Wheelchair users who have suffered the indignity of being rebuffed by taxi and private hire drivers, unwilling to accommodate them or their chairs, can now look forward to 6th April 2017. On this date, seven years after the Equality Act 2010 passed through Parliament, the criminal liability element of s.165 will finally come into effect.
S.165 imposes a number of duties on drivers of 'designated' taxis and private hire vehicles. What this in fact means is that IF the vehicle has been designated by the licensing authority, i.e. The local authority, as being a wheelchair accessible vehicle and is registered as such, the driver has a number of obligations to the wheelchair user.
It might be thought that anyone who has gone to the trouble of getting a wheelchair accessible vehicle wouldn't hesitate in accommodating disabled passengers, however, this is not necessarily the case. In the main, local authorities restrict the number of Hackney and Private Hire vehicle licences that it issues commensurate with local need. This creates a market place where retirees leaving the business will transfer their 'plate' for a sum of money, effectively they sell their business. Some councils have however issued new plates to owners of wheelchair accessible vehicles, enabling new drivers to avoid paying for a retiree's plate. There probably aren't too many problems during the day but when it is kicking out time, the driver may be able to pick up 4 or 5 journeys in an hour and might be less willing to spend time loading a wheelchair and it's occupant, when time becomes money.
So s.165(7) creates a new criminal offence of failing to comply with the obligations imposed under the rest of the section. This offence is summary only, ie can only be dealt with in the magistrates court and carries a maximum sentence of a level 3 fine, which at present is £1000.
So, what are the s.165 obligations? These are laid out in subsections 4 and 5.
(4) The duties are— (a) to carry the passenger while in the wheelchair; (b) not to make any additional charge for doing so; (c) if the passenger chooses to sit in a passenger seat, to carry the wheelchair; (d) to take such steps as are necessary to ensure that the passenger is carried in safety and reasonable comfort; (e) to give the passenger such mobility assistance as is reasonably required.
(5 ) Mobility assistance is assistance— (a) to enable the passenger to get into or out of the vehicle; (b) if the passenger wishes to remain in the wheelchair, to enable the passenger to get into and out of the vehicle while in the wheelchair; (c) to load the passenger's luggage into or out of the vehicle; (d) if the passenger does not wish to remain in the wheelchair, to load the wheelchair into or out of the vehicle.
I have heard tales of drivers charging more to carry a wheelchair passenger, this of course will now be an offence but as per the rest of the section, only in respect of the designated vehicles.
So how do you know if the vehicle is on the licencing authorities list of designated vehicles?
That unfortunately is going to depend on your local authority. A quick Google search showed for instance that Leicestershire provides a list of designated vehicles on their website, my own local authority, Thanet District Council, doesn't seem to. In fact when you follow the internal link to TDC's 'Taxi and Private Hire' page, you are met with an empty space. I have emailed TDC to determine whether they hold a list of designated vehicles.
The other issue likely to arise is as to how the offence will be enforced. It is unlikely that the police will be particularly interested in investigating complaints and it will no doubt fall to the local authority to investigate and pursue any prosecutions. There will no doubt thus be regional variations in the approach to enforcement, dependent on local authority priorities and enthusiasms.
The obvious advice to wheelchair users, is to be ready to jot down either the registration number or plate number of a taxi or private hire vehicle, if you are refused service or any of the duties to you is breached. Then you will need to
approach your local authority with the details. It will be interesting to see how many successful prosecutions follow. Sometimes however, the fact that a behaviour becomes criminalised is sufficient to induce change, especially where a livelihood is at risk.