The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Transport (Baroness Vere of Norbiton) (Con)
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe for securing this debate, and I thank all my Conservative colleagues for turning up as well. In my five years as a Minister, I think this is the strongest showing, proportionately, that I have ever had. There were many valuable contributions from all Benches, and I am truly grateful.
Transport is always changing and, as my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe noted, battery e-scooters are a relatively recent invention, although there was an internal combustion engine scooter around 100 years ago—there is a fantastic photograph of one—so maybe they will just be a fad. Who knows? But the Government believe that, with the right regulations, there is potential for significant economic, social and environmental benefits from light, zero-emission vehicles such as e-scooters. E-scooters can help to reduce emissions, as noted by a number of noble Lords. They can reduce carbon, of course, and nitrogen oxide emissions and particulates, which both contribute to poor air quality. If users switch from cars, there will be environmental benefits—but if they switch from cycling or walking, I agree that there will not be, although there may be other benefits.
Mode shift will be a key part of our considerations going forward, as was asked about by my noble friend Lady Sanderson. Based on examples from across Europe, in a pre-Covid context, we could expect modal shift to e-scooters to be around one-third from walking, one-third from public transport, 15% to 20% from car, and 10% from cycling, with around 2% for new trips. As with all emerging technologies, however, we must be mindful of the risks, and noble Lords have set out many valid concerns today. We want to ensure a measured and evidence-based approach to our policy decisions, which is of course why we are running controlled trials. They are trials, not experiments.
Let me share a few facts about the trials from the period from July 2020 to the end of November. More than 66,000 e-scooters have been approved in 31 trials across 54 areas. At the end of November, there were 23,141 e-scooters available to rent across all areas. Roughly 13 million trips had been taken, over 18.5 million miles travelled, and roughly 3 million hours ridden in total across the rental trials. To date, around a million individual users have rented an e-scooter as part of the trials.
The current regulations for trials limit e-scooters to a maximum speed of 15 and a half miles an hour and a maximum power of 5 watts. Users must have a full or provisional driving licence, and the licence is confirmed by the trial operator. While helmets are not mandatory, we, local areas and trial operators recommend that people use them. E-scooters are able to use cycle lanes, but I can confirm that it is absolutely illegal to use them on pavements. All trial e-scooters have insurance, provided by the rental operator and confirmed by the department.
The department also sets out minimum vehicle standards, including a requirement to have lights and a horn or bell to warn other road users, plus there are data-sharing requirements. All users in trials are provided with training via apps, and in some cases in person, to instruct them on safe and considerate riding. Most trial areas have dedicated parking bays and/or docking stations to help to reduce the risks caused by additional street clutter, a point made by my noble friend Lord Shinkwin.
Where problems with trials have arisen—and I agree that there have been issues—we have worked very quickly to nip them in the bud. For example, we increased the level of driving-licence checks that trial operators must perform when a new user signs up and put systems in place to ensure that you cannot get multiple sign-ups from a single driving licence.
In October 2021, the trials were extended to the end of this November. This will allow us to continue to fill data gaps and make some small changes; for example, we have introduced uniform ID plates to ensure that we can recognise e-scooters and make sure that the trials are as safe and well run as possible. We have been monitoring and evaluating the trials all the way through. It is a very fast-moving area; substantial additional data has been generated since we received an interim report last June. This has come from direct data feeds from the trial operators and survey data from, and interviews and focus groups with, e-scooter users and residents, including those whose income derives from being able to get out and about—that might be local tradespeople or taxi drivers. The final report for the trials is due relatively soon and will include all this information; we are just figuring out how to compile and present it to provide a comprehensive picture of the evidence. We hope to publish it in spring.
