Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I tabled this Question in October, having been thoroughly frustrated in booking various hotels away from London over the past year that did not have adequate facilities for a disabled person such as me. Other disabled people tell me the same story. It is not just hotels for holidays, but hotels for work assignments and weekend conferences, which are not necessarily in holiday locations.
In 2010 the campaigning group of young disabled people, Trailblazers, published a report, All Inclusive?, which investigated their members’ experiences of travel, both here and abroad. It found that one-third of young disabled people said that the accessibility of bathrooms was the biggest challenge for them, and six out of 10 said that most hotels were inaccessible and did not cater to their requirements. On the whole, I absolve the big hotel chains, which mostly take facilities for disabled people seriously. No, the hotels I am talking about are the ordinary, smaller ones up and down the country that do not have a familiar name attached.
At the outset, I must make it plain that I understand that there are many different disabilities, but that I shall focus on the one I know best—that is, people with mobility problems. I hope that other speakers may address problems with other disabilities.
I am sure all of us speaking this evening will have our own tales of woe. I recently stayed in an upmarket hotel in Cambridge, which I was assured had disabled facilities. It had—almost—but the lavatory had a swing-down arm with no corresponding rail on the other side, making it unusable by me and anyone who has to lever themselves up. It had a handle high up on the opposite wall instead. The remedy—to put a rail on the other side of the swing-down rail at the same height—would have cost a few pounds. Yes, I reported it to the hotel staff, but it probably has not been changed. Could I have reported it to someone more senior? Yes, almost certainly, because I suppose that the hotel was technically breaking the law in not complying with Part M of the building regulations. In fact, I have to take my own facilities round with me in my car, which is why I cannot go to places by public transport.
I hope that the DWP is listening to this part of my speech, because it is why I am so passionate about trying to change the very unfair “moving about” descriptor in the personal independence payment assessment, which may render thousands of those with Motability cars ineligible for them when the bulk of the reassessments are done from October. But that is a debate for another day.
The first thing one needs is to be able to get into the hotel. Luckily, many hotels have some kind of side or back entrance that can be used if there are steps in front, but others rely on ramps for one, two or even three steps. Some ramps are fine, but many hotels do not realise that they cannot be too steep and they must be strong and reliable, otherwise they are dangerous. Once inside, if there is no bedroom on the ground floor, there must be a lift. Last year I was solemnly told by one hotel that yes, they had a disabled bedroom but it was on the first floor. Had they got a lift? No.
Once in the bedroom—through a door wide enough for a wheelchair—the next thing many disabled people need is a bathroom that is a wet shower room with no steps, even if it is in quite a small space. Showers over the bath are no good, and a lavatory with a fashionably low pedestal is no good to many of us, even with a drop-down rail. Again, it may not comply with Part M of the building regulations.
So what is Part M? Accessibility requirements for disabled people are clearly set out in this part of the building regulations and British Standard BS8300, including heights, widths, levels and manoeuvring spaces. While the Disability Discrimination Act and now the Equality Act require reasonable adjustments to be made, the basic level of access provision in Part M for hotels is: level or only slightly sloped surfaces; readily available contact with reception, including from outside; a lower counter provision with a seat at reception; reasonably wide doors; accessible toilets suitable for wheelchair users for restaurant, bar and function room users; and 5% of wheelchair-accessible bedrooms with wheelchair-accessible en suites. These basic facilities have been required since April 2004, but there is no doubt that thousands of hotels around the country are not meeting this basic level. What is being done to enforce the duty to make reasonable adjustments, as set out in the Equality Act? In other words, who checks to see that Part M and BS8300 are being met? Why are so many hotels allowed not to have these facilities?
I gather that even new buildings do not always pass through the building control system properly. New buildings should get building regulation approval when the number of accessible bedrooms, and their accessibility, have to be approved. But many local authorities do not have an access officer who advises building inspectors, especially these days when money is so tight, and the alternative approved inspectors do not necessarily follow the guidelines. What is the industry doing about this parlous state of affairs?
VisitEngland, which took over from the English Tourism Council, is at least trying—but I would like it to try harder. It acknowledges that the overnight accessible tourism market is now worth £3 billion to the economy in England. This figure may include those disabled people who have to stay in hotels for their employment, and I wonder whether this is part of the problem. In other words, this is not just a tourism problem within the budget of the DCMS but one also for the Office for Disability Issues, which comes under the DWP. I hope that they talk to each other about the whole question of accessibility.
