Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Guy Opperman.)
I thank the House for granting me today’s debate on community toilet facilities for people with disabilities. May I take this opportunity to thank the Minister for his attendance? This is not an issue with a party political dimension, but one on which I hope we can achieve cross-party consensus to make a real difference to the quality of life of millions of citizens living with disabilities and chronic conditions throughout the UK.
I raise this issue on behalf of my very brave and dignified constituent Mr Brian Dean of Stalybridge, who chose to go public with his own story last year. Brian is living with Parkinson’s disease. Among many challenges, one commonly occurring symptom of Parkinson’s is a problem relating to the bladder and bowel. Many people living with Parkinson’s have an overactive bladder and need to pass urine more frequently and urgently. Having Parkinson’s can also mean that the messages from the brain to the bladder may not get through properly, leaving patients with less time to access a toilet. In some cases, Parkinson’s causes slowness of movement and muscle rigidity which can also affect the muscles in the bowels. Easy access to appropriate toilet facilities is therefore essential for those managing Parkinson’s disease.
To my great sadness and frustration, Brian experienced both a lack of provision and a lack of community spirit when he found himself away from home and needing to access a toilet in January last year. Returning from a trip to Blackpool with his wife and carer Joan, Brian noticed the need to urinate towards the end of their journey home. Stopping in Levenshulme in Manchester, they pulled over outside a row of shops. They first approached a corner shop to see if they had a toilet Brian could use, but were waved away. They then tried the Money Shop next door, but were informed that they had no toilets available to the public either. Brian and Joan continued a couple of doors down to the Krispy Chicken takeaway, but were also rejected there. They thought they would have more luck at Subway, but likewise they were turned away from there too. At this point, Mr Dean’s situation was urgent and very sadly he was forced to wet himself.
Each of the businesses that refused Brian and Joan has since offered explanations and, in some cases, apologies. However, the indignity, discomfort and inconvenience caused to Brian during this episode understandably left him feeling demoralised and, in his words, depressed. None the less, rather than retreat Brian and Joan have shown great courage, turning their anger into action and launching an appeal for a nationwide solution to his problem, which affects thousands of people living with challenging medical conditions or disabilities in each of our constituencies every day. Brian and Joan are now confident media professionals, having shared their story not just with local news outlets but with national newspapers and broadcasters. Their call is for as many businesses as possible to provide an accessible toilet.
I know that that sounds like an ambitious plan and I know that high streets and small businesses are already under considerable financial strain, but I also remember acutely that when the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 required all businesses to become wheelchair accessible, people said it could not be done. People said that the adjustments would be too great, too costly and too impracticable. Yet today, two decades after the Act came into effect, we take it for granted that the vast majority of shops, cafès, banks and so on have some form of accessible entrance, and that it is simply unacceptable to turn those with mobility issues away at the door.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for so eloquently setting the scene. Does he share my concern that many young disabled people in the Muscular Dystrophy UK Trailblazers Network, which I know he is aware of, are having to restrict their fluid intake, causing urinary tract infections? Some are now turning to surgical intervention because of the lack of Changing Places toilets across the UK. Will the hon. Gentleman ask for a meeting with the Minister and UK Trailblazers, and perhaps with me and other Members in the Chamber, to see what can be done to improve toilet access facilities for disabled people across the whole United Kingdom?
I am a patron of Wolverhampton Mencap. Does my hon. Friend share my surprise that Mencap nationally has steadfastly refused to bring a test case before a tribunal on the lack of Changing Places public toilets being built in buildings constructed since the Disability Discrimination Act came in to force in 1996, and does he share my hopes that Mencap will review that position so it can run a test case?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. I will be mentioning Changing Places toilets later on in my speech. There is an absence of them in my area, too, so any work we could do to improve provision would be welcome and that could be a very good way forward.
There are a number of ways in which I think we could improve the situation and find a solution. I would be proud if we could, today in this House, agree to work together to try to ensure that in years to come no one is turned away from any premises they approach in the search for an accessible toilet. One of the things that struck me when I visited Brian and Joan to speak to them about what had happened was that not only was every business unable to offer a toilet themselves, but they were unable to direct the Deans to the nearest toilet available for public use. If we cannot immediately move to a situation where every high street business provides an accessible toilet, I hope we can at least move quickly to one where the nearest available facilities are widely signposted and known to all the local businesses and community.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. Does he feel, as I do, that perhaps businesses are missing a trick, because the more accessible they make their business, store, public transport, sports ground, or whatever it is, the more that people with a disability can use those facilities and lend their economic investment to them?
I absolutely agree, and I will say something specific about that too. This is absolutely not just a duty but an opportunity for businesses. I would love this debate to get that message across to people.
On public services, I understand that in many cases local authority-provided public toilets were among the first amenities to be lost following substantial cuts to local government settlements. In my own town of Stalybridge, there was a long-established and well-used public toilet block, right in the centre of town, next to the shops, but it was closed in 2012 because—and I appreciate this—the council simply could not justify the cost of running it in such a challenging financial climate. I will not condemn any council for making tough decisions in tough times, but if the public sector, businesses and community groups worked together strategically on accessible toilet provision, I am sure that we could make great progress.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising such an important issue about promoting dignity for vulnerable people and, as already indicated, greater prosperity for our high streets. Cheltenham is getting two new Changing Places toilets. Will he join me in congratulating all those who campaigned for this, including the fantastic St Vincent’s and St George’s Association in my constituency, and made it happen?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. It is wonderful news. I am afraid that I cannot share equally good news about my own area, although I hope one day to be able to do so.
In Manchester city centre, there are now only nine public toilets—down from 18 just a few years ago—although the council has had some success in introducing the City Loos scheme, whereby businesses can sign up voluntarily to open their toilets to non-customers and to advertise in their windows that people are welcome to use the facilities inside. I call today for a rapid expansion of such schemes and perhaps even a national scheme.
We have set up several such schemes in my constituency. I am contacted regularly—on a weekly basis, in fact—about the availability and accessibility of toilets. One problem with the schemes, however, is around publication and awareness that these businesses are open for anybody to use. It is really important to get the message out.
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s comments and to the many colleagues who have stayed for this debate. It is extremely pleasing to hear that such schemes are already in existence in some parts of the country.
Just as many shops and cafes now have “Breastfeeding welcome” signs in their windows, I would like to see as many businesses as possible displaying signs saying: “Accessible toilet here, all welcome”. I understand that some boroughs, such as Lambeth, have already gone further than a voluntarily scheme and managed their community toilet scheme in such a way as to commit that no one has to walk more than 500 metres to find a toilet. The locations of the nearest community toilet provided by local businesses are then well signposted. I know that for some disabled users the maximum distance of 500 metres would still be too far to go, but this sort of public commitment and planning feels like a good start.
A lot more could be done with technology. Apps are already springing up to enable smartphone and tablet users quickly to find their nearest accessible toilet. I had a look at one such app, however, and looking at an area I knew well, I could point to toilet locations not listed. I would therefore echo the comments of the hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan): as well as extending community toilet schemes, we must extend the amount of information in the public domain, especially online, so that people can find help at the touch of a button when they need it.
The way that Brian Dean was repeatedly turned away from businesses highlighted not only a lack of compassion but an absence of sound business sense, as the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) said. It strikes me that there is a clear business case for more traders opening their doors to those who need to use their toilets. In my constituency, as elsewhere, town centre economies have struggled as custom has been lost to out-of-town shopping outlets and internet shopping. The biggest out-of-town retailer in my area, the famous intu Trafford Centre, is a former winner of the “Loo of The Year” awards—something I was not aware of until recently. I have had constituents with disabilities tell me that it is often easier to travel the 20 miles—no small distance—to the Trafford Centre to shop, rather than the half mile to the town centre, because the access and toilet facilities are far superior in meeting their needs. If we are going to stop the drain in footfall from our town centres and seek to revive those small business-led economies, we must address accessible toilet provision. The Trafford Centre is also one of Greater Manchester’s relatively few locations with a Changing Places toilet. This is a scheme that has already been mentioned. Changing Places is a campaign to provide toilet facilities for people whose disabilities are such that they cannot use a regular accessible toilet.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. One of my constituents, Lorna Fillingham, has long campaigned for Changing Places toilets in all hospitals and health centres. Does my hon. Friend believe this campaign should be given more legs?
