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Historic Properties (Disabled Access)

Volume 590: debated on Thursday 8 January 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Harriett Baldwin.)

I start by declaring my interest as the secretary of the all-party group on disability.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, a landmark piece of legislation that enshrined the right of disabled people to live their lives free from discrimination, to be treated equally to others, and to be given the same opportunities and experiences in life. The passing of the DDA ensured that it became unlawful for service providers to treat disabled people less favourably for a reason related to their disability. From October 1999, service providers had to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people, such as providing extra help or making changes to the way they provide their services. From October 2004, as the Act became fully implemented, service providers had to take reasonable steps to remove, alter or provide reasonable means of avoiding physical features that made it impossible or unreasonably difficult for disabled people to use a service.

The Disability Discrimination Act 2005 went further, making it unlawful for a public authority without justification to discriminate against a disabled person when exercising its functions. The DDA has been superseded by the Equality Act 2010, which places a duty upon service providers to make “reasonable adjustments” to ensure that disabled people are not placed at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with non-disabled people. This legal framework, protecting the rights of individuals and advancing equality of opportunity for all, has finally ensured that it is unlawful to fail to make a reasonable adjustment for access for a disabled person.

We have come a long way since 20 years ago, yet while we celebrate this historic milestone in legislation, I hope that in thinking about the 20th anniversary of the passing of the first Disability Discrimination Act, we can take the opportunity to understand that we can and should be doing more to campaign for equality of access for disabled people.

It is clear that this House has been determined to use legislation to ensure that discrimination is recognised as unacceptable, and that equal access for disabled people to all buildings, historic or not, is of paramount importance. Yet legislation can be effective only if we can at the same time enact a cultural change in attitudes and behaviour, and legislation is worthless without a determination to continually challenge ignorance and prejudice, intolerance and stigma associated with disability. Equally, our past achievements in law should not blind us to the reality that disabled people still face today. My hon. Friend the Minister may be wondering why I have raised the issue of disabled access to historic buildings in particular, but I believe that the particular issue is one that raises a far greater question about what we consider is acceptable for the treatment of disabled people when it comes to accessing some of the most important historic buildings in our land.

I ask my hon. Friend, when he walks out of this Chamber this evening, to look around and question whether Parliament itself, as a historic building, is really meeting the needs of disabled people. In this place of all places, where every man and woman is treated as equal, is it really acceptable that disabled people, upon entering these buildings, have to navigate entirely separate corridors of power? Is it acceptable that we have not managed to put our own House in order, to ensure that every citizen has the same right to access the same rooms and the same routes as any other?

I hope that my hon. Friend is happy to allow me to take this opportunity to thank the Speaker’s art fund, together with the Schefer foundation, for contributing to the cost of installing a ramp to allow those who use wheelchairs to access St Margaret’s church—our church here in Westminster—which has made life much easier for the elderly, people with children and many others.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I have personal experience of the enormous benefits that the ramp has already brought to St Margaret’s church. In late November I got married in the church, and the ramp allowed my wife’s grandmother, Mabel Hurst, who occasionally uses a wheelchair, easy access. She would otherwise have had to be carried in, or she would have taken a while to get up the steps. Families are already extremely grateful for that improved access. The alterations have been made sensitively and beautifully. It shows that we can adapt listed building without compromising their aesthetic appeal or historic nature.

I believe that we could do more on this side of the road, in this historic royal palace, to make such adaptations. Parliament itself may comply with the Equality Act in providing reasonable access, but the question we must now ask ourselves is whether in such public buildings it is acceptable access. I do not believe that it is, and I hope that with any future refurbishment we can set an example to the rest of the country by providing truly equal access to Parliament and its facilities.

Twenty years on since the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act, I believe that we also need to confront and act upon some uncomfortable truths about attitudes towards disabled access to buildings. Yes, the legislation may now be in place, but change is far from being effected. Only last month the charity DisabledGo published research showing that 20% of high street shops were unable to provide access for wheelchair users because of steps and no ramps. It is clear that many of those high street stores were constructed long ago and that their historic nature has prevented their alteration so far, but today that can no longer be acceptable. The Minister, given his remit, will fully understand the value that culture and tourism can bring to this country. With 12 million people in this country with a disability, and an overall purchasing power of around £200 billion, according to the Department for Work and Pensions, it makes no sense whatsoever to shut the door in the face of people who have a very significant part to play in our economy.

English Heritage has done much to promote inclusive access to our historic buildings and environments. As its website explains,

“historic buildings, landscapes and monuments, the physical survivals of our past are protected for their sake and ours. They are irreplaceable but sometimes they need to be changed...In most cases access can be improved without compromising historic buildings. The key lies in the process of information gathering about the building, understanding its significance and vulnerabilities and knowledge about the needs of people with disabilities”.

In 2012 it provided owners of historic properties and buildings with two excellent guides—“Easy Access to Historic Buildings” and “Easy Access to Historic Landscapes”—that highlight the value of equal access, setting out how physical barriers can be overcome with alterations and adaptations while at the same time navigating the “Approved Document M” building regulations, BS 8300, planning permissions and listed building consent, as well as setting out clearly that an inclusive approach to access recognises everyone as a potential visitor or customer, setting the challenge that each visitor, regardless of age or disability, should have an equally satisfying experience.

The document publishes many excellent examples of the improvements to disabled access that have taken place so far. I wonder whether now is the time to implement a full audit of historic buildings to understand the challenges that remain in increasing disabled access—in particular, which buildings do not come up to an accepted standard. I note that the Department has launched a comprehensive review of the access arrangements for, and treatment of, disabled sports fans at sporting venues. It should ensure that a separate review is carried out into historic buildings and properties, recognising their value.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Harriett Baldwin.)

When, in preparing for this debate, I asked English Heritage whether there was anything that it would like to raise, it said that it would welcome a

“stronger steer from DCMS about the importance of improving access to historic buildings. We do our best but it seems that other requirements (such as improving cafes or providing family friendly access) can take precedence, and in a time of limited funds, it would be good to be given the go ahead to prioritise good quality and innovative solutions.”

In this 20th anniversary year of the DDA, will the Minister look into arranging for one of the sessions of the inter-ministerial meetings on disability to discuss access to historic buildings so that a clear communication from the Department can be given about the value of increasing and furthering disabled access to historic buildings?

The DDA and the Equality Act have done much to remove the physical barriers to disabled access. We must now go further and broaden our horizons to understand that attitudes will be the barriers of the future. I draw the Minister’s attention to Scope’s “End the Awkward” campaign, which highlights the need, above all, for attitudinal change. Sadly, accompanying research shows that two thirds of the British public feel uncomfortable talking to disabled people; over four fifths, or 85%, of the British public believe that disabled people face prejudice; and a quarter, or 24%, of disabled people have experienced attitudes or behaviours in which other people expected less of them because of their disability. Scope has highlighted the fact that attitude is the barrier that needs to fall. With everyday interactions with disabled people and greater public education about disability will come, I hope, increased understanding and acceptance of disabled people.

In investigating how access arrangements can be improved for disabled people in historic buildings, the Minister might reflect that attitude is indeed crucial, and that expanding disabled access to historic buildings should be seen not merely as red tape or ticking a box, but as an historic achievement in itself, reflecting our continuing need, as a society, to make the past relevant to the present, and as a chance for future generations to look back on our own historic achievements in improving disabled access. The Department should encourage the staff of historic buildings and properties to team up with local disabled groups to enact a conversation about how disabled people themselves can help to influence what is important and necessary for change in their local properties and buildings.