The ODI has an excellent Accessible Britain campaign but I wonder whether it is well enough known and whether there are links to it on the main tourist websites. VisitEngland would like hotels to produce an access statement, but only its star-rated accommodation is required to complete it. It also manages a voluntary national accessibility scheme. I would like VisitEngland, or someone, to be much tougher on those hotels which are not part of any scheme, particularly as it says that overnight trips by disabled travellers and their companions have increased by 19%, with spend up by 33%, over the past four years. This should show all hoteliers the potential of making their hotels fully accessible, with the population getting older and more disabled. Many visitors from abroad will expect good facilities for disabled people.
DisabledGo is another excellent organisation which publishes useful access guides to hotels but cannot do anything about hotels that do not make reasonable adjustments. It stresses in particular the need for all hotels to train their staff appropriately to give a good welcome and proper information to disabled travellers.
One particularly British problem is that many hoteliers will plead listed-building status as a good reason for not even trying to alter their facilities. But Martin Affleck, an architect and well respected access adviser, says:
“In my experience, too often historic gradings are used as an excuse not to consider anything. Access consultants and architects can apply the standards to existing premises and, if there is an issue with their historic fabric, can often find solutions and alternatives that will be acceptable to English Heritage and local planning officers”.
Here I make a plea to English Heritage. I ask it to please give hoteliers every help it can in making reasonable adjustments to listed buildings for disabled facilities. After all—dare I say?—people are more important than buildings. Perhaps my noble friend could tell me if VAT applies to alterations to listed buildings if they improve facilities for disabled people. If it does, perhaps the Treasury should be persuaded to change this rule.
Finally, one of the most shocking things that I have heard from those who talk to hotel managers is that they do not want any of their rooms to look “medicalised” because it puts non-disabled people off. One Member of your Lordships’ House has had that said to him, so he has generously agreed to support a design competition, in my name and with charitable funds, which aims to improve the definitely non-medicalised design of hotel rooms for disabled visitors, working with the hotel industry in the UK. I look forward to the rest of the debate and the to Minister’s response.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, on securing this debate, which has come at a most opportune time. Today, the House has returned after a short break and I am sure that I am not alone in having had a few days away. It was a break which I arranged without any problems or difficulties whatever. However, that is not the case for many handicapped people or those with learning difficulties. A simple thing such as booking a holiday can become a nightmarish experience. Why is that? It is because so many of our holiday destinations and tourist attractions are unfriendly and unwelcoming to people with a handicap or a learning disability. Only today, I was reminded of a case last November when two friends—one autistic and the other deaf—tried to book a weekend break in a seaside bed and breakfast but were turned away. They were told that their disabilities would disturb the sophisticated clientele.
However, there is much more. In the excellent Library paper provided for this debate, we see that two-thirds of Britain’s top 100 tourist attractions are not fully accessible to those with a handicap and using a wheelchair. This means that we are treating 11 million disabled fellow citizens as second class. They may not enjoy something that we all take for granted. The Library paper tells us that this group has a spending power of £80 billion, so by failing to meet their needs, many businesses are losing the opportunity of securing this income.
Hotels and businesses should look at providing facilities for disabled people and those with learning difficulties as an investment, and not as a burdensome cost. The National Autistic Society, of which I am a vice-president, has produced a useful pamphlet on autism-friendly facilities. This is a valuable resource for families and individuals with autism. However, what is noticeably absent from the list is the large hotel chains. The families of those with autism should not have their holiday choices limited by the fact that too few hotels are prepared to accommodate them. We need to encourage all hotels to have their staff trained in dealing with people with autism and to advertise that fact on their websites. Some of the changes that may need to be made could be simple, such as having a quiet room made available, or sensitivity training for their staff. These changes will not only improve the lives and experiences of disabled people and those with autism but will expand the clientele of these businesses—which I am sure they must be looking for.
As the hospitality industry continues to expand, valuable work opportunities are created for disabled people, and those with learning difficulties and autism in particular. By employing disabled and autistic people in our hotels and tourist attractions, we not only provide work opportunity but can move towards creating a more comfortable environment and a fairer society. These disabled employees would have a unique sensitivity to the needs of those requiring accommodation and would put disabled and autistic guests at ease when they are approaching a new and perhaps unknown environment.
One glimmer of hope, and an excellent example, comes from the InterContinental Hotels Group. I recently had a conversation with Mr Ross Cowie who had been its work-based learning manager. He told me that just over a year ago, the company, working with Riverside employment and Stoke-on-Trent City Council, introduced a training scheme for disabled people and those with learning difficulties, including autism. It engaged 12 people at its Stoke hotels and offered training in a range of skills leading to NVQs, including maths and English.
