That the Bill be read a second time.
My Lords, this Bill is officially called the Equality Act (Amendment) Bill, but that is rather a boring title. I prefer to call it the “Six-Inch Rule Bill” since it simply imposes a duty on all occupiers of public buildings to install a ramp if the entrance to the premises has a step of six inches or less.
Noble Lords may ask why this is necessary since we have the all-singing, all-dancing Equality Act 2010, which runs to 218 sections and 28 schedules and covers all forms of discrimination, including facilitating access to public buildings for disabled people. Indeed, Section 20 of the Equality Act imposes a duty on occupiers of public buildings,
“to take such steps as … is reasonable”,
to remove any physical features of the building that disadvantage disabled people. That wording seemed sensible and should cover all possible situations. It is clever wording and no doubt Harriet Harman MP and the officials thought that by setting down that general principle, the Act would stand the test of time and not require the regular amendments it would need if they had phrased it in more specific language.
However well intentioned Section 20 and the related Schedules 4, 5 and 21 were, the duty to make reasonable adjustments is simply not being implemented on the ground. There are tens of thousands of entrances to public buildings with a step of less than six inches and nothing is being done to grant wheelchair access to them. Clause 1(2) of my Bill states that if the entrance step is of six inches or less, it is cheap and easy to remove the step or make a ramp. If occupiers do not remove or adapt the step of six inches or less, they would fail in their duty under the Act,
“to take such steps as … is reasonable”.
Subsection (3) introduces a duty to introduce ramps for steps of up to 12 inches to be introduced at a later date, but more on that later.
What is the justification for my assertion that no reasonable steps are being taken to enforce the provision,
“to take such steps as … is reasonable”,
to remove any physical feature of the building that disadvantages disabled people? The evidence for my assertion is available for all to see in some stunning examples just a few hundred yards from your Lordships’ House. If noble Lords were to take a short walk down Victoria Street as far as the Army and Navy Stores—now House of Fraser—turn left into Horseferry Road and left again through that wonderful little market street Strutton Ground, they would see more than 40 examples. The vast majority of big chain stores and shops on Victoria Street have level access from the pavement or a lip of about an inch at most. Of course, new-build shops nearly all have level access. However, there are nine shops on Victoria Street with a step of six inches or less. In Horseferry Road, there are about a dozen shops or pubs with a step of six inches or less, and Strutton Ground has 21 such premises. I hasten to add that this is no criticism of Westminster Council, which is particularly good at providing dropped kerbs for wheelchair users; nor is it any special criticism of the shops in Strutton Ground. I mention the shops in this location because they are right on our doorstep 300 yards away, but I could easily take any street in any town or city in this country and find tens of thousands of examples of the same thing.
What is particularly irritating—to me, at any rate—is that many shops have a step of about 2 inches, the thickness of the Companion, and it would take less than £10-worth of concrete to put a ramp in front of them. There are even some shops sharing a double doorway, where one has put in a little concrete ramp and the other right next to it has done nothing and left the step.
What is the point of this? Wheelchairs have little front wheels and if you hit a step of 2 inches, it is the equivalent of a motorist hitting head-on a pavement of eight inches. It is not something you do twice, not deliberately at any rate. I have found that many shopkeepers in those streets and in Pimlico are very kind and offer to serve me out on the pavement. However, I have a principle that if they cannot be bothered to make a slight, low-cost adjustment to let me into their shop, I am blowed if I am going to give them my business, and I will go and buy my sandwich somewhere else. One restaurant, which is very close to the Home Office, suggested that if I came round the back, they could let me in through the kitchen. I thought that being asked to go round the back door last happened in Alabama in the 1960s. Would any other group covered by the Equality Act tolerate the suggestion of going round the back to be served?
I have therefore concluded that an amendment is necessary to deal with the easiest and cheapest problem to solve—steps of less than six inches—and give people in wheelchairs access to tens of thousands of buildings that we cannot get into at present. I am not asking owners of buildings with lots of steps to make changes at a cost of £20,000, nor am I asking listed buildings to wreck their appearance by building ramps instead of steps. I think that all of us in wheelchairs accept that when some of our greatest buildings were erected, wheelchair ramps were not in the architects’ design manuals. For many ancient buildings, it is enormously expensive now to install wheelchair ramps or lifts. If we cannot do it in this House, it seems a bit hypocritical to demand it of others. That is why I am focusing on the easiest and cheapest solutions.
I have checked all this out and have bought some ramps for my personal use; one can get sophisticated aluminium or fibreglass ramps which are suitable for steps of six inches or less and cost less than £100. I ask those of your Lordships who only do metric to look at the steps in the gangways in your Lordships’ House. I have measured them, and the bottom steps are four and a half inches high; the next ones are five and a half inches; then they alternate to four and a half again. I am not suggesting that we install ramps here; I am merely using them to illustrate what a height of six inches is. It is neither rocket science nor expensive to provide ramps that would grant access to buildings outside this place with steps of six inches or less. However, I think that half the places we looked at in those streets I mentioned could solve the access problem with about £10-worth of concrete. I calculate that, if my six-inch rule Bill became law, we could get access to more than 90% of those 42 shops in Horseferry Road, Victoria Street and Strutton Ground. If replicated nationally, this small step for man would be a giant leap for mankind, or at least for wheelchair users—to paraphrase Neil Armstrong.