I have heard from many noble Lords—and, to a certain extent, I agree—that enforcement is absolutely essential. We know there are occasions where trial e-scooters are not used as they should be. We also know there are similar offences and penalties we can use for privately owned e-scooters in the public arena. For the avoidance of doubt, for my noble friend Lady McIntosh and all noble Lords, it is absolutely illegal to use a private e-scooter on public land or a public highway. These offences are available to both trial and private e-scooter users and derived from the same offences as for motor vehicles. This means they might include driving on the pavement, which applies to those using a trial e-scooter and those naughtily using a private one; not having insurance or a driving licence—this would mostly apply to people with a private e-scooter; dangerous driving, which applies to everyone; and drink-driving. E-scooter users either illegally using a private scooter in the public domain or committing an offence on a rented e-scooter, such as riding on a pavement, can be fined up to £300 and have six points put on their driving licence, and the e-scooter can be impounded.
My noble friend Lord Holmes asked whether police forces have had advice. We have issued guidelines to the National Police Chiefs’ Council on general safety and rules for trial e-scooter users. We have also made sure that, before local authorities apply to set up for a trial, we need to see evidence that they have engaged with the local police to ensure that they are well aware of what is about to happen in the area. However, the level of enforcement within each local police force is an operational matter for that police force—I suggest, in consultation with the police and crime commissioner. Many noble Lords in London may wish to write to the Mayor of London about that. Local authorities and trial operators are also required to demonstrate that the vehicles used are distinctive so that you can tell they are legal, trial e-scooters that are allowed rather than privately owned e-scooters that are not.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh asked for further information on confiscations and fines and the use of e-scooters in other crimes. I will follow up with whatever I can find in a letter. We are aware that a large number of people have purchased an e-scooter in recent years. That is why we believe it is so important that we conduct these very large trials to gather evidence so that we can inform future policy and any legislative basis for e-scooter users in future.
It is not illegal to sell an e-scooter. However, there are protections for the general public: under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, retailers need to give sufficient information about goods and services to consumers. These regulations carry criminal penalties, so they can be used against individual retailers. Ministers from my department have written to retailers twice, in December 2018 and again in July 2021, to set out their concerns that retailers were not providing this clear, visible and consistent information that we need.
On the safety of e-scooters themselves—are these things actually safe?—at the moment there is not enough reliable international evidence on e-scooter safety to compare them accurately with other modes. Evidence to date suggests that the rates of injuries are broadly similar when compared with pedal cycles. The overall change in safety risk will depend on the mode shift. If we see a mode shift from cars, that would of course be a positive thing, because cars can be a significantly more dangerous mode, particularly for other road users. We will look at the impact on safety overall and in the context of the sorts of journeys that are carried out on e-scooters.
We are aware that a small number of fire incidents have involved e-scooters in recent months and we are liaising with the trial operators and participating local authorities. We are also co-ordinating with a number of government departments, including the Office for Product Safety & Standards, to ensure that such matters are considered as part of regulations around any electric vehicle entering the UK.
My noble friends Lord Holmes and Lord Shinkwin both eloquently raised the challenge of e-scooters to disabled people, and of course we are well aware that there can be challenges, although to some other disabled people they may be of benefit. We particularly take the point about those who are blind or visually impaired and therefore unable to see the scooters coming. We have had numerous discussions with disability groups and we require that all e-scooters have a horn or bell so that they can make others aware. We will continue to engage with groups that we have good relationships with, including the RNIB. We want e-scooters to be as inclusive by design as possible. Indeed, all transport should be inclusive by design. I was horrified to hear about what happened to my noble friend Lord Shinkwin earlier today.
We have looked at other European countries and we will take heed of the way that they have taken forward e-scooters. For the time being we have a regulatory landscape that we put in in June 2020 following a consultation. What does that look like for the future? I know that noble Lords are looking for certainty from me but I cannot provide that today. We are still gathering and analysing the data. We want a safe, proportionate and flexible regulatory framework if we decide that is our way forward. We have been gathering plenty of evidence: we have responses to the future of transport regulatory review, and there is further stakeholder engagement to do, including state engagement with the insurance industry. No decision has been taken about the future legal status of e-scooters. Much as I would like to give a response to my noble friend Lord Young about timelines, I cannot at this moment in time. However, if they are to be legalised, we would consider removing them from the motor vehicle category and instead creating a new bespoke category of vehicles with the appropriate regulatory regime in place.
I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords—