Local authorities are refusing to take simple measures that will provide new legal protection from discrimination for wheelchair users who want to travel by taxi. On 6 April, finally the government brought into force legislation that imposes fines of up to £1,000 on drivers of taxis and private hire vehicles who refuse to accept wheelchair users, try to charge them extra, or fail to provide them with appropriate assistance.
But the new laws only apply in those areas where the local authority has drawn up a list of all the wheelchair accessible taxis and private hire vehicles in their area.
Even though the government has been encouraging councils to start drawing up such lists for the last seven years, early responses to Freedom of Information requests sent by a disabled activist to every council that licenses taxis in England, Scotland and Wales have revealed that many are refusing to draw up the lists.
So far, about one in four of the councils that have replied to Doug Paulley have said that they do not intend to draw up a list, so rendering the new laws useless in those areas.
Among those so far to have told him they have no plans to draw up a list are Hertsmere (in Hertfordshire), Oldham, Telford and Wrekin (in Shropshire), Stratford-on-Avon, Epping Forest (in Essex), Suffolk Coastal and Waveney (in Suffolk).
A spokeswoman for Hertsmere Borough Council confirmed to Disability News Service (DNS) that they do not maintain a list and “don’t have plans to”, although all taxis in the borough must be wheelchair accessible and drivers must undertake training in handling wheelchairs, while private hire drivers receive a discount on their licence if their vehicle is wheelchair accessible.
A spokesman for Oldham Council confirmed that they had told Paulley that they do not have a list and had no plans to draw one up, but told DNS that although they “don’t have a list at present” the issue “will be discussed with the Licensing Committee in June”.
Telford and Wrekin Council, which told Paulley that they “have not produced and do not have any plans to produce a list”, told DNS that all of its taxis had been wheelchair accessible since 1998, that it provided disability awareness training to all new drivers, and that its licensing service can already deal with drivers who refuse to carry a wheelchair user, overcharge them or fail to provide assistance.
The council said in a statement: “We have no current evidence that there is a problem within Telford and Wrekin.
“As we said in our response to the Freedom of Information request, should it come to light that there is a problem in the borough regarding our licensed drivers, we will review the situation.
“We have not said that the council will not maintain a list of designated vehicles… we merely do not propose to introduce one at this time.”
Although Epping Forest District Council said in its Freedom of Information response that it did not keep a list and had no plans to draw one up, it told DNS that it was now the council’s intention “to consult with members over this in the near future”.
Stratford-on-Avon District Council said in its Freedom of Information response that it did not keep a list and had no plans to draw one up, but after this was queried by Paulley and DNS a spokeswoman claimed that it “hasn’t drawn up a list, but it is intending to” and that it had “already pursued enforcement action where there have been incidences of discrimination”.
Two other councils, Suffolk Coastal and Waveney District, originally told Paulley that they had no list and “no scheduled plan to produce such a list” although they did not rule out drawing one up in the future.
But after being contacted by DNS, the councils, which work closely together, said they were “looking to produce one within this year”, while both offer a 50 per cent reduction in licence fees if a vehicle is wheelchair accessible, and neither “has any complaints on record relating to wheelchair users not being assisted in the correct manner and no reports of excess fees being charged”.
The new 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 House of Lords Equality Act 2010 and disability committee.
But taxis and private hire vehicles are only obliged to follow the new rules if they are fully wheelchair accessible, and it is up to each local authority to decide how to define “wheelchair accessible”, and whether they will draw up a list.
Paulley has already warned that that the new laws could provide far less protection for wheelchair users than had been hoped, because they only apply if local authorities co-operate with the new legislation.
Mmmm... We were waiting for this to happen. All over the country, local authorities are taking a closer look at the provisions of sections 165 and 167 of the Equality Act 2010 and saying, “Hold on a second – we don’t have to do this!” They are taking this stance because of one word in the Act: “may”. Whilst section 165 sets out all the requirements to be imposed on drivers of wheelchair accessible vehicles, those vehicles must appear on a list of “designated vehicles” as drawn up by the council. But then section 167 states: “For the purposes of section 165, a licensing authority may maintain a list of vehicles falling within subsection (2)....” etc. It doesn’t say shall, it says may. We’ve been on about this for ages – far earlier than when these provisions were finally made into Regulations. Oh well, we stand back and watch... Ed.