Some bus companies are taking advantage of a loophole that means they can avoid their legal obligations to ensure their buses are accessible to disabled people, the industry’s own trade association has admitted.
The admission from the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK (CPT) came despite repeated efforts from a government agency to block attempts to find out whether companies were using the loophole.
Access laws state that all buses and coaches have to meet the Public Service Vehicle Accessibility Regulations (PSVAR) – which date back to 2000 – but coaches have until January 2020 to comply, while all single-deck buses have had to comply since January 2016.
The regulations require vehicles to have a wheelchair space and boarding facilities, priority seating, colour-contrasting step edges, and other features “to enable disabled passengers to travel in comfort and safety”.
But one of the ways that companies are dodging the regulations is by simply removing the hanging straps in buses, placing “no standing” signs in their vehicles, and then applying for new carrying capacity certificates to authorise them to operate as coaches rather than buses.
It is one of three loopholes discovered by disabled campaigner Doug Paulley and reported last month by Disability News Service (DNS).
But the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) – which is responsible for ensuring that bus and coach operators comply with regulations on transport accessibility – has repeatedly blocked attempts by DNS to discover whether it has heard of such cases.
When asked whether it was aware of companies applying for new carrying capacity certificates to allow them to switch their vehicles from “buses” to “coaches”, a DVSA spokesman would only say that the agency had “no evidence to suggest that operators are flouting Public Service Vehicle Accessibility Regulations”.
But a CPT spokeswoman then told DNS that there had been cases of companies applying for new certificates to alter their vehicles from buses to coaches, and that this information had been handed to them by DVSA.
The CPT spokeswoman said: “We have spoken to DVSA and whilst there is evidence of vehicles being altered in this way, this is only a small number.
“The vast majority of vehicles operating local services already comply with PSVAR and the remaining double decks [buses] will do so by the end of 2017.
“Therefore, we aren’t able to comment any further without more evidence. It may be an idea to contact DVSA for their comment.”
DNS has lodged a complaint with DVSA about the actions of its communications department.
Paulley (pictured) said: “It is disgusting how some operators are getting around the mandatory requirement for buses to be accessible when that deadline has been in place for a good 15 years.
“Accessibility should not be an after-thought or a ‘nice to have’ and it is shameful that the DVSA claim not to know about it when they clearly did.”
He added: “Rather than expending effort in finding a way around the regulations that require their buses to be accessible, they should expend the energy in making their buses accessible.”
The second loophole apparently being used is to block-book inaccessible buses for contracts to provide free school transport.
Buses that provide only free school transport do not have to meet PSVAR, but Paulley believes some councils are trying to cut costs by using inaccessible vehicles, while at the same time allowing members of the public to use the buses as fare-paying passengers, and also charging some pupils, which should invalidate the PSVAR exemption.
The third loophole used by bus companies is to take advantage of regulations that allow inaccessible vehicles that are more than 20 years old to be used for a maximum of 20 days a year.
DVSA has said it has “no evidence” of these two loopholes being used, even though one of its officers told Paulley that he was “suspicious that some local authorities are seeking to minimise cost by allowing the general public to use [inaccessible buses] for a fare and thereby putting them in scope of PSVAR”.
DVSA said last month that the comments made to Paulley in an email “reflect the personal views of a member of staff and are not shared by DVSA”.
The Department for Transport said last month – before CPT’s admission emerged – that it was “working with operators, disability groups and local authorities to ensure that disabled people, parents with buggies and those who are less mobile can easily get onto buses and trains.
“We have brought in tough rules and nearly 90 per cent of buses in England are fully accessible.”