Five disabled peers have called on the government to strengthen a new bill to ensure that all new buses have to be fitted with audio-visual announcements.
They were taking part in last week’s second Lords reading of the bus services bill, which aims to give local authorities a greater role in providing bus services and improve information for passengers.
But the five peers said more needed to be done in the bill to improve the accessibility of buses for disabled people.
All new buses will already have to meet accessibility regulations by the end of this year, and government statistics show that 89 per cent of buses in England already do so.
But those regulations – which include facilities such as low-floor boarding, visual contrast on step edges, handholds and handrails, priority seats, and spaces for wheelchairs – do not include audio-visual announcements.
Baroness [Jane] Campbell (pictured speaking in the debate) said that access for disabled passengers “remains a major challenge for the bus industry”.
She said that providing audio-visual (AV) announcements on buses would open up travel not only to people with visual impairments, but also to those such as people with dementia, autism, learning difficulties and mental health conditions.
She said the bill “could showcase how to make equality and accessibility part of the DNA of bus design and operations, to a standard that is consistent and reliable”.
She added: “Passengers should know in advance what to expect and be confident that they can rely on bus travel wherever they are, as they go from local authority to local authority.
“Freedom of movement is a fundamental human right. If disabled people are to enjoy that right too, accessibility must be hardwired into the design and delivery of our bus networks.”
Baroness [Sal] Brinton, president of the Liberal Democrats, said that audio-visual announcements were vital for wheelchair-users like herself who have to travel with their backs to the direction of travel.
And she said there was “real concern” over whose job it was to ensure that the existing bus regulations were complied with.
She said: “It is self-evidently discriminatory to keep treating people with disabilities less well than other bus-users, and the bill is a perfect opportunity to remedy those deficiencies.”
Lord [Colin] Low criticised the bill for failing to include “serious steps to end the continued inaccessibility of buses to many disabled people” and said it was disappointing that the government had not used it to ensure that all new buses are fitted with AV.
He said that only about 19 per cent of UK buses were fitted with AV, but 97 per cent of them were in London, whereas AV had been a requirement on all new railway and light railway systems since 1998.
And he pointed out that the Department for Transport found that it could cost only £5.75 million a year to fit all new buses in the UK with AV.
Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson, a board member of Transport for London, said she was a regular bus-user in the capital, but not near her home in the north-east of England “because of issues with access, routes and timetabling”.
She also pointed to the importance of AV as a wheelchair-user, because she has to face backwards when travelling on a bus, and she agreed with Baroness Brinton that one of the problems was the lack of an enforcement body for the bus access regulations.
Lord Holmes, the fifth disabled peer to speak in the debate, and disability commissioner for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said that accessible buses were important both for improving access to employment and addressing social isolation.
He said: “If there is no accessible transport, employers can do everything they like to enable an inclusive, accessible workplace, but if blind and visually-impaired and other disabled people cannot get on the transport, those efforts are largely wasted.”
He added: “Audio-visual announcements obviously benefit me, but they benefit all bus users; for example, people unfamiliar with an area or people who may be distracted.”
Labour’s Baroness Jones, a shadow spokeswoman on the environment, food and rural affairs, said her party backed the call for audio-visual announcements on all buses and for all drivers to receive mandatory disability equality training.
Lord Ahmad, the Conservative junior transport minister, said the bill would allow new accessibility standards, such as audio-visual announcements, to be “set locally in response to the needs of local communities”, but he did not suggest that the government would make this mandatory across the country.
He said the government was developing guidance on disability equality training, and would be working with the bus industry to promote it before an EU regulation that will make such training mandatory comes into force in 2018.
Lord Ahmad also agreed to meet with Baroness Campbell and other peers to “see how we can further strengthen the provisions of the bill to ensure that we provide accessibility”.
He said he would address the issue of access to wheelchair spaces on buses after the conclusion of the legal case brought by wheelchair-user Doug Paulley, which was being heard by the Supreme Court this week.