Finally, I note that 17 January marks disability access day. I hope that many historic buildings and properties will take the opportunity to highlight their equal access arrangements, and that the Minister will ensure that his Department highlights this important opportunity for historic buildings and properties across the country.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) for calling this debate. He rightly alluded to the 20th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act. It is interesting to reflect on what happens to us over a period of 20 years. If my memory serves me well, the Bill that became that Act was steered through the House by the then Minister for the disabled, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague), who then went on to become Secretary of State for Wales, the leader of the Conservative party, and a very distinguished Foreign Secretary; and this year will see his retirement from this place. I believe that you were a special adviser at the time, Madam Deputy Speaker, and now you sit in that august Chair presiding over these proceedings. In the heartbeat of 20 years, what a rise to power.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood for the work he does on disabled issues. I am very interested in this issue, although a little frustrated, but let me elaborate on that. He asked whether I thought that Parliament was fit for purpose, and my answer is no, I do not think it is when it comes to access for disabled people. I remember a moment during my ministerial career when one of my officials, who is in a wheelchair, could not attend a meeting because the relevant lift to provide access to the meeting room was broken. That was a difficult occasion for him. We need to do much more in this place to lead by example. As discussions about the refurbishment of this place continue—various figures, which I am sure are far from the truth, about the cost to the public purse have been bandied about in the newspapers—I certainly hope that disabled access will be at the front and centre of our thinking. My hon. Friend put it extremely well when he said that no one with a disability should be denied access to any part of the estate where an able-bodied person can go.

May I tell the Minister that the House of Commons has done exceptionally well in one area? People going from this part of the building to Portcullis house through New Palace yard could roll a marble along the ramps, because little fillers have been put in to make sure the surface is smooth. I recommend that for other historic buildings and for every road. We should never have a ridge of even half an inch, when a bit of tarmac or some other filler can ensure that it is smooth. For someone in a wheelchair, we are doing better than anybody else on that, but not on the other things talked about by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore).

I take my hon. Friend’s point, which leads on to the debate about historic properties. I vividly remember taking a constituent of mine who is in a wheelchair around the town of Wallingford in my constituency a couple of years ago. It is effectively a mediaeval town: it got its charter in 1155, and still has its mediaeval pattern. Of course, it was hell on earth for him to go over the cobbles. For us, cobbles are a charming and wonderful part of the heritage of a historic town. That does not quite encapsulate the entirety of this debate, but it is a small insight into the circles that perhaps have to be squared.

I want to pick up another point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood. He said that we should not shut the door to people with disabilities in terms of their access to heritage properties. I would go further and say that if a visitor attraction—to use the jargon—opens the door to people with disabilities, it will get a really loyal customer. If it makes the effort to ensure that it can give people with disabilities good access to the property, they will come back. I cover disability issues in other parts of my portfolio, and people with disabilities tell me time and again that if theatres and sports stadiums take the trouble to make the visitor experience enjoyable for them, they will automatically think of that place when they are looking for something to do on a night out or a day out.

I take issue with the advice that my hon. Friend received from English Heritage. As a Minister, I have learned that when an arm’s length body does not have an answer for an assiduous MP, it tends to push the problem back on to the Government. One occasionally gets that from one national museum or another that says it cannot possibly do something because the Government have forbidden it, even though that is nonsense. I have never steered English Heritage towards putting its money into cafés or family-friendly facilities, although I would naturally applaud both, as somebody who likes a café and a family-friendly facility as much as a historic property.

I will certainly not stand in the way of English Heritage if it wants to put its money into facilities to enable disabled people to have access to its properties. It might come back and say that it does not have the money, but we are in the process of reforming English Heritage, which is something I have wanted to do for many years. Effectively, we are separating the two parts. My hon. Friend will be aware of its regulatory function. That is relevant to the debate because that part would sign off any changes to an historic property—for example, steps might have to be changed to provide disabled access. There are also the buildings that English Heritage looks after, and those will be owned by the Government and run by a charitable trust that has a contract with English Heritage. We are giving English Heritage £80 million to make that transition and effect repairs to its historic estate, to bring the buildings to the level of a first-class visitor attraction. I will take a steer from this debate and communicate to the chair of English Heritage my wish to know what plans he has to use that money to improve disabled access to its properties.

