I was delighted to support Guide Dogs Talking Buses campaign at Labour Party conference, coming first place in the Guide Dogs challenge.
Audio-Visual (AV) announcements are very important for those with visual or hearing impairments and I agree it is vital that everyone is able to use buses and other forms of public transport. I was shocked to learn when speaking with the charity how often people are left on buses because they do not know where they are. The Bus Services Bill is the biggest reform of buses since the 1980s so it is a unique opportunity to make sure that blind people can use buses safely too.
The previous Labour Government made real progress in this area and introduced a range of measures to improve and regulate disabled access to public transport, including the Public Service Vehicle Access regulations, which set minimum standards for accessibility on buses. It is clear, though, that more needs to be done and I am aware organisations such as Guide Dogs have emphasised that a lack of clear, audible information on buses can limit access for many blind and partially sighted people. I also know that a number of the bus operators who have installed AV systems have found them to be good value for money, while disabled bus users have made it clear these systems help make their journeys easier. However, there are very few examples of buses that provide AV announcements outside of London.
The Government favours a voluntary approach and has said that it is encouraging the bus industry to take the lead in recognising the potential benefits for all passengers and in delivering improvements in accessible on-board information. However the Government has introduced the Bus Services Bill to give elected mayors and local transport authorities the power to improve bus services for the people who use them. I believe it is vital that local communities have the power to make bus operators provide the services that local people need and this Bill provides a real opportunity to improve bus services for all passengers.
Here in Edinburgh Lothian Buses were recognised with a Special Achievement Award for the audio-visual next stop announcement system on their Service 10 hybrid buses.
The Bus Services Bill was introduced in the House of Lords, where it completed its Committee Stage on 20 July 2016. During Committee Stage in the Lords, my Shadow Frontbench colleagues tabled an amendment to address the need for all buses to have AV communication systems to advise passengers of the next stop, any delays and any diversions from the published timetable. I believe this would make a vital difference to the lives of almost 2 million people with sight loss, as well as many elderly people who rely on public transport for their independence. A further Opposition-backed amendment would have required all bus operators to provide compulsory, approved equality and disability awareness training by 1 April 2019. Although the Government did not accept these amendments, I welcome the fact that it has committed to consider these issues further.
The accessibility requirements on public transport remains a reserved issue. Although the Bus Services Bill applies to England-only, our amendment would revise the Public Service Vehicle Accessibility Regulations (PSVAR) 2000, which applies to England, Scotland and Wales. The amendment is listed here as the new clause after clause 17 ‘communication of information’: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/lbill/2016-2017/0058/17058(a).pdf
I hope the Government will listen to the concerns that continue to be raised by organisations such as Guide Dogs and consider making AV announcements a requirement on buses. I also believe the Government must ensure there is more disability awareness training for drivers and bus workers to ensure they understand the needs of disabled users, including those who are blind or partially-sighted.