A minister has been accused of hypocrisy after pledging to break down the barriers to disabled people’s access to public transport, only days after confirming lengthy delays to new European bus and coach access rules.
The European regulation would have given powerful new rights to disabled bus and coach passengers, but the Liberal Democrat transport minister Norman Baker told MPs last week that he was taking full advantage of every exemption open to the government.
The European Union regulation on bus and coach passenger rights will come into force on 1 March, and includes a right to full compensation for lost or damaged wheelchairs, non-discrimination in booking tickets and boarding vehicles, and disability awareness training for all staff who deal with customers.
But Baker is taking advantage of the right of EU states to seek lengthy exemptions from other key parts of the regulation.
These other rights apply to journeys over 155 miles, and EU member states can exempt their regular domestic bus and coach services for up to eight years.
The UK government will now delay by four years – with the possibility of a further four years in 2017 – the right to compensation if a passenger has a reservation and has explained their need for assistance in advance but is still prevented from boarding.
Among other measures it is delaying is a disabled passenger’s right to free assistance at major coach terminals and on board coaches, if they have notified the provider at least 36 hours before departure.
They are also delaying the requirement to provide temporary replacement equipment if a wheelchair or other mobility equipment has been lost or damaged in transit.
The government is also taking advantage of another exemption, delaying compulsory disability awareness training for bus and coach drivers by five years.
Baker has promised to review this last exemption after a year, to check on progress with voluntary measures from the industry, as a result of “concerns from the public”.
Only four days after announcing these exemptions, Baker told a seminar on transport and disabled people, organised by the all-party parliamentary disability group: “Our aim is to remove the barriers that people face, not just the physical barriers but attitudes towards disabled people, from staff and fellow passengers alike.”
Faryal Velmi, director of the accessible transport charity Transport for All (TfA), said the minister’s comments – and his department’s Accessibility Action Plan, published in December – “smack of hypocrisy” and “speaking out of both sides of the mouth”.
She said: “Essentially, they are giving the bus and coach industry excuses not to give assistance to disabled and older passengers.”
Maria Eagle, Labour’s former minister for disabled people and now shadow transport secretary, said Baker’s move was “something that I would deplore”.
She said the time-scale for the regulation had already been set to give transport providers time to “factor it in” to their plans for replacing ageing vehicles, so the exemptions were “letting them off the hook” and “a sign of back-sliding and a lower priority for the rights of disabled people from this government”.
A Department for Transport spokesman said it was “committed to ensuring that disabled people have the same access to transport services and opportunities to travel as other members of society”, and was “looking at a number of ways of improving the accessibility of public transport, as reflected in our Accessibility Action Plan”.
But he said: “One of the government’s guiding principles when adopting EU legislation is to ensure that UK businesses are not put at a competitive disadvantage compared with their European counterparts.”
He said the bus and coach exemptions would “involve some costs to passengers” but claimed that this would be “mitigated” by existing UK contract and equality law and “by the fact that most major long-distance operators already provide a similar quality of service to that required by the EU regulation”.
14 February 2013