While there are many buildings with steps higher than six inches, and where it would still be reasonable to make the adjustments I suggest, I do not want cost to be used as an excuse for not doing it. I do not think that anyone with a shop or a pub can complain that a cost of £100 is an unreasonable burden, and I hope that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will agree with that in any impact assessment it carries out.
I realise that my Bill will probably not become law in this Session, and that if it were to make progress in Committee, I would want to amend it. Clause 1(3) on tackling steps of 12 inches is probably a step too far. I would like to replace that with a regulation-making power for the Minister to be able to legislate for steps higher than six inches in a manner and timescale that would not put a further burden on small businesses. Clause 1(4) makes it clear that my Bill would not apply to buildings with more than one step if the total combined height of the steps was greater than six inches. Thus, if they had two steps of three inches, it would apply, but if they had two steps of, say, three and four inches, making seven inches in total, it would not apply. I think it would be reasonable to do that, but I put it in the Bill to reassure businesses that they would not suffer excessive cost and so they could not complain about the burden placed on them and use it as an excuse to block this legislation.
I am very grateful to the Minister and her officials for accompanying me yesterday on a cold, chilly afternoon to look at the premises in Strutton Ground and get a first-hand look at the problems that my Bill seeks to address. I do not wish to put words in her mouth, but I think we all concluded that in many cases the solutions were cheap and easy to bring about. Indeed, some of the shopkeepers had done it themselves, putting down a little concrete to enable wheelchairs to get in easily.
As I said at the beginning, theoretically, the wording in the Equality Act on disabled access is excellent, but I submit that it has failed and is failing in reality. I also get the impression that disability is very low down the agenda of the Equalities Office. Of the hundreds of announcements made by the office over the whole of 2013-14, I could find only two related to disability—I apologise if I got that wrong. One was that three interns had been appointed to work with parliamentarians, and another that up to 60 people had applied for grants to get involved in politics. Those are no doubt very good things, if they can actually get into the polling stations, but there are supposed to be 1.2 million wheelchair users who cannot get into public buildings at the moment—although I think that that estimate, which I got from the web, is high; there are probably about 800,000. However, that is still a pretty large number of people. I suggest to the Minister and the department that they would have a big win on their hands if they adopted the proposals in my Bill.
I am afraid to say that the equality commission seems to be doing nothing to enforce Section 20, and district councils seem to be worried about the cost of judicial review if some organisations were to challenge them if they enforced Section 20 on the basis that their interpretation of it is not reasonable. Therefore, I have concluded that a specific and objective measurement is the only way in which to make progress. It removes the need to determine whether the adjustment that I suggest in my Bill is reasonable.
I have gone through the Act carefully and looked at all the regulatory powers, but I cannot see any that would permit the Minister to make regulations addressing the specific and practical points in my Bill. There may be, but I could not find them. I am willing to accept that a possibly better solution than my Bill may be a new regulatory power that would permit the Minister to specify, in addition to the general duty to take reasonable steps, that certain practical things would be regarded as a breach of the duty and should be remedied. That power could be used for wheelchair access, as in my Bill, or specific other measures that would help blind, partially sighted, deaf or other people with disabilities who also need a practical remedy.
I hope that I can get the support of your Lordships’ House, at least for the concept of what I aim to achieve. I acknowledge that my Bill requires amending and input from noble Lords and noble Baronesses who have longer experience of wheelchair use than I have. However, I am convinced that the concept of my Bill is right. No real progress on getting access to public buildings will be made unless we have the Bill or a regulation that brings about the same effect. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am very pleased to support my noble friend’s Bill, which is a timely reminder that disabled access to all kinds of premises, particularly shops, is not done and dusted. This is what Martin Affleck, an architect specialising in access, told me recently:
“After the initial flurry of implementing the Disability Discrimination Act between 1996 and 2004, many service providers, including shop keepers of small premises, have stopped bothering and there is very little pressure to make improvements other than when Building Regulation approval is sought for some other reason”.
I urge the Government to put their weight behind this modest Bill—modest, but one that will be very significant for those of us with mobility problems. Many of us want to support smaller, independent shops for all kinds of things, including specialist food shops, greengrocers, clothes shops and many others, but all too often there is the barrier of a step or two, making it impossible for wheelchair users or even walker users, like me, to access these places. Nor, often, is there a rail, meaning that even those with sticks feel unsafe.
