. That is a better kind of exemption because it is an exemption stated in advance instead of each licensing authority having to apply to the people in Whitehall.
Perhaps I may say before I go further that my noble friend Lord Holderness, who is very severely disabled, has asked me to say that he supports my amendments and regrets that he cannot be here this evening.
Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I rise briefly to support the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Renton. As I understand the Bill as drafted, when the regulations come into effect it will be necessary for all taxi services in England and Wales effectively to have London cabs; that is, cabs which are specially constructed with a view to make it possible for them to carry persons sitting in a wheelchair. That may well be reasonable for London, but I would suggest that it is not reasonable for rural communities for two reasons. First, it would significantly increase the cost of rural taxi services because the capital cost of the kind of cab about which we are talking is some four or five times that of another suitable vehicle and the running costs are very much higher. The rural population in many areas are not now served by public transport. Therefore, without public services, this could be a crippling blow for those who do not have a car of their own.
Secondly, as the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said, London taxis are uncomfortable and unsuitable for long journeys, especially for the disabled. I cannot understand why it would not be sufficient for taxi services to be required to have in every fleet a percentage of taxis which are suitable for carrying persons in wheelchairs who, incidentally, represent less than half of 1 per cent. of taxi users at present. If discrimination against disabled people can only be removed at the cost of discrimination against the rural poor, I suggest that the provision in the Bill as it stands needs revision. I support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Renton.
Baroness Darcy (de Knayth): My Lords, when he has heard the Minister's response, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, will feel able to withdraw his amendment. I do not wish to repeat at length what I said at earlier stages about how having a taxi accessible to me while remaining in my wheelchair has revolutionised my life in terms of liberation and independence. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, when such taxis first became accessible we actually had to book them three days ahead. But now that the fleet is run on a half-and-half basis, one can almost hail them off the street, although one still cannot be certain to find one.
I understand the fears expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, and the reasons for his amendment. But, as I understand it, the new breed of accessible taxi about which we are talkingthat is, the taxi that will be accessible to all those in wheelchairs, to the ambulant
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy (de Knayth), I also hope that the Government will resist the amendments. I am sorry that I am unable to support the noble Lord, Lord Renton, who has carried out such admirable work for and on behalf of the disabled, both in the parliamentary group and in this House. However, on this occasion, I believe that his emphasis is wrong and I should like to make just a few points.
First, although there may be a limited number of peoplesome 75,000 or so, I believewho are permanent wheelchair users, something like 600,000 people are wheelchair users at some point in their lives. Even someone like myself was in a wheelchair for a few months when I was foolish enough to destroy an Achilles tendon by running in a relay race, passing hot dogs to celebrate the Queen's Jubilee. The consequence was that I learnt firsthand how the cambers of the roads in Norwich worked.
The point about the Government's proposalsand this is why we welcome themis that they seem to balance correctly the rights of disabled people to have full access with the need for flexibility in local circumstances. If a local authority is satisfied that there is no unmet need for wheelchair accessible vehicles, it may apply for exemption in exactly the same way as now, for example, a local authority which is satisfied that there is no unmet need for, say, gypsy caravan sites can apply for a designation certificate and not be required to make further provision. If the Secretary of State is satisfied that the local authority's case is well argued, the local authority may then go on to permit taxis not to be wheelchair accessible but merely to have swivel seats. That is the first point.
My second point has already been mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy (de Knayth), but it does perhaps need re-emphasising. Too much is sometimes made of the cost argument. The second-hand cost of the Metro cabs and the Fairways, and so on, iscertainly in my cityaround £12,000. That still gives another 10 years or so of useful life at the very least to that vehicle. It seems to me that that is a perfectly acceptable cost when compared with the cost of a new saloon car or Cortina to join the taxi fleet. It would professionalise the trade, because it means that people whose only skill is car driving, who come into the trade to cream off the public before Christmas and then go out again, are not able to enter into and go out of the trade as is possible if they can turn their own private domestic car
Thirdly, we have talked throughout about taxis, but there are at least as many cars outside Londonand rather more in Londonwhich are private hire vehicles that are not required to be wheelchair accessible. Indeed, they can be fitted with swivel seats and the like. It is entirely open to the family of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, to telephone for a car which meets the comfort and other requirements of his daughter from a private car hire company. That will remain acceptable. As a result of the provisions, I hope that users of such vehicles will continue to have choice, that the cost will be acceptable and that proper rights for disabled people will be ensured consistent with the needs of local circumstances. I hope that the Government resist the amendments.
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