The Independent has recently reported on a Middlesbrough taxi firm’s decision to stop picking up certain disabled passengers. With the Black v Wilkinson case (B&B sexual orientation) dust only just settling, it seems discrimination in the world of goods and services is particularly topical of late.
A quick re-cap of the law
Under the Equality Act 2010 (‘the Act’) businesses owe members of the public certain duties when providing goods, services or facilities. Although not defined in the Act goods, services and facilities can include anything fromproviding accommodation in a hotel to running a bus service.
The characteristics which are protected include: sex, race, gender reassignment, disability, sexual orientation, pregnancy and maternity and religion or belief. Age is also a protected characteristic although there are certain exceptions where it is permissible to treat people differently based on their age.
The following key actions are prohibited in this area: direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, harassment, victimisation, discrimination arising from disability and failure to make reasonable adjustments.
With regard to reasonable adjustments the standard position is that the cost of the adjustment should not be met by the disabled person but instead absorbed by the business.
The taxi case
A Middlesbrough taxi firm has recently found itself at the centre of this area of law when it made the decision to stop picking up wheelchair users. The owner of the taxi firm, the largest in the north east, has conceded that the decision is morally reprehensible but argued it was left with no choice following local authority threats to revoke licenses. The taxi firm was allegedly charging wheelchair users up to twice as much as minibuses were required, as opposed to four door vehicles. The local authority threatened to revoke the taxi firm’s license if this practice continued. The firm took the decision to stop picking up disabled passengers.
The decision has been met by outrage from disability rights campaigners including Sue Bott, director of policy and development at Disability Rights UK who commented ‘I am absolutely outraged. For goodness sake what is this all about? We are in a society and everybody should be able to take their place on an equal basis.’
It has been reported that Middlesbrough Council’s licensing committee published a report following complaints of overcharging. The committee threatened to revoke licenses if the practice continued and said there may have been a breach of equality legislation.
Thestory stands as a useful reminder that businesses need to be mindful of the Act and their duties to provide goods and services in a non-discriminatory way. Refusing to provide goods or services based on a protected characteristic is inevitably going to prove controversial and may see a business faced with a claim. Many claims are limited to injury to feelings with the level of damages ranging from £750 to £30,000.
Specifically with regard to the duty to make reasonable adjustments the Equality and Human Rights Commission recommends that service providers take the following steps:
• Regularly review whether services are accessible to disabled people.
• Carry out and act on the results of an access audit conducted by a suitably qualified person.
• Provide regular training to staff which is relevant to the adjustments to be made.
• Regularly review the effectiveness of reasonable adjustments and act on the findings of those reviews.
From this specific case it seems that it is as yet untested as to whether it would be a reasonable adjustment to provide a mini cab rather than a 4 door vehicle at no extra cost. A question, which the Council and the taxi firm will no doubt argue out.
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