A disability activist has called on disabled people to shame their local councils into action, after his research showed more than a quarter had no plans to take one simple step that would protect wheelchair-users who use taxis from discrimination.
On 6 April, the government finally brought into force legislation that imposes fines of up to £1,000 on drivers of taxis and private hire vehicles who refuse to accept wheelchair-users, try to charge them extra, or fail to provide them with appropriate assistance.
But the new laws only apply in those areas of England, Scotland and Wales where the local authority has drawn up a list – under section 167 of the Equality Act – of all the wheelchair-accessible taxis and private hire vehicles in their area.
The government has been encouraging councils to start drawing up such lists for the last seven years.
But three months of research* by disabled campaigner Doug Paulley – including freedom of information requests sent to all 366 licensing authorities, and the exchange of thousands of emails – shows that only 11 per cent of licensing authorities have so far introduced a section 167 list, with another 30 per cent planning to introduce a list this year, in line with government guidance.
But he found that 18 per cent of local authorities were still undecided on whether to produce a list, while more than a quarter (26 per cent) had no plans to set one up, and another 15 per cent planned to produce a list but had no particular deadline.
He concludes in his research that “serious flaws” in the legislation mean that it is currently of “little benefit to wheelchair users in most areas of the country”.
He added: “It is disappointing that the government’s intent in bringing in this legislation is being undermined by the failure of many councils to undertake the required office work, meaning that taxi drivers can continue to discriminate against wheelchair users with impunity.”
Paulley, whose work has been supported by the charity Muscular Dystrophy UK, called on disabled people and their allies to raise the issue with their local councils.
He told Disability News Service (DNS): “Councils have known this was coming since the law was enacted in 2010.”
He said the bureaucratic work was “not unduly onerous” for councils and all they had to do was “put the list together in the required format and shove it on their website.
“I fail to see what is difficult about this, or any good reason not to do it. Why can’t they just get on with it?”
He added: “Lots of councils haven’t got any idea what a section 167 list does.
“Simply forcing them to understand that the only effect of a section 167 list is to put drivers of wheelchair accessible taxis under a duty not to discriminate against wheelchair users can often have the desired effect; as can explaining that the council still needs to produce a list even if all of their taxis are accessible, or very few of their taxis are accessible, or indeed that their existing ‘voluntary list’ doesn’t do the job.”
He is hoping that raising the profile of the issue will convince MPs and peers to take it up in parliament.
Previous research by Muscular Dystrophy UK has suggested that a quarter of disabled people have been refused service by a taxi driver because of their impairment.
The Department for Transport (DfT) refused to say if ministers were disappointed by the number of licensing authorities that have set up section 167 lists so far.
But a DfT spokesman said in a statement: “We brought this law into force to ensure that passengers in wheelchairs can use taxi and private hire vehicles, free from the fear of discrimination and in the knowledge that the assistance they require will be provided.
“We have been talking to councils about their role implementing this legislation and have issued them with guidance to support them.
“We recognise some authorities will need time to bring in the policy change and intend to speak to them again soon reminding of their role bringing in the new rules.”
In his research, Paulley contrasts the situation for wheelchair-users in areas like Sheffield – which has had a ‘voluntary’ list of accessible taxis for decades, where all licensed taxis are wheelchair-accessible and drivers have to undertake disability awareness training, and which implemented section 167 on the day it was commenced in April – with others like Spelthorne, in Surrey.
Spelthorne council has told Paulley it has no plans to implement section 167, does not force drivers to undertake disability awareness training and has only two wheelchair-accessible taxis licensed in the whole borough.
Dawn Morrison, communications and licensing manager for Spelthorne council, told DNS that the council had decided not to set up a list because there were only two wheelchair-accessible taxis in the borough, and one of the drivers was currently ill and not working and the other was fully-booked with regular disabled customers, and so “the risk of them refusing fares is non-existent”.
Paulley has previously told the council that “having insufficient wheelchair accessible taxis makes it more important to take this simple measure to ensure that the drivers don’t discriminate against wheelchair users”.
Morrison said the council offered half-price licensing fees for wheelchair-accessible vehicles and had tried to persuade the industry “that there is a demand out there”.
She said: “I do feel we can be doing more but we do not have the large operators we can reason with.”
She agreed that the council did not have an impressive record, but added: “We don’t want to be over-burdensome at a time when they are struggling to compete with Uber.
“We will look at it again. I will speak to the licensing officers. It is maybe something that can be taken forward.”
*Paulley’s research data, showing which councils have failed to draw up a section 167 list, can be found on his blog