Its ambition was to be able to offer full-time jobs at a later stage, and the programme gave trainees skills and enabled them to work in the hotel industry. Mr Cowie told me that the scheme had been very successful and that two trainees had already been offered jobs. More than that, full-time staff at the hotels were hugely supportive and, indeed, some asked to change their shift patterns so that they could spend time working with people who were on the scheme. Surveys of both staff and guests produced a positive response. Indeed, guests were complimentary and the company hopes to continue and increase this programme.
Programmes such as these not only give opportunities for disabled people and those with learning difficulties and autism, but ensure that the hotels involved benefit from having employees who can empathise with guests in the same situation. The project embarked upon by the InterContinental Hotels Group is not the light at the end of the tunnel—but at least schemes such as this show us where the tunnel is.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, for securing this dinner debate on access to hotels.
Disabled people are a significant proportion of the population with the same desires and the same legal rights as everyone else to travel on business or enjoy a holiday away. For many disabled people, finding hotel accommodation before the 1980s was nigh impossible. They had to rely on family and friends or strangers to help them over all the obstacles. I remember my parents hauling me and my wheelchair upstairs to the bathroom in every cottage we rented. It exhausted them. So much so that they needed another holiday without me afterwards to recover. No children’s camp was accessible so I was placed in a hospital, of all places, whenever my parents and sister ventured abroad. I was the only member of the family without a suntan.
Things only began to change in 1985 with the introduction of building regulations requiring new hotels to be accessible for disabled people. Unfortunately, the access requirements were, and remain, pretty basic, but a growing number of hotels began to accommodate disabled guests. Enforcement was minimal and, although the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 provided a framework for enforcement, it was only when the Disability Rights Commission was created in 2000 that disabled people had a means of pursuing their rights.
As a commissioner of the DRC, I saw significant changes as a result of our promotional work, putting the hotel industry in little doubt of its legal obligations. For the first time disabled people were acknowledged as customers who could no longer be ignored. Matters improved again 2004 when organisations that supply services to the public were required to make reasonable adjustments to overcome physical obstacles to their premises.
So where do we stand today? Some hotels do take access seriously—for example, the Premier Inn and Holiday Inn chains, where disabled people can reasonably expect an accessible welcome. A handful of hotels have gone further and provide electric hoists to help people transfer from bed to toilet or bath.
This initiative resulted from a campaign by a disabled woman, Sue Maynard-Campbell. She organised an overnight seminar for representatives of the InterContinental Hotels Group in London. She explained that she could not join them for dinner as she had to drive to Yorkshire and return the next morning because, “Not a single hotel in the city could meet her need of a hoist”. They were shocked into action.
It is true that most larger or modern hotels, not old ones, now offer ramped access and accessible toilets of sorts for wheelchair users. However, wheelchair users make up just 4% of disabled people. Those with sensory impairments, learning disabilities or mental health conditions may also require modifications, often at low or no cost. A considerate attitude, for example, costs nothing.
Unlike the DRC, which allocated significant resources to helping the hospitality industry improve access, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has limited funds and competing priorities. Recent reforms to the judicial system and cuts to legal aid make it more difficult to challenge lack of provision. Disabled people now rarely assert their rights through the judicial system. The cost and complexity of taking a case to court and the low level of damages available are serious deterrents. Hence, little changes.
The EHRC conducted some non-enforcement work on leisure industry discrimination last year, including an information-gathering exercise into website accessibility, accessible rooms and bathrooms and guests accompanied by assistance dogs. I understand the response was positive and many hotels said they were planning changes. Sadly, the EHRC decided to pursue other priorities in its forthcoming business plan, which will undoubtedly affect the speed of change.
The loss of recent impetus in creating a fully accessible hospitality industry was highlighted last August in research published by the Department for Work and Pensions. Evidence revealed that it was easier to arrange holidays for disabled people overseas than in Britain. Thousands of customers were being turned away from hotels and self-catering accommodation because there were not enough accessible rooms to meet demand.
My own experience bears this out. Last week I tried to find wheelchair accessible accommodation in north Devon, on the coast, to go away with my friend who dared to also be in a wheelchair. There was only one option in the entire county and none by the sea. Rarely will you see any cottage that offers more than one wheelchair-accessible room. So you are really stuffed if your husband is also a wheelchair user.