The excuses are legion, the chief one being, “The landlord won’t let us”, or, “This is a listed building”. And the more that one shop does nothing, the more that the others do not feel that they should either—so nothing happens, and disabled people have to find much of what they want in supermarkets with disabled parking spaces in their car parks and disabled lavatories inside, or in accessible high street chain stores. But why should disabled people be excluded from niche shopping or supporting their local shops? I used to buy fruit and vegetables from a local shop which had one steep step up. I had to stand on the pavement and trust the greengrocer to get everything for me, but it was not satisfactory. There is a row of shops quite near where I live, running alongside Wandsworth Common, where little ramps have, in places, been installed. This immediately gives the disabled shopper a warm feeling that their custom is welcomed.
My noble friend Lord Blencathra is very kind to those in charge of listed buildings. I do not feel quite so kind. Are buildings really more important than people? Yes, of course there are ways of making premises in listed buildings accessible—as I believe my noble friend Lady Brinton will say. Of course I understand that some buildings will have to remain for ever out of reach for those of us with impaired mobility, but for far too long owners have just had to utter the words “listed building” for that to be the end of the matter.
At this point I must mention an organisation that I have only recently come across called the Access Association. It is a national network of individuals, including many access officers, who say that they are,
“passionate about access and inclusive design”.
Perhaps my noble friend will agree to meet the association to see whether it can help to take things forward. After all, the design of a ramp, even a small one, can be quite a tricky business, and many of the people in this admirable organisation are professionals and know their business. Enforcement is also an important question that it can help with.
While I am on my feet, and on the subject of the accessibility of shops, I must say something about dropped kerbs—that is, the lowering of kerbs on either side of a road junction to allow a wheelchair, pushchair or someone with a walker to cross safely. Even where there are dropped kerbs, many local authorities do precious little to maintain them, with the result that some of them are quite dangerous. Sometimes the design was not right in the first place, as many are simply too steep. Some have been damaged by use and not repaired. I urge local authorities to check on all their dropped kerbs to make sure that they are fit for use. The population, as we all know, is getting older and more disabled, so this problem will grow if not addressed regularly.
The House will be glad to know that I will not raise at this point another of my favourite topics when talking about the high street and accessibility—that is, the design of disabled lavatories—but will leave that to another day. I wish my noble friend’s Bill well.
My Lords, I am not in a wheelchair, but my husband of very long standing is in a wheelchair. He got MS in 1983 and by the mid-1990s he had to start using a wheelchair. He now cannot stand and is in a wheelchair all the time. We have hoists at home to get him into bed or on to the loo. That is all right; we are all right at home and do anything that needs to be done. There is a two-inch lip to get out on to the patio, which we dealt with by putting a little wooden ramp down; it did not cost anything and he can go over it without wibbling and wobbling.
However, there is a big problem with many places. It can be even worse than just the shops; sometimes you do not need to shop but you like to eat out. Many of the restaurants do not provide access. As the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, has said, you go in from the back. How many times he has gone in from the back —not just into restaurants but into government buildings and all sorts of places. Maybe it is exciting to see what goes on behind the front, but it is not what people expect. They expect nowadays to be treated like normal people because they are normal people. My husband has been a practising lawyer and sat as a judge. He is very old now but he is still doing a lot of work for the Ministry of Justice. People’s brains are working absolutely perfectly and they want to enjoy some of the facilities that everybody else takes for granted. Anything that can be done to help make that happen has to be right and proper. However, I am sorry to say that these things have not been done. As the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, said, disabled people are just dumped.
I went with my husband to a fusion-food restaurant which is part of the EAT franchise. We could not get in and the staff were quite rude to my husband, so we wrote to both the restaurant manager and to EAT but have received no reply. I do not know what we are supposed to do when people take no notice of what disabled people say to them about the treatment that they have received. Not to gain access to premises and to then be subjected to rudeness is too much for most people. Some of the restaurants that we visit regularly now have ramps that are put down for disabled people. If there is a small step, you do not have to construct a permanent ramp; you just bring out a ramp and put it on the step. That happens in many places now. You just let them know that you are coming and they have the ramp ready. Some premises are not prepared to do even that but ramps are not expensive and it is something that we should all be able to expect. Therefore, I totally support the Bill.
I support other measures, such as disabled loos. However, disabled people are never asked what should be in these loos. All disabled people are considered to need one kind of loo, but disabled people have differing needs and different people with at least two or three different disabilities should be asked whether disabled loos work for them. That is not done.
Another problem is that a hotel room for disabled people may contain a double bed. I can tell noble Lords from personal experience that it is almost impossible to sleep with a disabled man. I do not know how the noble Lord’s wife manages but I certainly cannot manage with my husband. It is very awkward for both of you, because my husband needs to be moved around or he moves around. It is so silly that people do not take into account disabled people’s actual needs. They say, “This room is suitable for disabled people”, but there is no room to get round the double bed in a wheelchair, for example. I do not know when we will start to think properly about the needs of the disabled, but any such start on that would be welcome.
