A minister has agreed to offer transport providers yet another series of “ludicrous” exemptions from transport access laws, two years after the regulations were supposed to have come into force.
The government has told senior figures in the rail, bus and coach industry that they will be allowed to continue to evade the regulations after their existing exemptions run out this summer.
The exemptions relate to buses and coaches used as rail replacement (RR) vehicles when train services are disrupted, and those used to provide home-to-school (HTS) services for disabled students.
The Public Services Vehicle Accessibility Regulations (PSVAR), introduced more than two decades ago, mean that all such vehicles should have complied with the regulations by 31 December 2019.
But because of the industry’s failure to prepare for that date in advance by ensuring sufficient provision of accessible vehicles, ministers have already handed providers four sets of temporary exemptions.
This means that train operating companies are still allowed to use older buses and coaches for rail replacement purposes, even if those vehicles do not comply with PSVAR.
Other exemptions have been offered to those providing home-to-school services, including local councils and schools.
In a letter to rail, bus and coach bosses, transport minister Baroness Vere admits that disabled people “have waited too long to be able to travel on services subject to the Regulations as easily as non-disabled passengers”.
But she says she still intends to offer further “medium-term” exemptions to providers that will “ensure that essential HTS and RR services can continue operating, helping passengers to make the journeys important to them whilst operators step up their efforts to comply with existing legal obligations”.
The government has promised to review PSVAR by the end of next year as part of its national bus strategy.
Baroness Vere says in the letter: “This letter explains our plan to bridge the gap between the current HTS and RR exemptions ending, and any post review changes to the Regulations coming into force.”
This suggests that providers will continue to be offered PSVAR exemptions until any changes suggested by the review come into force, which is almost certain to stretch into 2024 and probably even 2025 or 2026.
The letter suggests that larger operators taking advantage of exemptions will have to make quicker progress towards compliance than smaller ones.
The minister also suggests in the letter that all non-compliant vehicles may be offered a further six-month exemption this summer, but beyond that period providers will have to meet “increasing levels of compliance over the lifetime of the exemption”.
Disabled campaigner Doug Paulley, who has played a key role in holding the industry and ministers to account over PSVAR, said: “When ministers first issued PSVAR exemptions for rail replacement back at the end of 2019, the minister would only issue an initial one-month exemption.
“Since then, we’ve had a continual set of piecemeal extensions in both home to school and rail replacement bus provisions.
“These have happened through industry lobbying against application of the legislation.
“I wonder why accessibility is treated differently from emissions standards, drivers’ hours and tax law changes; perhaps if they ask nicely the government might like to give them exemptions from those too?
“This legislation has been in place for 22 years now. Why are we still pandering to the CPT [which represents the bus and coach sector] and RDG [which represents the rail industry] and diddling around with further special authorisations 20 years on?
“It is ludicrous and a disgrace, and makes a mockery of disabled people’s rights to access to public transport.”
The Department for Transport (DfT) had refused by noon today (Thursday) to clarify when it believed the exemptions would end; how ministers justified the industry’s continuing failure to comply with the regulations; and what their message was to disabled users of public transport, who should have been able to rely on an accessible service from January 2020.
But a DfT spokesperson said: “Safe and convenient home-to-school transport plays a vital role for many families, which is why we will be offering qualified medium-term exemptions.
“Authorities and transport operators can therefore invest in providing vehicles compliant with the Public Service Vehicles Accessibility Regulations.
“We welcome the continued support of the bus and coach industry as we work together towards delivering a fully inclusive transport system.”
DfT also pointed out that, by 2020, 99 per cent of vehicles providing local services were compliant with PSVAR. so it was disappointing that similar levels of accessibility had not yet been achieved in home-to-school and rail replacement sectors.
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