Mark Harper, the Minister for Disabled People, said the research shows that,
“improving the accessibility of hotels and self-catering apartments and tourist attractions for disabled travellers is a no-brainer”.
Will the Minister tell us what measures the Government are taking to remedy the situation? It is not sufficient that the Government simply conduct research which confirms what we already know. Can the Minister also inform us whether the department is now monitoring the hospitality industry to identify the reasons for its failure to comply with the clear provisions of the Equality Act? Does the Minister agree that there has been a significant slowdown in the industry’s awareness of what needs to be done to achieve inclusive hospitality? If so, can she inform us what the Government’s strategy is to resolve this?
Disabled people have been repeatedly told by this Government that they must work harder to become part of the British workforce. However, to do so, many of us need to use hotels for meetings and overnight stays, and in order to work hard we also need to rest and play. Work, rest and play are vital to one’s well-being. I hope today’s debate will help to tackle this critical issue.
My Lords, this is one of those debates where you suddenly realise that whatever you were going to say about the theme would probably be said better by other people and you end up repeating certain things.
One such thing is that we have been working on this legislation for a long time. You get an idea that you are getting older when something you were in on is celebrating its 20th anniversary—in this case the initial DDA. That Act goes back 20 years and still we have not managed to get into the infrastructure of the leisure industry most of what we use. Effectively, we are talking about a failure of legislation which, generally speaking, had the support of the entire political structure. I have not heard anyone say that we should get rid of disability access rights, and yet we still have not really got in.
New-build hotels have had a degree of success but we come back to the major problem—I was told at the time that this was the only way we could do it—of reasonable adjustment. When I started looking at this issue I discovered that no one knows what reasonable adjustment really is—end of story. Small hotels do not know whether they are covered by it. What is a reasonable adjustment for two rooms in an old Victorian house? Everyone thinks it is a wheelchair. If noble Lords look, they will see four people in wheelchairs here, but with very different needs. There is no such thing as one person in a wheelchair. The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, has already pointed out that not all disabled people are in wheelchairs. The people we are dealing with just do not know what the law requires them to do.
Are local authorities doing what they should? Apparently, the answer is no. Do all disabled people know what they are required to do? The answer once again is no. The Government really should be doing more to make sure that the information on what is required is passed around, because without it we are going to get nowhere. The legal system is supposed to enforce the law, but if people do not know that there has been an infringement of the law, they cannot possibly take action. If we carry on with this muddled process, waiting for buildings to fall down before replacing them with something that provides accessibility, no one in this place will be alive by then. Indeed, our grandchildren will not be alive by the time it happens—and that is just for physical access. As has already been pointed out, behavioural policies on how to adapt to someone coming to your building is going to change.
I spoke to representatives from the Bed and Breakfast Association and the British Hospitality Association, looking at smaller hotel units. There seems to be a total lack of comprehension that people should be doing something. That can be addressed only by making sure that the Government grab people by the scruff of the neck and say, “You also have a duty. If you cannot provide wheelchair accessibility, do you have good handrails? Do you have a training programme for how to provide for someone who is autistic and does not like a bell being rung for breakfast?”. The answer is not to ring the bell, and if that is slightly inconvenient, the hotel is taking that person’s money and so it can be inconvenienced. The basic interchange on this is not happening.
All of us should be looking at ourselves and saying, “Why have we not done this?” It is probably because it is the boring bit of legislation. The fun bit is having an argument and passing a Bill; the boring bit is going back and making sure that it is being acted upon. It is clear that we have not done that. The vehicles we have put in place have not done it. I hope that the response to this debate will give us at least a start on how to make sure that people are better integrated into society. As has just been pointed out, there is a good reason for a disabled person to say, “I will not get out and find a job, and thus take on all that extra stress, if I cannot actually become a full member of society and use the pay I get”. We have a duty to make sure this happens. I could go on for longer, but I think the point is made.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, for tabling the debate this evening, mostly for very personal reasons. Travelling as I have over the years, I have spent a lot of time looking at accessibility. I have spoken previously about use of the internet and technology in helping disabled people, but even now I probably spend more time worrying about the bookings I have made than trying to find hotel rooms in the first place.
One of the problems is the interpretation of what is reasonable. In the lead-up to the debate I spoke to Tracey Proudlock, who is an access consultant. She reiterated the points about reasonable adjustment and that what people want is very variable. Some hotels she has worked for ask for one wheelchair parking space per accessible hotel room, while others do not. She mentioned the complete inconsistency in standards. This is especially the case in new-builds. Many building projects simply slip through the net because there is not enough time to monitor or people do not know what they are looking for. Her company is part of an inclusive hotels network which is looking at providing standards, and I believe that it is essential that this becomes better known. I do not think small hotels necessarily know where to get the right help. Also, some of the larger hotel groups do not do as good a job as they possibly could.
