Disability rights campaigners have called a taxi firm’s decision to stop carrying people in wheelchairs “outrageous”.
The owner of Middlesbrough’s Boro Taxis, the largest firm in the North East of England, conceded the move was “morally wrong” but said he had had no choice but to act after the local authority warned operators could lose their licences by charging disabled passengers extra.
Middlesbrough Council said it believed the move could be discriminatory. It followed a report for the authority which suggested that wheelchair users were being charged up to twice the price of their able-bodied counterparts.
Owner Mohammed Bashir said it was uneconomic to send “specialist” eight-seater minibuses to pick up disabled customers if it was required to charge the same price as it did for a smaller four-door vehicle.
“Morally it is totally wrong and I sympathise with disabled people. My mother was in a wheelchair and I understand exactly the situation. We have been put in a situation that if we do supply your taxi we will be in front of the licensing committee and we will lose our operators’ licence and that is what it is about,” he told BBC Tees:
“The simple fact is if you order a car and four people jump in you are charged for a taxi. If you order an eight-seater minibus and eight people jump in you are charged for a minibus. If you order a minibus and there's only one person you will still be charged for a minibus because that's what you ordered. But because we are charging for a minibus we are breaking the law,” he added. Mr Bashir was unavailable for comment yesterday.
Sue Bott, director of policy and development for campaign group Disability Rights UK said she believed the move could be contrary to the 2010 Equality Act. She said: “I am absolutely outraged. For goodness sake what is all this about? We are in a society and everybody should be able to take their place on an equal basis. Could you imagine if a taxi driver refused to take someone in their cab because they were black? There would be complete outrage.
“The question you have to ask yourself is why do they think they could get away with it? In our society what we are seeing is that disabled people are being made the scapegoats – the ones who must pay the price for our present economic difficulties,” she added.
Sarah Clifford of The Disabilities Trust said people with mobility and other issues already faced considerable problems accessing suitable transport. There is insufficient capacity on buses whilst wheelchair users were required to book ahead on train journeys to arrange for a ramp and assistance. “It does seem like an extraordinary decision and I hope the council will look into it,” she said.
Middlesbrough Council’s licensing committee published a report last week into claims of overcharging following complaints by members of the public. It concluded such actions potentially constituted a breach of equality legislation and has written to firms warning them that licences could be reviewed if the practice continues. Deputy mayor Dave Budd said companies had a “moral obligation to treat everybody the same”.
Last year a taxi firm in Hull scrapped a £10 charge it imposed on wheelchair users following complaints by a customer.
In 2011 a long –running row between Boro Taxis and the council over dropping off and picking up rights in the town was resolved. It followed the release of tape recordings made by Mr Bashir of private conversations he had with former close associate Middlesbrough mayor Ray Mallon.
A subsequent Standards Board for England inquiry found Mr Mallon had breached its code of conduct after investigating complaints over how the former senior police officer mayor had handled the dispute. The same year, Boro Taxis’ parent group, Middlesbrough Borough Cars, reported pre-tax profits of £223,072 in 2011 on a turnover of £2.46m.