19 November 2009

S3M-4738 Deafblind Scotland

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 19 November 2009

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]
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Deafblind Scotland

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S3M-4738, in the name of Margaret Mitchell, on Deafblind Scotland. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes the work of Deafblind Scotland, based in Lenzie, which seeks to enable Scots who are both deaf and blind to receive the support and recognition that they require to be equal citizens; notes with concern the difficulties faced by deafblind people in freely accessing public transport due to the varying restrictions placed by local authorities on concessionary travel for guide communicators who provide professional communication and guiding support, and believes that cooperation among all relevant bodies will ensure that deafblind citizens can enjoy full access to public transport.

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The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

I echo members' thanks to Margaret Mitchell for giving us the opportunity to talk about this important subject. I also thank her for explaining why red matters. She is wearing a red jacket and I see that many of our visitors in the public gallery are doing the same. I now know that red is the colour that is most easily seen by people with some residual eyesight. The next time that I am engaged in a deafblind event, I might at least wear a red tie, although Charlie Gordon should not believe that that would have any political implication.

Margaret Mitchell and Jim Tolson referred to the dramas in committee room 5 this afternoon. I was aware of the event, but I am afraid that ministerial duties did not permit me to go. However, from the accounts of those who visited the event in Parliament today, I know that it was an excellent opportunity to ensure that we are aware of the issues that affect deafblind people. At the outset, I concede that, without the debate, the issue would not have come into my in-tray in any significant way. Thus far, it probably has not.

There has been some question about numbers. I say to Ms Scanlon that the minister is a polymath, but not yet an omnimath. Therefore, I do not have the exact number of deafblind people. Margaret Mitchell said that there are just under 3,000 registered deafblind people, but she reasonably pointed out that, as it is merely recommended that local authorities should look for people in the category, there can be little doubt that the figure is an understatement. I undertake to consider further whether we can do something on the number of people who are affected, to ensure that we have an accurate, helpful and factual basis.

Cathie Craigie properly said that elastic is not part of the budgetary process. She is of course correct but, at the end of the day in politics, we make choices and we can never spend money on everything that we wish to; we have to choose.

Nigel Don made the reasonable point that, when the weather is poor, travel can be difficult for those of us with no impairments, which illustrates the difficulties for some people in every day of their travelling life. I absolutely accept that. He also made a point about £15 tickets. I point out that, when he reaches 60, he can buy a card that will get him a third off other tickets and another £2 off that £15 ticket, which will take it to £13. Interestingly enough, that is a wholly commercial offering by the rail companies—no public money is involved in the provision of those tickets. This year, the offer is extending for about three months or perhaps slightly longer. There is certainly scope for the rail companies to consider how to bring more people to the railways without involving public money.

Mary Scanlon referred to there being four schemes. My notes suggest that there are 15 schemes that support blind people on the rail network—there were previously 16—although they are variable schemes with different ranges of offerings. For example, there is a scheme in Highland, which will interest Ms Scanlon, and one in the Lothians. Strathclyde partnership for transport, which covers a significant number of local authority areas, also has a scheme.

I am somewhat aware of the mental health issues for the deafblind. Members will have heard me talk before of a period—45 years ago, I hasten to add—when I worked in a psychiatric hospital. One of our patients was a deafblind patient, but they had a range of more severe problems. I am aware of the issues in that respect.

As Angela Constance made clear, many of the rail schemes provide benefits beyond the council boundary in question. Charlie Gordon made an important point when he said that some parts of Scotland have few bus services.

Why should local authorities, rather than central Government, provide such support? The answer is partly because local travel varies in different local authority areas. Members have heard me say before that there are no trains in my constituency, so a train benefit may be of some, although not much, use to people there. It is perhaps often more important for people on the islands to have supported ferry travel. Some people on the islands commute by aircraft—they go by air from the outer isles in Orkney to Kirkwall for the shopping once a week. That points to why local delivery and local decision making can make a great deal of sense.

Charlie Gordon suggested that I convene a meeting of stakeholders. I will certainly consider that suggestion further, because I want to be seen to be taking the subject seriously. I make the general point that Deafblind Scotland recently raised the whole issue that we are discussing with the Scottish rail accessibility forum, and my officials from Transport Scotland are engaging with local authorities on consistency of approach when they consider the provision of discounted rail travel for companions for blind passengers. Some work is going on and I will certainly keep on top of it. If we can see that it will make a real difference, I will certainly consider picking up Charlie Gordon's suggestion.

Our Scotland-wide free bus travel scheme is pretty widely recognised as delivering a huge benefit, although, I have to say, at significant cost to the public purse, which presents its own challenges.

Probably three years ago—it was before the last election—I had the pleasure and privilege of being invited by the Grampian Society for the Blind to attend a blind driving day, at which I was blindfolded and invited to drive a car round a racetrack. Of course, to do that I had to have someone sitting beside me, giving precisely the sort of support that we are talking about but in relation to the very temporary handicap that was inflicted on me. That experience enabled me to see how difficult it was. Even with that assistance—with a trained person helping me—it was a very substantially challenging undertaking. So I ask members please to be aware that I have some limited insight from personal experience of the difficulties that are experienced by people who are deafblind.

The debate has given me, and the Government generally, considerable food for thought. Given that Mary Scanlon said that she would talk to health ministers directly, I will not pick up the point that the Presiding Officer allowed her to make in that regard.

I am grateful for this useful opportunity to debate an important subject.

Meeting closed at 17:43.

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