My Lords, I welcome my noble friend Lord Blencathra’s Bill to amend the Equality Act and his eloquent explanation of why it is necessary. Access for those with disabilities, principally but not only those in wheelchairs, is not just nice to have, it is essential if the Equality Act is to mean anything today. People offering services of any kind or running a public building should make adaptations wherever possible, as their responsibilities under the Act are clear. However, the policing of adaptations is often poor.
My noble friend is too kind. I do not want just six inches; I think that 12 inches is an absolute minimum because technology has changed. It is possible to buy properly constructed sturdy ramps in a range of sizes for permanent installation or, where that is impossible, portable ramps for staff to bring out. I cannot access a large number of shops. Therefore, there are a large number of shops where I will not spend my money. Others have spoken of restaurants. I despair of some restaurants, especially those where staff think that they are accessible until you turn up and the penny drops.
However, I do not want to be entirely negative. There are some very good examples of small shops in listed areas. One example is Bravissimo in Covent Garden. No permanent ramp is possible because the shop is right on the corner of Covent Garden, with a tiny pavement in front of it. What is really noticeable about Bravissimo is that all its staff are well trained in helping women with disabilities, and it shows. That extends beyond having the obvious accessible bell and responding to it, putting the ramp down and not serving one behind a high till, which too many shops just forget about, to include help with selecting items to try on, taking them down from higher hangers and to fitting too. You know that this is an organisation that really cares, and that is why they get my business. Sadly, that contrasts with the poor examples—organisations that do not provide or highlight their arrangements. How often have people in wheelchairs turned up to discover that there is no bell and no sign to the disabled access around the back.
Earlier this month, I booked into a small hotel in Ebury Street. After checking that it was accessible when the room was booked, I rang again on the day to let the hotel know that I would be arriving very late and to check that the night porter would have access to the ramp. I was assured that he would and that the hotel was fully accessible and had a proper disabled bedroom and wet room. It sounded good. I arrived in the taxi, which sped off. As the night porter came out, it was immediately apparent that the step, which was probably just under 12 inches high, was completely unsuitable. The ramp that arrived was for a sack barrow—far too steep. The staff kept insisting to me that the ramp was fine but two of them could not push the chair up the ramp, which I had said they would not be able to, and after 15 minutes they abandoned this. I was kept on the pavement in the cold at 1.30 am for 45 minutes while they tried to find a better ramp from another hotel, could not do so, and then tried to find me another hotel. To say I was unimpressed was an understatement.
The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, referred to disabled rooms in hotels. Premier Inns has a special line in disabled rooms. I have been offered accessible rooms previously and the bedrooms are fine. The rails around the toilet are fine. The shower over the bath is less impressive. When I mentioned this to one receptionist on the morning I was checking out, she said, “We provided a little platform at the end of the bath to help you slip in”. When I asked, “How do I get out?”, she looked rather perplexed.
For grade 1 listed buildings, not small just businesses, the poor examples are legion. A particular bugbear of mine is the glamorous London Marriott County Hall Hotel. I am afraid that I have no compunction in naming and shaming the wrong ones. The main entrance is a sweep of wonderful steps. The hotel always uses the excuse of being listed not to vary the front. I shall come on later to those hotels that do. I have been invited to dinner there on a couple of occasions, and the contortions to get in are Byzantine. You have to travel down the street on your own, wait outside the security entrance of the next organisation in County Hall and wait for the security guard to come from his tour of the building. Last December, it took well over half an hour on a very cold evening, making me late for the dinner I had been invited to. When he arrived, the stair lift up the steps was excellent. What was less good was the unlocking of a series of sets of doors between the hotel and other organisations in County Hall, one of which was encircled by the most enormous chains I have seen in a while. It began to feel like something out of Dracula, with chains and dark, poorly lit service corridors. By the time I finally arrived at the dinner, I felt extremely unwelcome. The organisation I was with will not use that hotel again. I wonder whether the hotel knows how damaging this is, not just to its reputation but to its bottom line.
There are ways of making adaptations even in these listed buildings. I excuse small enterprises from this but anyone who has seen the arrangements at the front door of the Institution of Civil Engineers in Great George Street, opposite the Treasury, knows that it can be done elegantly and practically. It can be viewed on YouTube, but for those that do not know, the white stone steps are divided by a balustrade. Half the steps elegantly retract underneath the building and a stair lift emerges from the cavity underneath. You are made to feel really welcome, whether you are in a wheelchair or find the steps too difficult if using a walking stick. Contrast that with two other buildings in its vicinity. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers on Birdcage Walk is, frankly, an insult to use. A scissor lift behind a steel door on the pavement takes you down to a door into a meeting room that is let out. I have been escorted through other people’s meetings. They have to get up and move themselves and their chairs away so that I can get through to use the accessible lift. Then there is 8-10 Great George Street, where the Liberal Democrats have their headquarters. The landlords provide access through a car lift into the basement behind the building, with two sets of industrial gates to get through on the ground floor and the basement. There is then a very narrow doorway access to the lift and security to get through before I even get to my party’s headquarters.
Technically, both those buildings comply with adaptations under the Equality Act, but they are not disabled friendly and they say a very large amount about the landlords’ attitudes towards people with disabilities. I have even been told, at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, to wait, as the maintenance man was not free to take me down—just like a parcel.
The issue of inappropriate ramps is not just for fixed buildings. There is a real problem with taxi drivers who claim to drive accessible taxis, with the blue wheelchair sign in their windows. I need to make it clear that London, Glasgow and some other large cities that insist all Hackneys have a single ramp are not the problem; it is the many smaller cities and towns where taxi driers in accessible vehicles—including, I am afraid, older black cabs—have only to produce evidence of ramps: note the plural. It is possible to purchase cheap parallel track ramps that are not suitable for people in electric wheelchairs because the ridges are incompatible with the base and shape of electric wheelchairs. They are also often too flimsy and probably would not sustain the heavy weight of an electric wheelchair, some of which weigh 85 kilograms before the owner is in it.
I travel extensively, and I now dread waiting for an accessible taxi. Too often, even when I have asked for a single ramp for a wheelchair, the one that arrives has two. Both the driver and the customer are irritated, but the dispatcher at the firm does not care. At Watford Junction station, my local, where the drivers are as regular as I am, I am afraid to say that there are a handful who do not even lower their window to tell me that they have two ramps. They know my face and they hold two fingers up to me, from which I am meant to deduce that they are a two-ramp cab, not a one-ramp cab. I appreciate the Bill’s constraints and I understand that we must be realistic about achieving change, but I would love to see a condition for the licensing of accessible taxis that the driver should have a single ramp, and that it is tested at the same time as everything else to ensure that it works.
To return to the substance of my noble friend Lord Blencathra’s Bill, I support it and understand its limited scope, but I am reluctant to accept his new idea that we can do further things with regulation. I hope we might consider some minor amendments to it to provide a level playing field for those in wheelchairs trying to live an independent life. Frankly, hotels, restaurants, shops and offices can make life an absolute misery. A few small, compulsory, not expensive adaptations will not only help those with disabilities, but increase business for the public buildings supplying them. Something that benefits the bottom line should always be encouraged. Making people independent is beyond price.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on bringing the Bill forward. It is an exact model of a Private Member’s Bill: it addresses one issue and does so in very few clauses. I also congratulate the speakers in the debate. I was listening very careful to the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and her story about County Hall. I wondered whether she was going to end up in the aquarium or something when she spoke about all the doors that she went through.
It is important that we congratulate the institutions, buildings and businesses that get this right and that we name those who get it wrong. When I visited its headquarters recently I noted that the RIBA has remodelled its front and its steps for disabled access. If the RIBA can do it, anybody should be able to do it.
I was interested when the noble Lord talked about the 2010 Act because I was one of the Equalities Ministers responsible for helping to take that legislation through your Lordships’ House. I very well remember the discussions that took place around Clause 20 and the negotiation that took place across the House about how tight or otherwise it should be. At the time, the noble Lord, Lord Low, tried to make amendments to the Bill which were not dissimilar to this amendment. However, because negotiations were going on and it was at the end of a Parliament, I am afraid that not all the parties in the House could agree to them. However, at that time everybody knew and accepted that the Act would need to be addressed from time to time to see how it worked or did not work and what adjustments might need to be made. It is entirely sensible that we are reaching that point.
I apologise to the noble Lord for not going on his trip to Strutton Ground yesterday. As I said in my note to him, it was one of those days when I could not manage to get out of the House to do something as interesting as that.
I grew up with somebody in a wheelchair. My grandfather had been blown up in the Second World War and was a paraplegic. He died when I was about 20. My parents got married in 1952 and, as the noble Lord will know, wheelchairs then were very large and extremely heavy. My parents told me that he had to be carried in his wheelchair up two flights of stairs to attend their wedding. There was absolutely no way that the register office in Dewsbury would have any access whatever for someone in a wheelchair.
My mother was in a wheelchair for a lot of the last year or so of her life. Although she was slightly mobile, she needed a wheelchair when we went out. As the noble Lord will know, in Yorkshire we have a lot of hills. Her favourite garden centre had disabled access, and it was very good and very accessible, except that the car park was on a steep slope. Getting her out of the car, into the wheelchair and into the garden centre without her rolling down the hill to Haworth was quite a challenge. Therefore, I am absolutely familiar and completely in sympathy with the noble Lord’s wishes and with the Bill. I am very pleased to hear that he seems to have anticipated some of the issues that might arise from the issue of six inches and 12 inches.
