Long-awaited new laws that ban taxis and private hire vehicles from discriminating against wheelchair-users may not provide as much protection as had been hoped when they come into force today, a disabled campaigner has revealed.
The laws mean that taxi and private hire vehicle drivers should face a fine of up to £1,000 if they refuse to accept wheelchair-users, try to charge them extra, or fail to provide them with appropriate assistance.
The laws, included in the Equality Act 2010 as sections 165 and 167, affect England, Wales and Scotland, and were first included in the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995 but were never brought into force.
The government finally agreed to act last May, after a hugely-critical report on the impact of equality laws on disabled people by the Equality Act 2010 and disability committee, which included several disabled peers among its members.
But accessible transport campaigner Doug Paulley (pictured) has raised concerns that the new laws could provide far less protection for wheelchair-users than had been hoped.
He has pointed out that they will only apply once a local authority has drawn up a list of all the wheelchair-accessible taxis and private hire vehicles in their area, and that local authorities can choose not to draw up such a list.
And government guidance published earlier this year says that it could take local authorities six months to draw up such a list.
Taxi and private hire vehicles are only obliged to follow the new rules if they have a fully wheelchair-accessible vehicle, but it is up to each local authority to decide how to define “wheelchair-accessible”.
The new laws also leave up to each local authority how it decides to enforce the new laws.
And Paulley points out in his blog that there are no obligations on local authorities to increase the number of wheelchair-accessible taxis and private hire vehicles in their area.
This week, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, in a new report on progress addressing disability equality in Britain, points out that in August 2015 – according to the Department for Transport’s (DfT) own figures – less than three-fifths of taxis in England were wheelchair-accessible, while that figure dropped to just 13 per cent in rural areas.
DfT says in its guidance that it “would encourage local authorities to put in place sensible and manageable transition procedures to ensure smooth and effective implementation of this new law.
“Local authorities should only publish lists of wheelchair accessible vehicles for the purposes of section 165 of the Act when they are confident that those procedures have been put in place, drivers and owners notified of the new requirements and given time to apply for [medical] exemptions where appropriate.
“We would expect these arrangements to take no more than a maximum of six months to put in place, following the commencement of these provisions, but this will of course be dependent on individual circumstances.”
The guidance adds: “Without such a list the requirements of section 165 of the Act do not apply, and drivers may continue to refuse the carriage of wheelchair users, fail to provide them with assistance, or to charge them extra.”
A DfT spokeswoman had declined by noon today (Thursday) to say how many local authorities it believes will be ready to enforce the new laws by today (6 April), or if it knows of any local authorities that are refusing to produce a list of wheelchair-accessible taxis.
But she said the guidance was clear that local authorities were expected to “include as many vehicles on their lists as possible and take tough enforcement action where drivers breach their new duties”, while it was “important councils take time to get the rules right in their areas, which they are best placed to do”.
She said the new laws do not force local authorities to hold a list of accessible vehicles, but DfT had been “encouraging” local authorities to develop such a list for the past seven years.
She said in a statement: “We want to build a country that works for everyone, and part of that is making sure people with disabilities have the same access to services and opportunities as anyone else – including when it comes to travel.
“People with disabilities are often heavily reliant on taxis and private hire vehicles and this change to the law will mean fair and equal treatment for all.”
But Paulley said he believed the way the laws had been introduced showed that the government “doesn’t care two hoots about our public transport access needs”.
He said the the commencement of sections 165 and 167 of the Equality Act was “pretty much the only action the government took” in response to the “damning” report by the House of Lords committee.
And he said that the government’s “dilatory and rubbish actions” matched the delays by the same junior transport minister, Andrew Jones, in introducing measures to “oblige non-disabled people to shift when a disabled person needs the wheelchair space on the bus”, following his Supreme Court victory over First Bus in January.