Guide Dogs and Disability Equality Training Bill November 2016
Thank you for contacting me recently about the problems that blind and partially sighted people can experience in accessing public services, in particular taxis and private hire vehicles. I know the charity Guide Dogs has helped raise awareness of this issue and I am very concerned about some of the findings in its 2015 'Access All Areas' report, especially that almost half of assistance dog owners surveyed said they had been refused access to services in the previous year.
The Equality Act - which was introduced by the previous Labour Government in 2010 - introduced a number of important legal protections, including making it a criminal offence to refuse carriage to an assistance dog at no extra cost, unless drivers have a medical exemption. Failure to comply can result in prosecution and a fine on conviction of up to £1,000. While this Act was an important and welcome step forward in tackling discrimination, there are still cases where guide dog owners are being refused access. Refusing owners of guide and assistance dogs access to services, including taxis and private hire vehicles is not only illegal, but can also damage their confidence and independence. It is clear there is still more to be done to end this shameful discrimination.
The House of Lords' Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010 and Disability Committee was appointed to consider the impact of the Equality Act 2010 on people with disabilities. The Committee published its final report on 24 March 2016. The Committee endorsed the recommendation, made by the Law Commission in May 2014, that the Government should require holders of taxi and private hire driver licences and dispatcher licences to comply with the Equality Act 2010 as a condition of the licence. The Committee also recommended that all local authorities should exercise their powers of persuasion and coercion so that no drivers are licensed unless they have had disability awareness training. Where the driver or operator fails to comply with the Equality Act, the Committee believes local authorities should be prepared to take action. The Government has now responded to this report and says that it will consider the case for recommending drivers undergo appropriate training and will respond formally to the Law Commission's report on Taxi and Private Hire Services in due course. After two years of procrastination and inaction since the Law Commission's review, I hope it will not be too much longer before the Government responds. I will monitor developments on this closely.
My colleague, Andrew Gwynne MP, has introduced a Private Members' Bill on Disability Equality Training in relation to Taxi and Private Hire Vehicle Drivers, which had its second reading debate in the House of Commons on 18 November 2016. Unfortunately, because the Bill was talked out by Government MPs, it has now been relisted for debate on 25 November. The Bill is currently seventh on the order paper for that day and is therefore extremely unlikely to progress any further. However, I note the Government's commitment on 18 November to put a package of measures together to support disabled people's access to these vehicles, and to consult on these measures. I will continue to follow any developments closely and I hope these measures will be brought forward quickly.
I hope that the Government and local authorities will listen and respond to the concerns that continue to be raised by organisations such as Guide Dogs, and take action to improve enforcement of the Equality Act. I also believe there is a case to look at improving the guidance that is issued to those providing public and business services. Thank you once again for contacting me and for sharing your views.