I think that this is a good time to ask questions of the Government about the enforcement of Section 20. As the noble Lord clearly did, I looked at what was being said by the EHRC about disabled access and adjustments for disabled people. Because my research was done yesterday, on the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s website I found briefing dated 11 November about the adjustments for disabled people. It basically reiterates what is in the Bill, which is that Section 20 is anticipatory. In other words, it anticipates that adjustments should be made whether they are asked for or not. That is rather important, and I remember the debates about that. The briefing says that an organisation should not wait,
“until a disabled person wants to use its services, but must think in advance (and on an ongoing basis) about what disabled people with a range of impairments might reasonably need, such as people who have a visual impairment, a hearing impairment, a mobility impairment or a learning disability”.
The question of what is reasonable has now changed. The noble Lord is suggesting that it is reasonable that businesses should take steps to make these adjustments, and I think that that is entirely right.
I shall not prolong the debate, because other speakers have made the case much better than I can, having spoken from their personal experience. I wish the Bill well and look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I, too, take the opportunity to congratulate my noble friend Lord Blencathra on succeeding in getting his Bill read a second time in this House. It has given the House an opportunity to consider a very important legislative protection provided to disabled people in the Equality Act 2010.
My noble friend’s Bill seeks to amend the wording of the duty set out in Section 20 of the Act, which imposes a requirement on specified people to make reasonable adjustments for those with a disability. This ensures that those who meet the Act’s definition of a disabled person are not put at a disadvantage compared with those who are not disabled.
The Bill would require service providers and others to provide ramps for wheelchair users where there is a single step at the entrance of their building. Initially, this would apply to steps of less than six inches in height, with a longer period to allow compliance where the step is between six and 12 inches. Under the Bill, this would be a legal requirement irrespective of the physical location of the building.
I have a good deal of sympathy for my noble friend and the frustration that he feels in being unable to enter some shops and other premises. Like the noble Baroness opposite, I myself experience the same feelings when caring for my mother. She is a wheelchair user. I have to push her around on Cornish granite cobbles. The two of us—her in the wheelchair and me pushing—frequently encounter the same sort of obstacles and difficulties that my noble friend has vividly described, and of the sort that he pointed out to me when we made our tour of Strutton Ground in Westminster yesterday.
The reasonable duty is a cornerstone of the protection offered to disabled people under the Equality Act 2010. It has a wide application—in the fields of employment, service provision and the exercise of public functions—and it applies to both the public and private sectors. The adjustment duty as it applies to the provision of goods, facilities and services is anticipatory, as we have already said. The rationale for that is that while a service provider’s relationship with a customer is often transitory, it is reasonable for the service provider to “anticipate” particular adjustments, which will prevent a disabled person from being put at a substantial disadvantage in comparison to a non-disabled person. The question of whether there has been a failure to comply with the duty therefore hinges on what is reasonable.
My noble friend and I did indeed see a number of premises yesterday where reasonable adjustments had been made simply and cheaply, as well as others where they could have been made but had not been; and yet others where they would not have been feasible, at least within any proportionate cost.
I entirely accept that the use of the adjective “reasonable” in the legislation recognises the need to strike a fair balance between the needs of disabled people and the interests of service providers. The Act therefore requires a service provider only to make adjustments that are reasonable in all the circumstances of particular situations. For example, if the cost of making the adjustment would put the service provider out of business, that clearly would not be reasonable.
I should also explain that building regulations control certain types of building work, principally the erection, extension and demolition of buildings and the provision or extension of certain services or fittings, so as to ensure that buildings meet certain standards of health, safety, welfare, convenience and sustainability. For buildings in England and Wales, Part M of the Building Regulations 2010 includes a requirement to ensure that reasonable provision is made for wheelchair users to gain access to buildings, including premises used as shops.
This is where we begin to encounter difficulties with the proposal for the automatic installation of ramps in my noble friend’s Bill. Clearly, for some existing premises giving out directly on to the street, there would be significant difficulties in finding even a fairly small area to construct a ramp. For some, it might create a potential hazard for pedestrians. Yesterday, we looked at the issue of dropped kerbs where there are bobbles in the pavement. The dropped kerbs are for disabled users and the bobbles are for blind people to know when they are approaching a road. Sometimes one part of the disabled community can be served and not the other, so there is a balance. Also, some buildings open directly on to a highway that belongs to a third party, and in such circumstances it would be impossible to provide a wheelchair access ramp without cutting back into the building’s entrance floor. In some cases that could be quite an expensive operation.
The existing provisions in the Act are deliberately worded so as not to specify what an individual with obligations under the Act should do. This wording allows for greater scope in considering how best to solve the particular problem being experienced by the disabled person. We have had examples of where workarounds could not possibly fit under the “best fit” description. Specifying the remedy to a particular problem in the Act will inevitably result in proposals to have other specific remedies spelt out in it or in future technical guidance. In practice, this could risk the Act becoming a series of technical specifications which might actually be easier for employers and service providers to circumvent than the “reasonable adjustment” duty. Under the Bill, many service providers are likely to assume that building a ramp of the sort proposed will now constitute fulfilment of the duty—end of; nothing further would be required. This would result in provisions that might well suit some disabled people but not others, so I hope that noble Lords will agree that rather than changing the law, it might be helpful if we consider ways of trying to make effective use of the existing law with the duty—it is quite a powerful one—that we currently have.