I absolutely agree.
People with profound and multiple learning disabilities, as well people with other physical disabilities such as spinal injuries, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis often need extra equipment and space to allow them to use toilets safely and comfortably. These needs are met by Changing Places toilets.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware that the Changing Places campaign has been running for 10 years now. While its work is extraordinary and to be commended, does he share my view that it is time that we came together to achieve more and to allow people to do whatever they want to do, which is, after all, what those of us who do not need to use that kind of facility take for granted?
I absolutely agree. This is a fantastic scheme, but as the hon. Lady says, in those 10 years we have secured fewer than 1,000—just 914—registered Changing Places toilets in the UK. I echo the calls of campaigners to make this 1,000 before the end of this year.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for being so generous with his time. He mentioned the Trafford Centre and new buildings. Does he agree that there might be a place for new buildings to have this as part of the building regulations, so that developments over a certain size would have to have a facility such as a Changing Places toilet?
I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and thank him for being generous with his time. I visited the Usual Place café in Dumfries in my constituency last week. It is staffed by people with a range of disabilities, and a Changing Places toilet has been installed. This has literally transformed the lives of many of my constituents. Families are coming from far and wide to use the facility. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that every new public building should have one, and that for high-street businesses that have suffered so much lately, there is a real commercial opportunity here to attract the most grateful and loyal customer base that they could ever wish for?
Absolutely. I echo all those comments. It is wonderful to hear Members report the good work from their constituencies. I am a little bit jealous, because it was sad to discover that there are currently no registered Changing Places toilets in my borough of Tameside in Greater Manchester. I pledge to work with my local partners to see if that is something that we can change.
I offer my thanks, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing today’s debate. We have heard why this issue is important, and I hope that colleagues agree that it is time for some action. Many people around the country will be genuinely gratified that so many colleagues have waited around to participate in this Adjournment debate.
I ask the Minister to consider a number of issues in his response. First, will he evaluate current public sector accessible toilet provision across the nation, and how we can work with local authorities to prevent further toilet closures? Will he assess how many community toilet schemes are currently operating in the UK, and how we can ensure universal coverage of these, perhaps even through a national scheme? Will he lend his support to the Changing Places scheme, and ensure that greater numbers of larger, better-equipped toilets exist for those who need them? Lastly, will he today encourage as many businesses as possible to open their doors to those who need to use their facilities and show greater understanding of the needs of those with disabilities?
In conclusion, I would once again like to pay tribute to my constituents Brian and Joan Dean for the way in which they have turned their poor experience into a positive campaign to help others. Colleagues will recognise that not everyone can be a Brian or a Joan. There will be many people with disabilities, and many worn-out carers, who suffer or have suffered similar experiences and have simply decided that they can no longer face the hassle of going out, and who perhaps do not play a full part in their communities and, frankly, do not live their lives to the full. We must not allow that to happen. For Brian, for Joan and for everyone who has been deterred by the consequences of poor access, we simply must work harder to provide community toilet facilities for everyone with disabilities.
Let me begin by thanking the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) for raising this important issue, and for speaking so powerfully on behalf of his constituent Brian Dean. It was very decent of him to thank me for my attendance. I should put it on record that I had no choice but to be here, but on this occasion it is a real privilege, because I think the issue is very important. I should say at the outset that I have some personal experience of it, having cared for my late father, who suffered from Alzheimer’s at the end of his life. For people who are struggling with a degenerative condition, the humiliation that can result from not being able to find a toilet when they need one is very difficult to understand if one has not witnessed it.
The hon. Gentleman deserves great credit for raising the issue in the House, and the fact that so many Members have stayed for the debate shows that a large number of our colleagues take an active interest in issues related to inclusion and accessibility. I know that the hon. Gentleman has a particular interest in such issues, given his role as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on autism.
