The government is being asked to tighten the law to stop the “horrendous” discrimination disabled people are facing from ferry companies that refuse to allow them to travel for safety reasons.
Matthew Smith, a retired lecturer in marine engineering and health and safety, who lives on the Isle of Wight, has repeatedly been denied permission to board a ferry by both the island’s two ferry companies – Red Funnel and Wightlink – for safety reasons.
Smith (pictured), who has a spinal injury and uses a wheelchair, always asks in advance if he can stay in his adapted motorhome on the vehicle deck during the crossing.
But ferry companies often refuse this request and say they cannot guarantee he will be able to stay in his vehicle for safety reasons.
When he turns up to travel, he is often told he will not be able to stay in his motorhome because there will be a hazardous goods vehicle on the same deck during the crossing, and that he will need to wait an unspecified amount of time for a ship’s captain who will allow him to remain in his motorhome.
His options are to leave the vehicle and lie on the floor on the upper decks – which can cause significant pain for days afterwards – wait for the next ferry, or return home.
He usually waits for the next ferry and then, if he is again told there will be a hazardous goods vehicle on board, decides he will leave the vehicle and lie on seats or the floor of the passenger deck during the crossing.
He says that passengers with other impairments can also be denied permission to travel, such as those who carry oxygen cylinders, and wheelchair-users who are not travelling by vehicle and would find the ramps to board the ferry too steep at low tide.
Now Smith is hoping to force Red Funnel, Wightlink and other UK operators to change their practices so that disabled passengers who have booked in advance, and alerted the company to their access needs, are always allowed to travel.
He has now launched a parliamentary petition in the hope of persuading the government to act.
His petition calls for all ferry companies to be legally obliged to make reasonable adjustments for disabled passengers under the Equality Act, rather than relying on the regulations and guidance that currently provide protection for disabled passengers.
He said: “All I am asking is for the companies to make reasonable adjustments. That’s the least we can expect of them.
“I think it’s horrendous. Some ferry companies have no interest in making reasonable adjustments for disabled people because it costs them money.”
Smith said: “There is no understanding of the impact this has.
“If you were travelling on a plane or by train you would know if you were going to be able to travel. It’s absurd.
“Disabled people do not need complex designed engineered solutions, just a little consideration and the ability to book a ferry with the certainty of being able to travel.”
Only last year, the government announced that it would provide up to £1 million to improve the accessibility of seaports on the Isle of Wight and the Isles of Scilly.
Last month, Red Funnel launched an internal investigation after a video emerged that appeared to show staff laughing as they watched CCTV footage of a disabled passenger falling from a mobility scooter as they tried to climb a steep ramp on one of the operator’s ferries in 2020.
Red Funnel had failed to say by noon today (Thursday) if it believed it discriminated against disabled passengers, and if it believed there was a need for the law to change.
But Fran Collins, Red Funnel’s chief executive, said: “The safety of our passengers and teams is our number one priority and we are committed to providing bespoke and personal support to anyone requiring assistance due to a disability, reduced mobility or other health conditions.
“To ensure we follow guidance set out by the Department for Transport, our policy states passengers must leave their vehicles during crossings, and travel on upper decks.
“However, we understand this is not always possible and our customer services team is on hand to arrange ‘stay in vehicle’ requests.
“Since January 2022, we have handled over 400 requests and we welcome conversations with passengers requiring more information on this process.
“As a vital supply link to the Isle of Wight, we transport hazardous freight. We are unable to allow passengers and hazardous goods to travel on decks together.
“This is strictly governed by the MCA [the Maritime and Coastguard Agency] and is in place to protect the safety of our passengers and crew.”
Red Funnel has been awarded a grant through the government’s £1 million fund.
Collins said the internal investigation into the video was ongoing, and that Red Funnel had reported the incident to the Information Commissioner’s Office.
She said: “The video shows an incident from 2020. Teams at the time followed health and safety procedures and first aid-trained colleagues on board supported the customer.”
Wightlink had failed to say by noon today if it believed there was a need for a change in the law.
But a Wightlink spokesperson said: “Wightlink does not discriminate against disabled customers and has made reasonable adjustments to its services to assist them to cross the Solent with us.
“We ask them to give us a minimum of 48 hours’ notice to make arrangements.
“As Mr Smith needs to remain in his vehicle during the crossing, he books space in advance and we arrange for him to travel on a sailing that does not also carry a vehicle such as a petrol tanker or lorry carrying bottled gas or other hazardous material, which are known as ‘dangerous goods’.
“Only the customers inside one vehicle per sailing are permitted to remain in their vehicle for medical reasons.
“Legally, customers in their own vehicles are not allowed on vehicle decks at the same time as dangerous goods vehicles for safety reasons.
“Wightlink captains always carry out a dynamic risk assessment at the time of the sailing as he or she is responsible for the safety of the vessel.
“Conditions such as high winds or fog may affect this decision. This is why we cannot guarantee customers will be permitted to remain in their vehicle in advance of the sailing they have booked.”
The Department for Transport (DfT) said that ferries do not usually allow passengers to remain in their vehicles during crossings because of the possibility of vehicles moving and crushing others on board, under a requirement of the International Maritime Organization, which is enforced by MCA.
But it accepted that a ferry company can allow a passenger to remain in their vehicle at the captain’s discretion.
DfT said it did not accept that the current legal situation allowed ferry companies to discriminate against disabled customers because “disabled passengers are provided with rights to travel and to assistance under the [EU regulation] that has since been adopted into UK law”.
He added: “We always keep accessibility regulations under review and ferry operators on the Isle of Wight and Isles of Scilly have recently been able to bid for funding as part of a £1m [fund] to make their services accessible to those who require further assistance on board and in ports.”
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