Ultimately, there is the option of bringing a case against a service provider if all else fails, although I fully acknowledge that this always has to be the last resort and that many disabled people may be deterred by the effort and cost. Yet Allen v RBS, Paulley v First Group plc and some cases involving other types of disability show that it can be done. It is against this background that the Government have doubts about the need for and, indeed, the feasibility of the noble Lord’s Bill. Even if some noble Lords may not accept that the current arrangements are ideal, I hope that they recognise that the physical location of some buildings would make it impossible for businesses to build ramp access, and indeed we did see a few like that yesterday. As such, this Bill would impose a duty that is impossible to comply with.
Let me assure noble Lords that the Government have a continued commitment to disabled people, and more specifically to our belief that every disabled person has the right to have an adjustment made for them if it is reasonable. What is in contention here is the best way of achieving that aim. The Government believe that the current system is both fair and balanced, and works in the main satisfactorily for disabled people, businesses and employers.
Forgive me, but I cannot agree that the law works in a fair way. It really does not. There are so many places where things could be done quite easily, but they are not done, and if you complain, they still do not do it. Can the Minister tell us how to get these things done?
The noble Baroness makes a fair and very good point. My noble friend mentioned the Access Association. It may be that noble Lords need to work with such organisations. However, I take the point that taking someone to court is a bit excessive, although a certain amount of naming and shaming would do no harm. I would not mind betting that the PR organisations that deal with some of the organisations which have been named today will pick stuff up in Hansard tomorrow. Actually, that will be no bad thing.
Legislation does not stay the same for ever, and indeed changes were made from the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to the Equality Act 2010. Like other recent statutes, the Equality Act will in turn be subject to post-legislative review. In this case it will cover the period 2010 to 2015; that is, the first five working years of the Act. Under the normal rules, we can expect the next Administration to publish, as the outcome of the review, a memorandum for the relevant Select Committee, which itself may choose to take forward aspects of the review or indeed its own conclusions on whether and how the legislation has worked relative to the stated aims of the Act. I realise that this does not offer any immediate solution to my noble friend’s concerns, but hope it will reassure him that the Government, and indeed Parliament, remain mindful of the sort of problem he has raised.
The Box has just given me an answer to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, about what action a disabled person can take if appropriate adjustments are not made. They should first approach the service provider to discuss why they feel they cannot access the service or function in question, and discuss what adjustments they require. If, following discussion, the service provider fails or refuses to make a reasonable adjustment, the disabled person could take their custom elsewhere; alternatively, they might decide to bring a case of alleged disability discrimination before the civil courts. I can see from the noble Baroness’s face that that does not satisfy her.
For the present, however, the Government are unable to support my noble friend’s Bill for the reasons that I have set out to the House.
My Lords, this has been a short but interesting debate. I will come to the Minister’s response at the end of my remarks but I am slightly disappointed. I am grateful to noble friends and noble Baronesses on all sides of the House for their support.
My noble friend Lady Thomas of Winchester confirmed that progress has ground to a halt after the initial flurry after the 2010 Act. I agree with her that listed buildings should not be an excuse to do nothing, because there are many listed buildings that it is possible to sympathetically alter to grant disabled access. I will happily meet the Access Association. I will let my noble friend set that meeting up and we will see how we can take this forward.
I am also grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, for her kind intervention. She made the point that in order to help her husband to get out on to the patio, a little wooden ramp was made—just a piece of wood, two inches high at one end and planed to nothing at the other; that is all that takes for electric or non-electric wheelchairs to do it without a terrible jolt.
I will also add EAT to my boycott list of places I will not go into if they cannot be bothered to provide access. I must say to the noble Baroness—I call her my noble friend—that I am used to going through the basement in some places, particularly in the Foreign Office, which I used to attend regularly until recently. I would be taken through the basement, until they installed a little lift. Actually, going through the basement is still faster than trying to use the disabled lift. On one occasion when the rest of the lifts were not working, I had to use the garbage lift at the Foreign Office to get to a ministerial meeting.
I do not want to get too far into issues that do not relate to the Bill, but I suggest that whoever designed the new disabled loo round by the Speaker’s quarters should actually have talked to a few people in wheelchairs before designing it. Some parts of it may be convenient but the washbasin is in one corner, the soap dispenser is three feet away and the towels are another six feet away—someone needed to have given that a bit of extra thought.
I cannot comment in detail on sleeping arrangements. I almost thought that was an offer from the noble Baroness. But she is absolutely right. One of the problems that some of us with MS and many other disabilities face is restless legs and, if they kick and thrash around all night, certain ladies do complain, so I sympathise with that point.