In some ways, the fact that we need to debate the issue of accessible toilets is an indictment of our society. Confidence that one’s toilet needs can be met is something that most of us take for granted in life, and disabled people should be equally confident that that will be the case for them when they leave the house. I was therefore very sorry to hear about the events affecting the hon. Gentleman’s constituent. It is sad that it is necessary to debate the issue this evening, but it is entirely right for us to discuss how provision of and access to toilet facilities might be improved to ensure that Mr Dean and many others like him are not subjected to similar experiences in the future.
A number of legislative measures have already been introduced to ensure adequate provision of accessible toilets, and the hon. Gentleman referred to one of them. Part M of the building regulations sets out minimum standards for accessible toilets in buildings when they are built or undergo major refurbishment. That includes standards for unisex accessible toilets even in small buildings where toilets are open to the public, and additional toilet provision in larger buildings.
Those requirements have helped to ensure that a wide range of needs are properly met in many circumstances, but people’s needs and expectations change over time, and the Government recognise that the approach to meeting those changing needs will have to change in response. That is why we have commissioned researchers to check that the current requirements in Part M remain fit for purpose, and, in particular, to look at the design and provision of accessible toilets. The researchers will report later in the year, and the report will help to inform decisions that my fellow Ministers and I make on whether the building regulations need to be changed. I should emphasise that the regulations help only with new buildings, or buildings in which a major refurbishment is taking place.
Once a building is in use, duties in the Equality Act 2010 apply to building owners and service providers, requiring them to take steps which include making what are known as reasonable adjustments. Reasonable adjustments are required wherever a disabled employee or disabled customer, or potential customer, would otherwise be at a substantial disadvantage compared with a non-disabled person. A substantial disadvantage is more than a minor or trivial disadvantage. The reasonable adjustment duty applying to service providers is an anticipatory duty, which means that employers and service providers are expected to foresee the requirements of disabled people and the reasonable adjustments that would have to be made for them, such as the provision of disabled toilets, wheelchair access and auxiliary aids or services for those who may require them. That includes, crucially, reviewing management provisions—for instance, how and when people can have access to toilet facilities, which was clearly an issue in relation to the businesses that Mr Dean approached—as well as making adjustments to the physical features of buildings.
The combination of the building regulations and the Equality Act have proved to be very important in improving provision. However, the hon. Gentleman issued a number of challenges in his closing remarks, asking—rightly—what more could be done to ensure that toilets were publicly accessible so that disabled people could be confident that their needs could be met wherever they went. I agree with him that that requires the public sector, businesses and communities to work together to find new ways to make it easier to find and use accessible toilets.
I am grateful to the Minister for his support. Would he consider commissioning, through his Department, the development of a mobile phone app with access to a master list of all sorts of accessible toilets in the United Kingdom, whether they are Changing Places toilets or toilets that meet other requirements that people have, so that they can find them easily?
The hon. Gentleman will find that if he is patient, his patience will be rewarded.
Local authorities have an important role to play in identifying how accessible toilet provision can be supported. They have powers to run and maintain public conveniences — although they are not duty bound to do so—meaning that, where appropriate, they can provide accessible toilets directly. Section 20 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 gives local authorities the power to require toilets to be provided and maintained for public use in any place providing entertainment, exhibitions or sporting events, and places serving food and drink for consumption on the premises.
Local authority environmental health officers have an important role to play in reviewing plans and premises licence applications, and advising on whether sufficient sanitary facilities are provided in terms of number, design and layout. Through the planning system, councils can also impose requirements, or negotiate with developers, to ensure that enhanced accessible toilets such as Changing Places are brought forward in new large-scale developments, or in buildings with strategic importance.
I have a question about the design and layout of accessible toilets and the expertise that is available in my constituency. At Shooting Star Chase there are lots of children with terminal illnesses and complex wheelchairs, and I am horrified to know that when the children are taken to some entertainment areas and the staff find a disabled-accessible toilet, it might not have the correct dimensions for the children. Where is the information coming from for the Department?
That is a good illustration of needs evolving over time and the fact that the building regulations must keep pace with them. It also shows that whatever we do with the building regulations only affects brand-new buildings and those that are refurbished where a retrofitting job needs to be done.