Recently I booked a ground-floor family room for my family, and when we arrived you could see the utter panic on the receptionists’ faces because they did not know where to put us. We were shoved into an accessible room where we found a single bed and a chair bed. We could not actually leave the room because the staff were trying to bring in a mattress to put on the floor for my daughter to sleep on. When I went back to reception to say that I wanted a family room, I was told that they did not realise that disabled people had families; they thought they just had carers. We were eventually moved to a perfectly adequate family room.
If one thing annoys me more than anything else, it is mirrors in hotel rooms. I have absolutely no idea why they are always set at the right height for the six foot six workman who put them up. I can understand it in a non-accessible room, but not in a room that is meant for a wheelchair user. I have also experienced oddly shaped shower seats that do not reach the water of the shower, accessible rooms that were beautiful but at the top of steps, and wet rooms that seemed to soak the entire floor. I visited a friend recently at an older London hotel. I found, not uncommonly, that I had to use the back entrance, where I had to manoeuvre down a one-in-four concrete ramp past the rubbish bins. I could not then get out of the hotel, and if it had not been for my friend’s help, I would still be there.
I accept that old buildings may be listed. My father was an architect and I grew up knowing more about Part M of the building regs than most children, but there is no excuse in new-builds. Just today, Manchester Airport has announced that it is providing more Changing Places toilets, which are super-accessible toilets. These should be provided in all hotels and public buildings. That is because it is not just about hotel rooms; it is about everything else around the visitor experience.
I am really pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, is in his place because I would like to congratulate LOCOG, the 2012 organising committee, on the work it did on this issue. Some incredible work was done which started by looking at hotel rooms but then went on to consider the built environment. Because of the 2012 Games, some tremendous work has been done on the South Bank in terms of relaying cobbles and looking at dropped kerbs which never would have been done if it had not been for the Games.
I was sent an article on research undertaken back in July 2014 by the University of Surrey, which had been commissioned by the European Commission. It found that the European tourism sector is missing out on up to €142 billion every year due to poor infrastructure, services and attitudes towards travellers with special access needs, which can be due either to age or disability. But in 2012, this group of people undertook 783 million trips, contributing €394 billion and providing 8.7 million jobs to the European economy. The UK was among the top three contributors, but if a real job was done, so much more money would be available. Disabled people go where there is accessibility. I very rarely go on holiday in Europe; I go to the United States, if I am able to, because I know that the access there is absolutely fantastic.
The European Commission identified seven recommendations, but for me the first three are the most important. First, accessibility and design should be an integrated feature of a destination’s long-term planning and investment programme. Secondly, the industry needs to improve its co-ordination efforts. Thirdly, all members of staff of a service provider need to acquire a solid knowledge base on accessibility. I have simply lost count of how many times cost has been given as a reason for not doing anything. The data show that the cost is not prohibitive and that, in virtually every case, it can be recouped by the new business that is found.
There are some really good examples. Glasgow, host of the Commonwealth Games last year, is doing a tremendous job on accessibility around the city. This year, it is hosting the International Paralympic Committee Swimming World Championships, and VisitScotland is linking hotels with taxis and restaurants, and showing real examples of good practice for long-term change. We need to tell people about this, because really good stuff is happening, but I do not think that enough is known about it. What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to highlight the work by VisitScotland but also to follow up on the recommendations of the European Union?
My Lords, first, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Thomas on securing this debate. We all so very much admire the way she works to overcome her disability and lives life to the full. I come here this evening to listen as much as to participate. My credentials are as a former Tourism Minister and a former chair of the holiday care service. I am currently chair of the All-Party Group on Tourism and of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, whose 57 members each get more than 1 million visitors a year—from Westminster Abbey to the British Museum, from Chester Zoo to Blackpool Pleasure Beach and from Historic Scotland to Titanic Belfast.
I very much support the thrust of this evening’s debate. Apart from the legal and moral reasons for providing accessible accommodation, there are obviously major commercial opportunities. The Disabled Holiday Directory, which I believe is Britain’s biggest disabled holiday company, has said it has been able to accommodate 20% of clients who want to take a holiday. There is a particular problem in London, where there is an inadequate supply of suitable accessible rooms—perhaps only half of the number really needed. There is also a subliminal assumption that people who are disabled, perhaps in a wheelchair, exist on benefits. The reality, of course, is that they have just as wide a range of financial circumstances as the general population.
