Public transport providers and local authorities are using loopholes in legislation to avoid their legal obligations to ensure that buses are accessible to disabled people, campaigners fear.
They believe that transport companies are using three different loopholes to allow them to cut costs and use ageing, inaccessible buses.
Access laws state that all buses and coaches have to meet the Public Service Vehicle Accessibility Regulations (PSVAR) – which date back to 2000 – but coaches have until January 2020 to comply, while all single-deck buses have had to comply by January 2016.
One of the ways that some bus companies have been dodging the regulations, it is believed, is by simply removing the hanging straps in buses, and placing “no standing” signs in their vehicles.
This means they can call their vehicles coaches instead of buses, because there are no standing passengers.
Another tactic is to block-book inaccessible buses for contracts to provide free school transport.
Buses that provide only free school transport do not have to meet PSVAR, but the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency has told disabled activist Doug Paulley that it believes some councils are trying to cut costs by using inaccessible vehicles, while at the same time allowing members of the public to use the buses as fare-paying passengers, and also charging some pupils, which should invalidate the PSVAR exemption.
The third loophole used by bus companies is to take advantage of regulations that allow inaccessible vehicles that are more than 20 years old to be used for a maximum of 20 days a year.
Paulley, who is currently awaiting a Supreme Court ruling on whether disabled people should have priority in using the wheelchair space on buses, said he has caught a bus that was inaccessible to wheelchair-users, despite the PSVAR, and which was taking advantage of both the 20 days-a-year loophole, and the free school transport loophole.
He said: “When the government put the deadlines for accessibility in place, they set the deadlines at the projected lifetime of buses and predicted that all existing buses would be worn out and out of circulation by now.
“It seems bonkers to me that operators are playing silly buggers to get round the ban on using inaccessible buses, to enable them to use recently bought, ancient and inaccessible buses on scheduled bus services. And I think it treats us with contempt.”
Paulley is also concerned that the law is almost impossible to enforce for a disabled person because it comes under criminal legislation, rather than civil law.
This means that any breach of the law would have to be proved “beyond reasonable doubt” instead of “on the balance of probabilities”, even if an organisation could be persuaded to take on the prosecution.
He added: “It’s perverse that something that was considered so important that failure to comply was made a criminal offense, is so easily sidestepped and not enforced or enforceable.”
The Department for Transport failed to comment by 11am today (18 August), despite repeatedly promising to do so.