Campaigners have welcomed the decision of a committee of MPs to launch an inquiry to investigate the effectiveness of laws that are supposed to ensure an accessible transport system.
The inquiry by the transport select committee – which is believed to have been under discussion for several months – will also focus on how enforcement of that legislation can be improved, and on how the complaints and compensation systems are working.
Among its targets will be assessing the performance of regulators such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Office of Rail and Road, local authorities and the Civil Aviation Authority.
The committee decided to launch the inquiry after hearing evidence from organisations representing disabled people of their significant “discontent” about the way the transport system is run.
As part of its evidence-gathering for the inquiry, the committee has launched a survey to capture the experiences of disabled people when using transport services and attempting to complain or seek compensation for their failures.
This includes the barriers they experience when using trains, buses, taxis, planes, and the streets.
Today’s (Thursday) inquiry announcement comes as rail unions continue their long-running dispute with train operators and the government over pay and issues such as the planned closure of ticket offices and the introduction of more driver-only operated trains.
Disabled campaigners and allies have raised repeated concerns about accessible transport during the last year, particularly relating to barriers within the rail, bus and air travel industries.
Earlier this month, The National Federation of the Blind of the UK (pictured) warned transport secretary Mark Harper that “discriminatory” plans to remove guards from trains, cut staff and close ticket offices would prevent many disabled passengers travelling on the rail network and put lives at risk.
Research by The Association of British Commuters (ABC) had shown in November that six train companies were discriminating against disabled passengers at nearly 300 rail stations across the south-east of England by regularly denying “turn up and go” services to those who need boarding assistance.
The previous month, Matthew Smith, a key member of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, quit his role after accusing ministers of backing policies on de-staffing the rail network that discriminated against disabled rail passengers, and of ignoring his committee’s advice.
In December, accessible transport campaigner and wheelchair-user Doug Paulley told Disability News Service (DNS) how bus company Stagecoach breached access laws by refusing to allow him to board one of its buses, and then lied about its driver’s actions.
In July, DNS reported how UK airports and regulators were under pressure to act over the repeated discrimination faced by air passengers, after two prominent disabled campaigners were failed by assistance services within 24 hours.
British Airways cabin crew who work on flights in and out of Heathrow later told DNS that passenger assistance services at the airport were an “absolute shambles”, with waits of up to 90 minutes for disabled passengers left waiting to leave their planes.
Emily Yates, ABC’s co-founder, said this morning (Thursday): “The launch of this inquiry is a victory for disability rights activists and charities, which it’s great to see acknowledged by the committee.
“The timing sends a clear political message that the staffing and equality issues around the industrial dispute are finally being taken seriously.
“In the current climate, it’s obvious that the inquiry will produce a huge amount of evidence about rail accessibility.
“Now that the Department for Transport (DfT) knows this evidence is coming, it must pause all destaffing plans and any consultations on ticket office closures until the inquiry is complete and has reported back.
“This is the only way for that evidence to be available to people when responding to consultations, and for the DfT to properly fulfil its public sector equality duty.
“The fact that there is such little case law relevant to public transport speaks volumes about the effectiveness of the current legislation.
“Rail companies, for example, seemingly feel no threat, to such an extent that an operator can happily admit it has been ‘in breach of its legal obligations since 2010’.
“It should not be down to individuals to have to fight these battles, and the huge barriers to complaining and taking legal action can only be a sign that the system is rigged in favour of the operators.
“It requires urgent, radical reform.”
She added: “Having made a bold start, the transport committee must not neglect the structural causes of discrimination, and must address the ongoing crisis in bus policy, considered to be in breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
“The solutions to bus infrastructure failures, transport poverty, the lack of passenger representation, and the crisis in service provision can only be found in a regulated or publicly-owned system.
“This must be supported by a statutory right to transport and the implementation of the socio-economic duty of the Equality Act 2010.”
He said: “Enforcement of transport rights is so important.
“There’s little point in having theoretical legal rights if the reality is that they are not realised, and if the enforcement mechanisms and bodies are so fundamentally broken.
“I have spent much time these last several years attempting to enforce rights in my own minor way, and such is unfeasibly complicated and difficult, with statutory bodies being unaware of their roles and the legislation, let alone enforcing it.
“So I welcome the committee’s consideration of such, and I very much hope it makes a big difference for disabled people on the ground.”
Iain Stewart, the Conservative MP and chair of the transport select committee, said evidence from disability organisations had convinced the committee that there was “a great deal of discontent” among disabled people about the way transport services are run.
He said: “Many simply feel locked out of various modes of transport, from trains to planes and taxis, which of course means exclusion from work, education, socialising and all sorts of experiences that many take for granted.
“This inquiry will take a nuanced look at the system of legal obligations that govern how transport services should be run in a way that’s accessible for all, and at the means of enforcement and redress available to groups who feel side-lined.
“We will also look for a solution to the absence of any simple-to-use means of redress for people who are mistreated or denied their rights.
“People shouldn’t have to threaten huge, well-resourced transport companies with court action – typically a burden on complainants’ time, money and mental health that can take years to conclude.”
Picture by The National Federation of the Blind of the UK
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