I draw noble Lords’ attention to two particularly encouraging developments. First, today, Ed Vaizey, the Culture Minister, is meeting representatives from the National Trust, English Heritage, Historic Royal Palaces, the Churches Conservation Trust and others—mostly, I am glad to say, ALVA members—to discuss improving access to historic buildings. Secondly, during English tourism week, on 18 March, VisitEngland is holding a one-day conference in Blackpool called, “Unlocking the Purple Pound”, described as:
“A conference on achieving access for all in tourism venues”.
The flyer for the conference reads as follows:
“With more than 1 in 6 of your visitors likely to have an impairment and a massive 31% uplift in the number of domestic holidays taken by the 55+ age group since 2006, the business case for improving your accessibility has never been more compelling”.
The programme includes:
“Expert insights from our panel of professions … Tailored sessions for attractions and accommodation businesses … Access Statement workshop … Top tips for accessible marketing … How to become an accessibility champion at your venue”.
Finally, I make reference to the ageing population in this country. By 2025, more than one-third of us will be over 55. I personally am now over 70. There are relatively simple things that can be done to improve the visitor experience and visitor safety in hotels for everyone, not just the disabled. First, there is hotel bathrooms, for example: all floors in hotel bathrooms should be non-slip. I have had some frightening experiences with marble and similar floors when they are wet. Secondly, it is infuriating trying to find the bedside light at night on the too frequent occasions when one attempts to stumble to the toilet. We heard the example of the siting of mirrors as well. Thirdly, perhaps the major concern at my stage in life is getting into and out of many hotel baths without adequate handrails. It is too frequently a herculean experience, fraught with hazard. Indeed, on a number of occasions, I have felt that I would be spending the night in the bath—hopefully to be saved the following morning by the chambermaid.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, on securing this short debate, which, I hope, will help to make many people aware of the helpful efforts which some hotels and hotel chains make to provide disabled guests with what they need, while others do very little to improve access. I thank her for it.
I declare an interest as a paraplegic, paralysed from the chest down. I often stay in a variety of hotels. Even though the information says the hotel is accessible, with a wheelchair symbol, I check it out and question the access—whether the lift is big enough, the doors wide enough and the bed high enough, and the height of the lavatory. For some strange reason, many lavatories are far too low. At home my lavatory is placed on a three-inch cement plinth, and I have a rail and a monkey pole. Getting off a low lavatory is almost impossible for an ageing paraplegic with stiff shoulders. For many people with serious arthritis, and people with various disabilities, low lavatories are very difficult. Very often I also find that beds are too low so I travel with extenders for the beds. It is a relief when one finds that the bed is of the correct height.
One helpful thing that makes a difference is a wash-basin that is high enough and not blocked in, so one is able to get one’s legs under the basin so that one can brush teeth, wash hair and get close enough. So many times I have found this very difficult. Light switches should be the correct height when sitting in a wheelchair. The bedside light should be in reach. When in bed, it is difficult, if not impossible, if the switch is on the wall. Dressing tables should be high enough and mirrors low enough for the wheelchair user. There should be an emergency call system. There should be enough space in the room to manoeuvre. The telephones should have long enough cords so that they can be reached by the disabled person when in bed. In a holiday hotel with a balcony, this should be accessible so that the wheelchair user is independent. The helper’s room, if there is a helper, should not be too far away. Bathroom floors, as has been said, should be non-slip for people who may have walking difficulties and are at risk of slipping. There should be rails in several places for people with different disabilities. Coat-hanger rails should be low enough to reach clothes.
One of the best rooms—and bathrooms—that I stayed in was at a hotel in Portree on the Isle of Skye. There are many good examples in many places in the UK, but many could improve if they listened to disabled visitors when they made suggestions. Because of this debate, I contacted Millennium & Copthorne Hotels, which,
“aims to ensure that all employees, guests and others who use, or assist in, the provision of our services— whether they have a mobility difficulty, a visual impairment, are deaf or hard of hearing, are deaf-blind, have a speech impairment or difficulty, have a learning or mental health disability, use a wheelchair, cane, walking frame or crutches, or have any other disability—are treated equally and according to their needs. All disabled guests and staff are to use the main entrance in to the hotel”.
