The legislation around accessible transport is unclear and “ridiculously complex”, with the rules protecting disabled people from discrimination not enforced by regulators or the government, MPs have been told.
Disabled campaigners and legal experts told the Commons transport committee yesterday (Wednesday) of the significant barriers disabled passengers face in trying to assert their right to use public transport.
Professor Anna Lawson, a law professor at the University of Leeds, said the systems to challenge transport providers over access are “very complex”, while finding legal advice is a “massive problem” because there are so few solicitors who specialise in this area.
She said: “Accessibility doesn’t have a high enough profile, and in other countries there is more of an effort being made to really foreground the importance of accessibility as an issue.”
Accessible transport campaigner Doug Paulley said the legislation was “ridiculously complex”, with much of it 20 to 25 years old, “and yet we’re still fighting for basic compliance with that legislation”, while “regulators and enforcers to one degree or another don’t know or enforce the law, or don’t know what’s going on on the ground”.
He told the committee about serious breaches he had informed regulators about – which they had been unaware of – including discrimination by coach operators, and with home-to-school buses and rail replacement buses.
He contrasted the challenges disabled people face when they want to challenge transport providers over access to the situation when “you get food poisoning in a dodgy takeaway”.
He said: “Then you can speak to the local environmental health people, who will go and inspect and take whatever action and keep you anonymous, and they have a duty to deal with it.
“But if you’re discriminated against [on transport] then the only way to enforce is either to take legal action yourself, or complain, or try and get a regulator to use their discretion to enforce.”
Caroline Stickland, chief executive of Transport for All (TfA), said that “all too often” campaigners see the flawed legislation, the processes of making complaints and “the fragmentation of the different regulations” across different types of transport “actually becoming a barrier in and of itself, when really it should be there to remove those other barriers”.
She said: “Issues such as individuals having to take claims under the [Equality Act], individuals having to make complaints, individuals really having that burden of trying to enforce the law to remove those barriers ourselves, is really not the right way around.”
One TfA member told her this week that 75 per cent of her taxi journeys this month have seen the driver “charging her while they were putting the ramps out for her to disembark, which is illegal”.
She said: “There’s clearly a time requirement to sit and make a complaint… Even just finding out who you’re meant to complain to sometimes needs kind of like a PhD.”
Barrister Catherine Casserley, an expert in disability discrimination, told the MPs there was a “very difficult enforcement regime” when it came to accessible transport failures.
She said she has disabled clients who repeatedly face discrimination from the same provider and “put up with an incredible amount”.
She said: “The cases that I deal with, if people brought cases for every time there had been a breach of legislation, they would be in court all the time, and they would do nothing but bring cases.”
Casserley said that disability legislation was “a mess”, with “the attitude that’s displayed to disabled people and to their access needs reflected in the legislative progress that there’s been… or lack of progress”.
She said there did not seem to be “much of a will… to do anything about it”.
Lawson pointed to the Accessible Canada Act, which came into force four years ago, as a possible model to follow for reform in the UK.
She said the act aims to “heighten the profile of accessibility, and resource it, and place it within the centre of government”, while it also created a public body to set accessibility standards and an accessibility commissioner “who is the focal point through which you can channel complaints”.
She said both Canada and the United States – which also develops accessibility standards in “very deep consultation and the involvement of disabled people and their organisations” – place responsibility on government bodies “to be proactive in going out and monitoring the compliance of these accessibility standards”.
She said: “It’s not just a case of waiting until complaints come.”
Paulley told the committee that the “poorly enforceable and unenforceable” legislation “is a reflection of the fact that disabled people’s access needs are not seen with the priority that they should be… and this has been the case for so long”.
He said there would have to be “a huge volume” of legal cases taken against transport providers to make a difference, when the current number of cases, compared with the number of incidents of discrimination, “is tiny”.
He said: “That’s what needs to happen. And for that to happen, the whole enforcement model has to go from individual disabled people trying to enforce it yourself… [to introducing] a proactive duty on competent regulators and enforcers to make that happen.”
Paulley also highlighted the discrimination against scooter-users, which he said was “just phenomenal” and “ridiculous”, with “each transport operator having its own different scheme” and rail operator ScotRail even banning them altogether “unless you can get on and fold it up and put it in the luggage rack”.
Picture: (From left to right) Doug Paulley, Catherine Casserley, Caroline Stickland and Professor Anna Lawson giving evidence to the committee
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