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Disabled Access: Leisure Facilities

Volume 684: debated on Tuesday 17 November 2020

I beg to move,

That this House has considered disabled access at leisure facilities.

It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I am delighted to have the opportunity to make the case for fairer inclusion for disabled children at leisure facilities, and particularly theme parks. We are here to talk about Sebby, a very brave little boy, who suffered a horrible experience on what should have been a happy day. Yet rather than feel defeated, he and his family have chosen to fight to stop other children going through the same thing. Our petition for fairer inclusion for disabled children at theme parks has more than 26,000 signatures. In a year dominated by the global covid pandemic, which has certainly made this place much quieter, the high number of signatures, and media interest from around the country, shows the strength of feeling about this issue.

Sebastian, or Sebby, is six years old. I have spent time with Sebby and his sister. They are warm, happy and engaging children, who brought their own toys to calm down my screaming little baby when she was crying at our meeting. Yet Sebby has been through more in his short life than most of us in this Chamber put together. He is disabled with gross motor delay, with symptoms that are shared with cerebral palsy. He has had spinal surgery and double hip replacements, and he undergoes regular intensive therapy to improve his mobility. He uses an electric wheelchair and sometimes crutches. I urge colleagues to look up his Facebook page, “Sebby’s Adventure”. It is heartwarming, but they will also see his extensive work for often painful physiotherapy, and the amount of effort that he and his family are putting in, to improve his mobility. They impress me all the time.

It is with this brave child in mind that we think about looking forward to going to a theme park—a very simple thing. Indeed, that visit to a theme park was promised to get him through a number of tough surgeries in hospital.

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this debate to Westminster Hall. Perhaps I may quickly mention the case of one of my constituents, who is totally disabled—born disabled—and needs a wheelchair to get about. He asked the council to provide wheelchair football for him and a group of people. The council was hesitant initially but then responded very positively. That did two things: it improved his physical abilities and opportunities, but it also improved his mental wellbeing. Does the hon. Lady feel that the issue is not just physical but mental wellbeing?

That is absolutely key. This is not just about physical but about mental wellbeing. Such children and families are fighting and challenging all the time, and have to make their voices heard. Small acts of kindness or small changes to policy can make all the difference for mental and physical wellbeing.

In September 2019, Sebby, who was then five years old, entered Legoland looking forward to going on the Ninjago ride. Sebby’s parents had engaged with Legoland for months before to arrange the correct pass. They let the park know about Sebby’s disabilities and provided multiple items of the proof required to show that Sebby is disabled. The Ninjago ride that he wanted to go on is for trainee Ninjas—I am sure we all want to achieve trainee Ninja standards—because it was clear that it could be accessed by a wheelchair lift.

So far, so good, I can hear Members saying, but unfortunately not. As Sebby and his family got to the ride, a member of staff awkwardly intervened to say that he needed to show that he could walk before going on a ride. Other members of staff then joined in the discussion and they decided between them that he needed to show that he could take three steps, holding on to one parent with one hand.

This all took place in front of a busy queue of people. Anybody who has queued at theme parks knows that they are not the most harmonious of places, and Sebby was forced with considerable discomfort to take his three steps. He just about managed it and sat down on the ride. Despite this action, the ride manager then inexplicably required him to do the steps all over again. This drew more attention from people in the queue and Sebby was really unset. His mum described the whole episode as humiliating for him. Sebby—aged five, remember—was crestfallen and asked his mum and dad why anybody would ask someone disabled to walk. He said: “It was so hard and it upset me”.

Not wanting to ruin the day, his parents were positive, but they were both shocked and distressed. They then encountered the same problem on another ride, where Sebby was told he needed to walk again. Eventually, in order to avoid that problem, at other times Sebby left his wheelchair outside the ride and went in on his parents’ shoulders so staff could not tell he was in a wheelchair, and he was not challenged any more.