The Copthorne Tara Hotel in Kensington has 10 adapted rooms. The corridors on all floors are provided with short-pile carpets. All floors are provided with fire doors that are held open on automatic magnets connected to the hotel fire alarm system. There are all sorts of useful aids, including hoists, and the bedroom doors open and close electronically, allowing ample time for a disabled person to pass through. The hotel was one of the first to provide a variety of accessible rooms.
To be helpful to disabled people, the attitudes have to be understanding of various conditions and needs. There are many places throughout the UK where an excuse is given because the building may be listed. I ask the Government: is this a valid reason for denying a disabled person access?
My Lords, it is humbling and a great pleasure to be able to speak this evening. I apologise for not having my name down on the list. A glitch in an otherwise superb and well oiled machine led to me being left off and I apologise to the House for that. This debate has been humbling in many ways but, as one might have expected, it has also been conducted with great humour and passion.
Since October 2004, companies and organisations that provide services to the public are required by the Disability Discrimination Act to ensure that their services are reasonably accessible to disabled people. This was consolidated further by the Equality Act 2010. That was the first time that the law had required businesses to consider whether their buildings were accessible and it has presented a new challenge for many of them. As many noble Lords have said, focusing on the needs of disabled people can also provide an opportunity to gain from a significant consumer market. One of the briefs that I have read states that the “blue pound” is worth about £2 billion a year, so there is a clear business case for hotels and restaurants being accessible to a full range of people with disabilities. However, as we have heard this evening, that is not the case. I wonder whether the Copthorne Hotel would not regard its adaptations as being medicalised; it is clear that it regards them as something for which it can make a business case, as well as it being the right thing to do. In a way, those are the questions that we need to address.
I am sure that, like me, many noble Lords who have taken part in this debate will have looked at the EHRC’s website. The guidelines set out there are extensive. However, if I was a hotel owner, I am not sure that I would know what my legal responsibilities were as opposed to what it would be good for me to do. That is the question that I want to address to the Minister, because it is not clear what exactly hotels need to do. What are the “reasonable” adjustments—it is that weasel word—that need to be made? It is not just about physical accessibility but also about, as many noble Lords have said, the way in which a service is offered.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Thomas of Winchester for raising such an important issue. She has certainly brought the A-Team with her, because they are clearly experts in this issue. I have learnt all sorts of things that I had never thought of but which are obvious if you spend a couple of minutes thinking about them. Many points have been raised and I do not think that I will get through all of them, so I will write to noble Lords after the debate on any outstanding issues and put a letter in the Library.
There are more than 12 million disabled people in Britain, which means that they account for around a fifth of the customer base of the average UK business. Households with a disabled person have a combined income of £212 billion after housing costs, so it makes good business sense to be accessible to them. Within that, accessible tourism is hugely important. According to VisitEngland, the overnight accessible tourism market is now worth an estimated £3 billion to the English economy alone, with day visits bringing the figure up to £12.4 billion. Over the past four years, overnight trips by disabled travellers and their companions have increased by 19%, with spend up 33%, so it is clear that this is a market with great potential for tourism operators. Apart from it being the right thing to do, there is a market.
However important accessible tourism is to the economy, it is not about the money. Tourism should be welcoming to everyone, as well as disabled people and their carers. This should of course include older people and family or carers who travel with them. I understand that my noble friend wants to consider the smaller hotels and not chains—we have heard a few horror stories there—but the Equality Act 2010 requires all service providers to make anticipatory “reasonable adjustments” so that disabled people are not placed at a “substantial disadvantage” compared to non-disabled people. This means that service providers are expected to foresee the requirements of disabled people and the reasonable adjustments that may have to be made for them.
This reasonable adjustment duty could require a service provider to change the way in which things are done, such as changing a practice—for example, amending a “no dogs” policy; make changes to the built environment, such as access to a building, or alter or remove a physical feature; and provide auxiliary aids and services, of which providing information in an accessible format or an induction loop for customers with hearing aids are just two examples.
However, the legislation recognises the need to strike a balance between the needs of disabled people and the interests of service providers. Therefore, the Equality Act requires service providers to make only adjustments that are reasonable in all the particular circumstances. We should not forget that many hotel and other accommodation owners are SMEs, so factors such as the cost and practicality of making an adjustment may be taken into account in deciding what is reasonable on a case-by-case basis.
