The Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) welcomes the opportunity to respond to this draft best practice guidance for taxi and PHV licensing authorities in England.
We are pleased to see the extensive coverage of disabled people’s concerns in the guidance and of course hope that this will help to drive improvements in the quality of service that disabled people receive from taxi and private hire vehicle (PHV) drivers and operators.
Nevertheless, we are disappointed that the government is still not prepared to legislate on taxi and PHV licensing. There have been dramatic changes in the operating environment for this service over the past 25 years, particularly with the development of smartphones, yet there has been no significant legislation in this area since the 1970s.
During the same period, the expectations and experiences of disabled people have also changed substantially since the passage of the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995. With so many areas of life more accessible for disabled people (including many transport services), it is a source of considerable disappointment that disabled people continue to report widespread problems with the refusal of service by drivers.
In significant parts of the country, there is almost no service available for wheelchair users who require a wheelchair accessible vehicle.
We are surprised that the guidance makes no mention of 2 areas where the government has said that it will introduce legislation. The commitment to amend Sections 165 to168 of the Equality Act 2010 concerning the provision of service to wheelchair users has now been implemented by the Taxis and Private Hire Vehicles (Disabled Persons) Act 2022, a private members bill that was passed at the end of April 2022.
The guidance will need to be updated to take account of this legislation. The passage of this legislation makes it even more important that all drivers and the staff of PHV operators receive disability awareness training in order to understand and comply with the duties of the Act.
It may be helpful to make this point to reinforce the message about the importance of Licensing Authorities making the training mandatory for all drivers.
The government has also announced its intention to legislate to introduce national minimum standards to underpin the licensing regime. It would seem a good way to strengthen the impact of this best practice guide if it were to indicate where the government is minded to set minimum standards. This would indicate to licensing authorities that do not currently reach this standard where they need to be improving their current licensing policy.
DPTAC advisers would like it to be made clear that these standards must include mandatory disability awareness training for all drivers as this will help to strengthen the recommendation in paragraph 6.3 that such training should be provided.
This is particularly important as over half of licensing authorities do not currently require this training. The Department for Transport (DfT) 2021 taxi and private hire vehicle statistics for England put this figure as 51% for taxi drivers and 54% for private hire vehicle drivers.
The guidance highlights one of DPTAC’s concerns about the current licensing regime, that it contains very limited tools to drive improvements in driver and operator behaviour. The sanctions available for drivers who fail to deliver an acceptable standard of service consist of temporary suspension of their license or its permanent revocation.
These are very harsh sanctions resulting in significant loss of income and can only really be used in the case of very serious misconduct. There are no lesser sanctions that can be used to deter behaviour that is poor but does not justify the suspension of a license. Moreover, unlike other transport sectors, there is no provision for payment of compensation to a disabled person who received poor service nor any simple redress mechanism that offers consumers the chance to pursue their claim without the need to go to court.
Currently, individual complaints arising from the harm individuals have experienced can only be resolved by those individuals bringing their own complaints to the business or licensing authority concerned and if that fails to pursue any claim through the courts. Making it easy for consumers to pursue complaints and to seek redress serves both to encourage disabled people to lodge complaints thereby increasing the wealth of data about consumer experience, and also serves to drive up standards of behaviour.
The lack of any alternative to the courts for any passenger wishing to complain means that complaints about poor service generally and discrimination, in particular, go unresolved. The level of complaints from disabled people that are generated by failures in the taxi and PHV sector to provide the services and support disabled passengers need is high but may only be the tip of the iceberg.
It also appears that many passengers are not aware of their rights, do not know where to complain or do not have a simple redress mechanism available to them and so do not pursue their complaint. This led to a lack of data so the true picture of the passenger experience cannot be known, and it means that there is no incentive on taxis and PHVs to improve their services.
We note in section 5 of the guidance that some licensing authorities operate a points-based system that allows minor breaches to be recorded. This seems to us to be a sensible course of action within the current limited powers of licensing authorities. However, it does not really address the concerns we raise above, particularly in encouraging disabled people to complain about poor service. We acknowledge that any solution to this issue will require primary legislation.
Turning to the text in detail, DPTAC makes the following observations.