Sebby’s family were informed that he needed to walk the three steps as there was a short staircase that would be used in case of an evacuation. However, it is clear to Sebby’s mum that the evacuation could be adjusted with a ramp. The family has also seen the resort accessibility guide, which they believe shows that about 80% of rides are inaccessible. Under ride restrictions, the guide sets out the requirement to walk unaided for not just three steps but at least 10 metres,

“without the assistance of a mobility aid or a person to access the ride unit, which may include navigating stairs…In the event of an emergency, you will be required to walk down up to 80 stairs and walk sometimes over an uneven surface without assistance.”

Wheelchair users would, of course, therefore be challenged in respect of both access to rides and evacuation from them. Sebby’s family believe this is discriminatory.

What can be done? My hon. Friend the Minister may feel there is no need for Parliament to investigate this matter nor act, as legislation is already in place. He is right, but only to a point. Pursuant to section 6 of the Equality Act 2010, Sebby is disabled and his disability is a protected characteristic. Under section 29 of the Equality Act, theme parks, such as Legoland, are service providers. As a result, they are obliged to make reasonable adjustments to improve access so that disabled customers of all ages are not placed at a substantial disadvantage compared with non-disabled customers.

The reasonable adjustment duty is an anticipatory duty. This means that there is an expectation that businesses, including theme parks, should anticipate the reasonable adjustments that customers with disabilities may require. This serious and well-established legislation, passed more than 10 years ago, did not protect Sebby or improve his experience that day, nor is it working elsewhere.

Reading through the heart-breaking stories from other families around the country made Sebby’s mum completely determined to take action. They certainly made me very determined to make some changes in this area. This is not just about Legoland. It is clear that many other leisure parks need to make improvements. Before I read out some of the stories from other families, please note that I have not spoken to any of the parents mentioned. They have sent comments on social media and in response to the petition. I am willing to get in touch with them if necessary and welcome hearing from any of the companies mentioned. I think it is important to say that up front.

I will read a few comments, so that we can see what is happening around the country. Ellen said, “My sister Abie has cerebral palsy and I have cried at Alton Towers before, when we had a problem getting on a ride. Don’t get me wrong, some places are great, but some just make everything a challenge.”

Jessica said, “I had a similar experience with a girl I care for, who is in a wheelchair, at Blackpool pleasure beach. They turned around in a crowded line and shouted, ‘Oh, you can’t walk well. The only rides that you can go on are in Nickelodeon land.’ This made me so angry. And yes, I did cause a scene, because nobody should be treated like that. They need to make these rides more accessible for wheelchair users so they do not always have to miss out.”

Chris said, “We had a similar at Thorpe Park in the disabled parking area. They would not believe my brother-in-law was disabled until he took off his false leg and waved it at them.”

Kate said, “My son was five. We only wanted to go on the small rides. A woman said that if he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t go in—bearing in mind, someone in front of us was holding a baby under one, who couldn’t walk either. They stood in front of us and told my son that he could not walk. He was paralysed by a drink-driver and he didn’t really understand what was wrong with him at that point. She had no damn right to say that, but we sucked it up for my son’s sake, only for this to happen at every ride. I sobbed so much that day that when I phoned to complain I couldn’t even get my words out.”

Anita said, “We had a similar experience at Chessington for our son, with him being made to get off a ride. He was so humiliated that he never wants to go to a theme park again.” She added lots of angry emojis.

Claire said, “Every ride has to step up, down or both—no lifts or options for anyone in a wheelchair to get even to a ride station on many occasions. If you spend £16 million on rollercoasters, then surely you can arrange for rides to be accessible for all.” I have pages and pages of this stuff. It is just awful.

Gemma said, “My little boy, aged 10, has cerebral palsy and autism. He is a real adrenaline junky. We visited Alton Towers a few weeks ago and had the same problem. We were supposed to be going to Disney, but due to covid we obviously couldn’t. I felt heartbroken seeing him look at all of the big rides and being unable to access them. In Florida, it isn’t a problem.”

Donna said, “My son is neurodiverse. I was told by a member of staff that he didn’t look disabled and, if he was, why would I come to a place like this?”

