MP for South Holland and The Deepings, John Hayes, writes his weekly column...
My visit last weekend to the Sight Awareness Day organised by the Spalding Lions provided me a better understanding of the challenges that many blind and visually-impaired people face each and every day.
Blindfolded, I was led around the market place by a guide dog, giving me a real sense of the strength of the relationship which these remarkable animals build up with their owners.
It is a bond of utter trust, with the extraordinary ability of the dogs doinwg enormous credit to all those who work so hard to train them.
The day also called to mind a meeting I held a few weeks ago in my capacity as Minister of Transport, at which the problems which guide dog owners face when trying to use taxis and minicabs were described to me.
I was appalled to learn from the Guide Dogs’ charity that some 42 per cent of dog owners have been turned away by a taxi or minicab in a one-year period because of their dog, and that 38 per cent have been asked to pay an extra fare for carrying their dog.
Such practices are, in fact, already against the law.
Drivers should never refuse to carry a guide dog, or attempt to charge more for doing so. Failure to comply with this requirement can result in prosecution and a fine on conviction of up to £1,000.
Indeed, a driver was recently fined £1,546, including legal costs, for refusing access to a guide dog.
It is to be hoped that this conveys a powerful message to the whole taxi and private-hire industry.
Much has been done to tackle these attitudes, as the Department for Transport has issued a clear message recommending that local authorities work actively to improve drivers’ awareness both of the law and of the needs more generally of disabled people.
However, given the alarming findings of Guide Dogs’ research, there is clearly more still to be done.
Speaking in the House of Commons last week, I committed to publish demanding new guidance and have established an independently-chaired working party to advise on improvements to the licensing of taxis and private-hire vehicles in the light of outrages in Rotherham, Rochdale and elsewhere, as well as the London Mayor’s row with Uber.
Whilst the Government will do its bit and ensure councils do theirs, in the end what we choose to do is as important as what we must, and the cultivation of a generous awareness and understanding of those around us should speak to our shared sense of honour, courtesy and decency.
We all have a duty to others, and our duty is never more heartfelt than towards those with the greatest need.