We welcome the inclusion of Part 4 on accessibility. It is right to see the emphasis given to the importance of taxi and PHV services for disabled people. We think that it would help to also include in this section the expectation that drivers receive disability awareness training as set out in paragraph 6.3.
We also think that this section of the guidance should include some of the material defining wheelchair accessible vehicles (WAVs) in paragraphs 8.58 to 8.65. It is important that those reading the guidance understand the distinction between a vehicle in which a wheelchair user can travel while seated in their own chair, and one where that is not possible and they are required to transfer out of their wheelchair onto the vehicle’s seating.
It should also point out that there are some disabled people who struggle to board WAVs as noted in paragraph 8.61. It is important to highlight that for those people who cannot transfer out of their wheelchair, transport options are very limited.
In many cases, the only alternative to a WAV taxi or PHV is for the disabled person to purchase their own bespoke wheelchair accessible vehicle. Such vehicles are expensive and the disabled person may frequently require assistance to use it, undermining the independence they might gain by choosing to use a taxi or PHV.
DPTAC welcomes the material in paragraphs 4.6 to 4.13 which provides a sound basic introduction to the social model of disability as it applies to taxi and PHV services. It may be that some organisation or individuals will question the text because it does not always explain how services can create barriers to access for particular impairments as they might like to see it put across.
Nevertheless, we recognise and support the intentions of this text. What is crucial however is that the text acknowledges that it is no substitute for good disability awareness training.
DPTAC welcomes the concept of an Inclusive Service Plan set out in paragraphs 4.17 to 4.21. We suggest that it would be helpful to licensing authorities if there is an additional annex to the guidance which includes suggestions for how to conduct an assessment of demand for WAVs.
It is important to recognise that disabled people will develop coping strategies to manage in areas where there is a minimal provision of WAVs. The majority may not express demand for WAVs, as they have already found ways of managing the situation such as significantly reducing the amount they travel or by purchasing their own bespoke WAV.
Useful information may be obtained from hospitals and care homes. If care homes have chosen to purchase a minibus to transport residents because of the lack of WAVs that would be an indication of unmet demand. Similarly, if hospitals report long delays in obtaining WAVs and even using the non-emergency ambulance service to discharge patients, this could also point to unmet demands for WAVs.
We have already said how important DPTAC believes it to be that all drivers receive disability awareness training as set out in paragraph 6.3. We believe that such training should be mandatory for all personnel involved in the licensing process.
We endorse the recommendation that front of house staff should be trained in paragraph 7.3, but back office staff also require this knowledge to understand why there will be occasions when front of house staff have to give extra time to dealing with some disabled customers.
We also believe that all the staff of the licensing authority should receive such training. This should give them an understanding of the barriers which disabled people face when accessing taxi and PHV services so they can better appreciate what might have given rise to a complaint against a driver. Councillors on the Licensing Committee also need this understanding, particularly when assessing the seriousness of a complaint against a driver and the impact the driver’s behaviour may have had on a disabled passenger.
DPTAC believes that there should be a minimum standard for vehicle licensing (paragraph 8.2) which ensures that all vehicles must be able to carry a folded wheelchair or walking aid. It would be quite unacceptable that a wheelchair user is unable to use a vehicle because their chair cannot be folded and carried in the boot. The boot space should also be sufficient to carry some luggage as well as the wheelchair so that the passenger does not have to travel with their shopping balanced on their lap.
DPTAC is also concerned about the recommendation (paragraph 8.34) that where a partition is fitted the front seat should be taken out of service. For many disabled passengers, the additional leg room available in the front seat is essential for them to get into and out of the vehicle. Requiring them to travel in the back seats could make a vehicle inaccessible for them with the outcome of reducing the availability of taxi and PHV services still further.
If for reasons of safeguarding it is judged desirable to take the front seat out of service, there should always be an opportunity for a driver to permit it to be used to accommodate the needs of a disabled passenger.
DPTAC hopes that our comments on the draft guidance are helpful and would be happy to work with DfT staff to help address some of our comments on the drafting of the guidance.
Lastly, we suggest that there are occasions when the guidance should also highlight concerns for people with other protected characteristics. There is some reference to being aware of the position of women who may be vulnerable, but this might be expanded in places. In addition, race is an issue with attacks on both drivers and passengers and licensing authorities should take account of these risks in their work.