Katie said, “A very similar thing happened to us with my daughter at Legoland in London. They let her get on rides, then humiliated her in front of everyone by telling her to get off and she only has one leg. We were not told about any of this at customer services. She was nearly nine. She loves rides and always has. We were all so angry. She was living a perfectly normal life, then got cancer and had to have an amputation. It is so unfair. In this day and age, they should be able to make more things accessible for disability.” As I said, I can provide copies of those comments if necessary.

It is worth noting that a number of the families have mentioned that Disney parks in America and around the world are incredibly inclusive and have got this stuff right, so I do think it is achievable.

Legoland wrote to me last night, saying, “We recognise the importance of issues such as these being subject to public scrutiny. That is why we welcome the Westminster Hall debate that you have secured and hope that not only will it put these issues under the spotlight but also provide the Government with an opportunity to set out how it can work with the industry to support continual improvement to provision, support and access for disabled guests.” Legoland explained that since Sebby’s family reported these matters, it has created an illustrated guide to help guests understand step-by-step ride evacuation, and it can also create bespoke plans for families. Legoland has engaged in further staff training specifically to address ride restrictions and guest communication of ride evacuation processes. It has also made other changes in the last few years. I am happy to make this letter available to anyone who is interested. I have passed a copy to the Minister.

This was never about one company. As we have heard, there are theme parks around the country that should look to their policies and to the law. Theme parks are also an excellent source of fun. I enjoy them myself, as do many people, and they are an integral part of our tourism industry. However, brave children already battling disabilities should not be made to feel different or be excluded from leisure parks and rides. Parents of disabled children should not always have to fight, challenge and complain. The majority of those parents will not have access to legal advice and will not always understand their rights and what steps to take. I therefore ask my hon. Friend the Minister to use his experience to help us consider ways that we in this place can assist children like Sebby.

Leisure parks should not be able to set policies that effectively undermine a disabled child’s being able to use a ride that claims to be inclusive. Families should not have the surprise of a walking test on arrival, having previously been led to believe that the park is inclusive. It is unclear what training staff in the parks have had to understand policies and legislation and how they can help disabled people. The Ninjago ride is relatively new, having been built in 2017. I want to ensure that theme park providers are required to procure and commission new rides that are completely inclusive for disabled people. There should be no excuses.

I therefore respectfully request that the Minister arranges a stakeholder meeting, along with a Minister from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the disability Minister from the Department for Work and Pensions. I also request that he commits to reviewing any codes of practice. I am open to other ideas on how we can make improvements.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) on securing the debate. She raises an important issue, following a disturbing experience of one of her constituents at a leading tourist attraction. It does not surprise me at all that she raises this issue with the compassion and professionalism that her constituents have come to expect from their excellent Member of Parliament. I will briefly respond to the issue raised before moving on to talk in more general terms about what the Government are doing in this area.

The specific case raised by my hon. Friend was a very unfortunate incident, and I sympathise with her constituents, the 26,000 people who signed the petition and the families who have written to her to articulate their concerning cases and experiences. I understand that Merlin, which owns Legoland and many other visitor attractions in the UK and around the world, has been in contact with the family. My hon. Friend will be aware that I am unable to discuss this particular incident or the specifics of the case in detail. However, my officials have also been in contact with Merlin, and I understand that it is looking into further operational changes, including staff training, which is so important to the visitor experience and the overall visitor experience for guests with disabilities. I am glad that it is also focusing on accessibility issues more broadly across its attractions, and I appreciate that it has also written to my hon. Friend directly.

My hon. Friend will be aware that, as the tourism Minister, I do not have direct responsibility for disability discrimination law. Ultimately, disability discrimination is governed by the Equality Act 2010 and is the responsibility of the Government Equalities Office, so I hope she accepts that I may not be able to give her complete chapter and verse on all the legal particulars of the case she raises, but I hope I can give a reasonably detailed response. The Equality Act requires service providers, including tourist attractions such as theme parks, to make “reasonable adjustments” to improve access for disabled customers of all ages. Fundamentally, disabled customers should not be placed at a substantial disadvantage to non-disabled customers. Ultimately, the question of whether there has been a failure to comply with the Act hinges on what does or does not constitute a “reasonable adjustment.”