In one sense we are lucky to have just a few major players in terms of heritage properties, and we can get round a table five or six people who will probably represent 90% of the major heritage attractions in this country. They include the National Trust, Historic Royal Palaces—it is keen to help with Parliament, if you want to pass on that message Madam Deputy Speaker—and the Historic Houses Association. I therefore suggest a meeting with those key players, which I suggest my hon. Friend attends, to discuss their plans to improve access to historic buildings, and learn what plans are already in place and what changes have been made. It is a matter I feel strongly about.

Interestingly, access to heritage properties for people with disabilities has increased from just under 64% to around 67% of people with disabilities saying that they have visited a heritage property in the last year. The other key player that I should have named is the Heritage Lottery Fund, which gives grants to heritage organisations when there is a disabled element to the grant. The HLF was set up at roughly the same time as the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and over the past 20 years it has awarded £36 million to 820 projects specifically aimed at benefiting disabled people, £18.5 million to more than 370 projects representing the interests of disabled people, and almost £9 million to 175 projects focused on disabled people exploring the history and heritage of disability.

As an example of what can be done, Historic Royal Palaces applied to HLF for a £1.6 million grant for Kew palace in London. It established an access panel of local disabled people who toured the building, echoing what my hon. Friend said in his speech about involving those who will use the building. It advised the project team on how best to maximise access, and made suggestions on a variety of issues, including graphics. The range of different issues on which advice can be given is interesting, and includes graphics, sound, tactile models and display case design. Physical improvements included a ramp to the main entrance, a lift to all floors that used the shaft of a former privy—that is a heritage term—and a lift to the undercroft where a new learning space was created. As a result of that project, people with mobility impairments gained access to all areas of the palace, and some parts of the building were made available not just to disabled people but to the public for the first time. Members of the project team developed their awareness of access issues faced by disabled people, and as a result, Historic Royal Palaces has established a successful model for working inclusively with local communities that will be used in other buildings under its care.

The HLF has also supported much smaller schemes such as the £4,500 grant to 365 Leeds stories, which uncovered and shared the hidden history of people with learning difficulties in Leeds by interviewing people who remembered Meanwood hospital. It has also supported performing arts group A Quiet Word, which joined members of Pyramid Arts, a learning disability arts group, and Leeds museum discovery centre to uncover and bring to life the hidden history of people with learning difficulties in Leeds.

Our heritage and arts organisations can also look at other issues. Only a few months ago, a visually impaired constituent came to see me because he was finding it very difficult to get a job. He has now secured a job with a private commercial company, but his real ambition was to work as a curator in a museum. I contacted a museum, which I had better not name in the Chamber, but it was not interested. It strikes me that it would be a huge opportunity if a museum employed someone who was visually impaired, because it could ask, “What is your experience when you come to our museum? What could we do to give you a meaningful experience, such as the opportunity to handle our exhibits and the provision of audio descriptions?” People think that all this stuff is too much trouble and cost, but when they get stuck into it, the cost ends up being much lower than they expect, and the enhancement of their facilities—and the opportunity to engage with a community that is too often shut out—is significant.

Finally, I want to express my frustration—as I often do in this House—about the silo nature of the way that Governments work. Like any Government, we have to work harder to join up policy. I had a meeting a couple of years ago with a previous Minister with responsibility for the disabled about access to music venues, but that ran into the sand. My Department does not have money for disabled policies, if I may put it that way. I do have the eAccessibility Forum, which is about encouraging the use of technology to provide access for disabled people to facilities. As a result, we have some video-relay systems so that when people ring a company, a sign-language interpreter is available on a video link. People said that we could not do that because it would cost £100 million. The first company to do it was BT and it cost £20,000. We have written twice now to the FTSE 100 companies to ask them to implement the system, but we are making slow progress. I have now said that I will not have another meeting of the forum unless the Minister for Disabled People, my the hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) is present. It is really important that policy is joined up.

I have opportunities as Minister for the digital economy, because technology is massively changing the opportunities for disabled people. I am also the Minister with responsibility for performing arts venues, museums and historic properties, all of which are visited by people with disabilities and can benefit from having an audience or visitors who will be very loyal if more attractions make significant efforts to improve access for them. The glass is half full, because many venues already make those efforts, but the more they do so, the more reward they will get from loyal and grateful customers.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.