I am also pleased to say that we are introducing measures in the Local Government Finance Bill to give councils flexibility to use their existing discretionary relief powers to support publicly owned public toilets from 1 April 2018. They already have powers to provide such relief to privately run toilets. As we announced at the Budget, this measure is a means of levelling the playing field so that both private and public toilets can benefit from relief. Where authorities use their discretionary powers, central Government automatically meet half the costs.
Alongside councils, it is also important that businesses play their part. I was delighted to be joined at the start of this debate by my colleague the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, who is leading on a number of initiatives to improve accessibility. Just before Christmas, she called for business people to step forward to act as sector champions, to become a catalyst for change by championing the accessibility of products and services. These champions will help to unlock a virtuous circle of greater financial independence and choice for individuals, while helping to tap into the spending power of the “purple pound.” Given that disabled people have a collective spending power of £249 billion, the economic opportunities for business are readily apparent.
I asked in an intervention on the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) whether the Minister would agree to meeting Muscular Dystrophy UK trailblazers to get their opinion, as it is a body with knowledge and experience of how to improve toilet accessibility. Will he agree to that? If so, I and others would be glad to avail him of that opportunity.
I will be delighted to do that, and my suggestion to hon. Members who want to meet is that it is probably best to wait until we have the research, and to have a meeting when we are at the point of reviewing the regulations.
I was talking about the spending power of disabled people. The need to unlock this potential is clear. In March 2015 the Extra Costs Commission found that three quarters of disabled people and their families had felt so badly treated because of their disability that they had left the shop or business. That is shocking and this is simply not good enough.
To help to address this, the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work is assembling some of the nation’s best tech experts at the Google campus on 26 January to identify how technology platforms can help people share knowledge about where access is not good enough. She will be inviting Members of the House to attend a showcase on 6 February in the Attlee Room to share the ideas generated at that event, and I encourage Members of both Houses to attend and think about how we can all champion improved accessible provision in our own communities. That community leadership is important, and there is a clear precedent for community, business and public sector leadership delivering improvements in accessible toilet provision through the success of the Changing Places campaign.
I first became aware of Changing Places toilets in my role as the Minister with responsibility for building regulations. It is clear from the correspondence that I see that the number of people with multiple and profound disabilities, and others who need more specialised toilet provision, has increased significantly in recent years. This includes members of the armed forces who have been injured when serving their country; younger adults seeking to live a full, active life; and an increasing number of elderly people. For those people, and for their families and carers, the availability of adequate toilet facilities becomes central to planning any activity outside the home.
Changing Places toilets provide an adult changing bench, a hoist, washing facilities and the space for carers and users to use the facilities safely. It is heartening to see that local and national campaigners, backed by the Government and working in partnership with business and local councils, have increased the number of Changing Places toilets from 140 in 2007 to 914 today. That is a great success story, and it proves what can be achieved when there is strong leadership and collaboration across sectors, but improving the provision of accessible toilets is only part of what is needed. One of the key points, as the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Rob Marris) pointed out, is that it is important to signpost where accessible toilet provision can be found, and Changing Places has provided a sign of how that might be achieved.
In 2015 my Department, along with the devolved Administrations, funded Mencap and the British Toilet Association to develop a website detailing the location, opening hours and facilities of every Changing Places toilet in the UK. This enables disabled people and their carers to locate the nearest toilet at the touch of a button. The website even includes a journey planner that shows every Changing Places toilet along a given route. This simple technology has had a positive impact, and I would encourage further exploration as to how this might also work for the wider network of standard accessible and public toilet provision, to ensure that people like Mr Dean are able to find a toilet facility when they need to do so.
In summary, we have already started the process of looking at accessible toilet provision as part of our programme of research on the building regulations. That will help to inform decisions on whether changes need to be made. We will continue to stress the importance of meeting duties under the Equality Act, including the duty to make reasonable adjustments to buildings and to management practice to help to meet the needs of disabled people. We will also continue to look at ways in which technology and leadership can make a difference. It is important that local authorities, public bodies and business continue to consider how they might look beyond legislation to improve the provision of accessible toilets, including identifying opportunities to introduce enhanced provision such as Changing Places. I would like to end by thanking the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde for raising these most important issues, and by thanking all the other Members who have been here for the debate. I would be happy to continue to discuss how we can work together to deliver further change in this important area.
Question put and agreed to.