Sally Hall: Big surcharge for wheelchairs is self-defeating for cabbies

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Taxi drivers get a raw deal. They have to cope with all sorts of unpleasantries, from bickering couples to vomiting drunkards.

But one thing that doesn’t seem like too big of an ask is to treat passengers who use wheelchairs the same as everyone else.

I was shocked to hear on BBC Radio 4’s consumer programme ‘You and Yours’ last week that taxi drivers across England routinely levy extra charges on wheelchair users.

Two large firms have been embroiled in a row over these surcharges.

One initially responded to an order from its local council to rescind its ‘discriminatory’ surcharge by insisting it would no longer be able to transport people in its specially adapted vehicles at all.

I have to ask – which part of the Equality Act 2010 (yes, the emphasis is on the ‘Equality’ part) did the cab company not understand?

Both firm have since agreed to waive the fee, with both bosses planning to reimburse drivers for any extra costs incurred. But they aren’t the only culprits.

One man told the programme he’d been invited to his friend’s wedding in another town, and rang a taxi firm to request a quote for the journey.

This man had severe mobility problems. His only option was to take a taxi that was equipped with a ramp and space for him to sit in his wheelchair on board.

Luckily, one local taxi company had a souped-up vehicle like this in its fleet.

First hurdle overcome.

But then, initially quoted £100 for the journey, the man was subsequently told it would cost £180 to take him in his wheelchair. Almost twice as much, just for the ‘hassle’ of lowering down a ramp and letting him wheel himself into the cab.

I get that drivers are self-employed, and that they offer a transport service rather than providing an extension of social care. But even Alan Sugar would have doubts about the business sense of adding such a massive surcharge.

What would have been a lucrative fare for a cheery cabbie willing to lower a ramp (at the beginning AND end of the journey, no less) ended up being nada, zilch, zip – because who can really justify spending almost £200 on travelling a few miles, even if it is for a wedding?

Sure, it would’ve cost some cash to purchase such specially adapted vehicles in the first place. Money which, correct me if I’m wrong here, would have been shelled out by the taxi firm rather than the individual cabbie.

But once this outlay has been made, surely the only way to recoup the investment is to encourage people to make use of the vehicles as often as possible? It’s estimated that 1.2 million people in England use a wheelchair. Many of these people may find public transport difficult to manage. Some will be unable to drive.

That’s a massive cohort of people all waiting to call a cab – to go shopping, swimming, to the pub, over to their folks for Sunday dinner….

And with more and more disabled people receiving their care package in the form of a personalised budget, which they can choose to spend on things that really improve their quality of life, there’s lots of money to be made for taxi drivers. In fact, the Government estimates the ‘purple pound’ – the combined disposable income of people with disabilities – is around £80 billion per year. 

But instead, the first reaction of some cabbies was to hit back at plans to curtail the surcharge by decreeing they will no longer pick up people in wheelchairs at all.

Talk about shooting yourself in the foot... (A particularly foolish move, since it may be difficult to find a taxi willing to take you to the hospital after you’d incapacitated yourself in such a manner)

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