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Tours of Parliament (Disabled People)

Volume 497: debated on Thursday 15 October 2009

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I want to draw the House’s attention to your Speaker’s Conference, which will see how the opportunities to increase the number of disabled people in the House may be advanced. I also draw attention to the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) is vice-chairman of your Speaker’s Conference.

I turn to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith). Improving accessibility and facilities for members, staff and the public is one of the House’s priorities. The visitor route is now largely wheelchair-accessible. Facilities are also available for visually impaired and deaf or hard-of-hearing visitors. A leaflet giving access information to disabled visitors, Members of both Houses and passholders has recently been produced.

Although I welcome the progress that has been made, I want my hon. Friend to be aware of what happened earlier this year, when I tried to organise a tour of Parliament for the Redditch Deaf Club. My office was told that no one could be assigned to the group because of cost reasons. Furthermore, I understand that there is not full hearing-loop availability throughout the whole tour. I do not think that that is good enough, and I hope that the level of progress will be upped to ensure that all our constituents can access tours of this place, regardless of their disabilities.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Induction loops are fitted in the Public Galleries, Committee Rooms and main Dining Rooms. On sign language, visitor services can provide a sign language tour, if it is booked in advance. Otherwise, the diversity managers can put a Member or visitor in touch with a British sign language interpreter, which would, of course, be at the visitor’s expense. The House is in the process of providing British sign language training for 12 House staff, who will be able to assist visitors at short notice and at no cost to the visitor. I hope that that is a positive response for my right hon. Friend. However, if she has other such matters to raise, I shall be happy to take them up and refer them to the House of Commons Commission.

The right hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith) has made a good point. The House sounds as if it is moving a little slowly on these matters. The Parliament of our country, having passed Disability Discrimination Acts in 1995 and 2005, should be a beacon of accessibility. It should be trying to take a lead and be ahead of other organisations to make sure that every member of our society, whether disabled or non-disabled, has access to our Parliament. Can the hon. Gentleman give me some idea about whether the House of Commons Commission has all that as an objective?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. We have, of course, focused very seriously on disabled visitors to the visitor centre. We have provided for their assistance; we have provided facilities; and we have even provided disabled parking. We have provided training for staff to assist disabled visitors, and we have looked at the visitor route as a whole to assess its accessibility. I think that the Commission, on behalf of the House, can say that it has gone a great way towards meeting the demands of the disabled. We are always ready to improve and to listen to suggestions, and we are all trying at every moment of the day to increase these facilities.