The Equality Advisory and Support Service can be contacted—via its website, telephone or textphone—by anyone who believes that they or their children have been discriminated against during the provision of services, and it can contact a service provider on the customer’s behalf to discuss any particular concerns raised. It also liaises with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which has powers to enforce the provisions of the Equality Act. I am happy to take this up in writing with the relevant Equalities Minister if my hon. Friend would like a more detailed response.

In the meantime, I will set out more broadly what the Government have done and are doing to make tourism and leisure more accessible. In 2019 we published the tourism sector deal, which set out an ambition to make the UK the most accessible destination in Europe by 2025. There were several reasons we wanted to pursue that goal. First, and most importantly, it is simply the right thing to do. Our amazing visitor economy—attractions, accommodation and transport—should be open to everyone. Secondly, it makes business and economic sense. According to Visit Britain, 43,000 British adults with a disability did not take a domestic holiday in 2017, when figures were last available. If they did take a domestic holiday, that would equate to a £117 million boost to the British economy. Thirdly, we have an ageing population. Projections indicate that in 50 years’ time there will be an additional 8.6 million people aged 65 and over in the UK. We must ensure that our tourism sector is fully developed to take account of the needs of those older tourists, many of whom will have access requirements, even if they do not consider themselves to be disabled.

The fact that we made that commitment does not mean that we are not already undertaking action to make the UK’s tourism offering more accessible. For example, VisitEngland has a dedicated web portal, providing tailored business advice to tourism businesses. Among other things, that includes detailed guidance on how businesses can welcome people with autism, dementia or hearing loss. I know that the tourist boards of the devolved Administrations are similarly engaging on those issues. VisitEngland has also ensured that its promotional and marketing activities are inclusive. For example, its “Escape the Everyday” campaign—it is currently on hold due to national restrictions, but we expect it to be revived shortly—has worked in partnership with Channel 4 to launch the “Mission Accessible” series, which follows comedian Rosie Jones as she participates in activities from the perspective of a disabled person with accessibility requirements.

In the Budget earlier this year, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a £30 million Changing Places fund to increase the provision of changing places and toilets in public buildings. Those are just a few examples. Furthermore, I know that many businesses in the private sector also provide excellent services to disabled customers. There are some standout examples, such as Eureka! The National Children’s Museum in Halifax and the Titanic exhibition in Belfast.

The hon. Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) mentioned Disney World and Universal Studios in Florida as two examples where they enable profoundly disabled children in wheelchairs to travel. I have seen that when I have been there. Has the Minister had the opportunity at short notice to ascertain whether we can do that? If they can do it in America, we can do it here.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Prior to becoming a Member of Parliament, I worked in the tourism, hospitality and leisure sector, working with theme parks around the world, including the major theme park operators in the US and elsewhere.

There are leading global best practices and, to be fair, we have some in the UK. We should not belittle the progress that has been made, but we see with incidents, such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, that we have further progress to make. We all need to learn from the best practices and there are outstanding examples throughout the world that we should learn from. Here on our own shores, with Halifax and the Belfast Titanic exhibition, we do already have some fantastic examples, but it is not consistent and it is not everywhere.

I know that many businesses wish to make further progress. There are also many charities, social enterprises and not-for-profit organisations doing great work in the area as well, such as Nimbus Disability and the Family Holiday Association. Despite all that activity, there is more to do and I am keen to look at the issue of accessible tourism in more detail. I will raise the issue directly with Merlin, the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions and other relevant tourism bodies, which I meet regularly as part of the Tourism Industry Council. I will be happy to facilitate further meetings with those bodies with my hon. Friend directly.

As we make further arrangements to make venues, attractions and other sites, such as sports stadiums, covid-secure, it is also important to ensure that they are accessible for all. I know that the sports sector is considering how to improve accessibility in sports stadiums, which was the topic of a recent report by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee when I sat on it.

The Government’s ambition is to ensure that we all work towards an even more accessible tourism and leisure industry. As I said, the sector itself and the companies involved also realise their responsibilities in this area. Their purpose is to bring joy to people and families. We need to ensure that everybody is included in that. Although great strides have been made, there is still much more to do. I look forward to playing my part in ensuring that happens.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.