I agree entirely with my noble friend Lady Brinton. I was trying to make a modest measure that I hoped the Government would not oppose because I was trying to impose a burden only on buildings with steps of less than six inches, but it should be 12 inches. It is not too difficult to do that. My noble friend the Minister made the point that, when shops have a doorstep right on the pavement, it is difficult and dangerous to put a permanent ramp there because others would trip over it; there is not the space to do it. But there are temporary ramps they can use or ramps that they can instantly rush out with and assist, if they have given it some thought. I agree with her entirely about the Marriott County Hall Hotel. The last time I was there, I went by the same circuitous route but I ended up going through the aquarium.
I also pay tribute to 1 Great George Street, which is the Institution of Civil Engineers. I go in there occasionally just to use the ramp and the lift, because I attended a meeting a couple of years ago—I think it was of the Royal Society in Carlton House Terrace—where there were no proper ramps. To get in there, there was a ramp of about 45 degrees, and I said, “That just cannot be done”. I know that these things are supposed to have a maximum incline of 7 degrees, which is a bit over the top; I can do about 30 degrees, but 45 degrees there was impossible. I came next day to a meeting in Great George Street. There was a button to push and a chap came out, and I said, “How do I get in here?”. I was really annoyed. “Oh”, he said, “no problem. Just you watch this, sir”. He pushed the button and all the steps receded into the wall. A lift materialised from the ground and up we went to the first level. At that level, all the marble steps disappeared into the wall, and up we went again—I must admit that I played with it on a few occasions, up and down.
No doubt that cost a lot, but that was in a listed building and they have shown how it can be done. I agree about some of the other buildings in Great George Street, apparently used by engineers. It is a disgrace when they open a rusty old door and you are taken through the basement. I have been through that route, too.
I totally agree with my noble friend that innovative technology is out there. I was asked to lunch at the Garrick Club last year—it was the first time that I had ever been asked to lunch there; I will probably be asked again to go back and apologise. It has a staircase of about 20 steps up. They came with a most amazing contraption—a rubber, crawler tractor thing. One parked one’s chair on it, tilted backwards and then this crawler thing went up the steps. It was absolutely scary to use the first time. But that was a solution. It was an expensive, £12,000 solution—I checked out the cost—but we are talking in this modest little Bill of measures of £10 or more, up to about £100 to replace the steps.
Without going into detail on taxis, which are not covered by the Bill, I say to my noble friend Lady Brinton that she is absolutely right. I have now learnt the hard way when I have wanted to flag down a cab. The older London cabs have a proper, fold-out ramp. The super-duper new Mercedes Vito cabs, which have wonderful space inside, one cannot get into, because they have two skids with side lips about two inches high and our clearance on these things is about 1.5 inches; we just cannot get into them. Other cities are not as good as London.
I pay tribute to the vast majority of London taxi drivers who pick us up. Only a tiny minority suddenly go blind when they see a wheelchair. My worst ever morning was when there were three cabs in a row. One decided to look out the other window; one switched off his light and zoomed off; and the third one gave me a finger—one finger on this occasion. They were followed by another cabbie who did an illegal U-turn, came screaming up beside me and said that he would not charge me for the journey; he was appalled by what his colleagues had done.
Finally on taxis, I carry a screwdriver in my chariot here—I am sure that I am able to use a visual aid—because so many cabbies cannot open the screw to get the disabled ramp out. Those who can often find that it is rusted solid, so I must carry some WD-40 as well.
I am grateful to the spokesperson for the Opposition, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, for her support for the Bill. From her background with her grandfather, she knows what it is like. I am grateful also to my noble friend the Minister for coming with me yesterday to look at the problem on the ground. She highlighted today that the key word is “reasonable”. Of course, one is not asking people to make “unreasonable” adjustments, but I simply say to my noble friend that I am not going to go around the 40 shops in Horseferry Road and so on, speak to individual shopkeepers and ask them to please put in a ramp for me and, if they refuse, then write to them and take court action against them. I expect someone else to be enforcing that rule. If the Government cannot accept the concept of my Bill, or even a future regulation, which may be far better, they—or someone—must do more on enforcement.
Finally, I accept that an automatic requirement to stick a ramp on every little shop, which could protrude into the pavement, could be dangerous. That may not be the best solution. Therefore, I hope that the Government will consider a regulation, which could have dozens of exemptions and opt-outs, to deal with the simple problem of shops that could easily install a ramp and the more difficult problem of shops which are right on the pavement, where a permanent ramp may be improper but some other facility could be installed. My Bill may be too blunt or too basic, but we need a solution either in better legislation than mine or in a regulation that would permit all the flexible solutions that we need. At the moment, we cannot get into shops. I am sorry about that. I therefore move that my Bill be given a Second Reading.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
House adjourned at 1.40 pm.