Accessible tourism is not always about spending vast amounts of money to comply with legislation. It can be as simple as providing a hearing loop, ensuring that there is adequate space in a dining room to manoeuvre a wheelchair or providing a bowl of water for an assistance dog. It is also things such as ensuring that carers and companions can have an adjoining room where possible
Nor should the fact that a building is listed mean that there can be no changes. Businesses need to discuss plans with their local conservation officer in advance of securing listed building consent, because it is clear that some changes can be made that do not impact on the architectural or historical significance of a building. Operating from a listed building and/or not being granted statutory consent to make a reasonable adjustment is not an excuse not to consider what reasonable adjustments can be made for disabled customers.
Being accessible should not mean that hotels need to look medicalised. VisitEngland’s message to businesses is, “Think beautiful, not clinical”. It has recently gathered images of visibly appealing accessible bathrooms from a leading accessible bathroom designer to share with operators to help to bust that myth. I am delighted to hear that my noble friend will be immortalised in a suitable way in hotels that crack this issue. Perhaps we will have a nice yellow plaque on the wall outside such hotels.
I acknowledge concerns raised this evening that the duty to make reasonable adjustments may not be working. However, we are not aware of any evidence to suggest that that is the case, as some disabled people have successfully won court cases against service providers who have not made reasonable adjustments for them. Where it is brought to the attention of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, it has legislative powers to investigate and, if necessary, take enforcement action against service providers who refuse and/or fail to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people.
I also know that VisitEngland does much to raise awareness of the legal obligations of accommodation providers. Its Pink Book, covering legislation for tourist accommodation, includes invaluable information on requirements under the Equality Act. Information is also available on its industry website detailing accommodation providers’ legal obligations to make reasonable adjustments.
It is estimated that the accommodation stock in England is made up of just over 32,000 serviced businesses—hotels et cetera—and 34,386 non-serviced businesses: that is, those that are self-catering. Of those, 4,500 serviced and 19,500 non-serviced businesses have opted to join the voluntary national quality assessment scheme. I understand that 427 accommodation businesses have opted to join VisitEngland’s national accessible scheme—the NAS—to develop and promote their accessibility for disabled travellers. VisitEngland is currently exploring options to expand membership of the scheme. The scheme was drawn up in close consultation with key groups, from disability organisations to architects with access experience.
What steps are the Government taking to ensure that more hotel and other accommodation providers have better facilities for disabled people? VisitEngland, the national tourist board, plays a leading role on behalf of the Government in developing accessible tourism in England. Since 2007, hotels and other tourism venues have been encouraged to promote the accessibility of their facilities and services by writing and promoting an access statement. There is an ongoing drive to increase take up among businesses. VisitEngland provides a free online tool to guide operators through a clear four-step process to produce that statement. All VisitEngland star-rated accommodation and quality-assessed attractions are required to complete an access statement. This is also the situation in Wales, while Scotland is continually looking at ways of improving support to tourism businesses in developing access standards. I will have more on Scotland in a moment.
VisitEngland also manages the national accessible scheme, which highlights accommodation businesses that have improved their accessibility. It rates the accessibility of visitor accommodation, giving disabled travellers peace of mind when booking. The NAS is a voluntary scheme designed to complement an access statement with independent assessment. The scheme currently has more than 400 members throughout England. It assesses accessibility—covering mobility, hearing and visual accessibility—and allows businesses to promote their true level of it.
VisitEngland has produced a number of guidance booklets. These include—they are a bit cheesy—Take the Lead, a guide on welcoming customers with assistance dogs, Listen Up!, with tips to meet the needs of customers with hearing loss, and Speak Up!, to help businesses market their accessibility. Noble Lords will be pleased to know that on 18 March, VisitEngland will hold its first “access for all” tourism conference as part of English Tourism Week to upskill tourism operators in this important area. Hotel and other tourism operators can attend for free. Perhaps we should be sending a delegation from the House of Lords.
However, this debate is about what is happening across the whole of the UK. The devolved Administrations are also doing plenty to ensure that our hotels, and the tourism business as a whole, are welcoming and provide the same experience to everyone. As the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, highlighted, in Scotland the staging of the 2014 Commonwealth Games showed just how possible it was to persuade most of the hotels and universities contracted for Glasgow 2014 to provide access statements. That made the Games accessible to so many more people. A free online tool is available on the corporate VisitScotland website to guide businesses through the steps of building access statements. The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, should note that VisitScotland has clearly applied many of the EU recommendations in the work that it did in Glasgow in 2014, proving that it just can be done.
In Northern Ireland, responsibility for the provision of facilities for disabled people rests with the accommodation or service provider. New builds there can access guidance and instruction from local authority building control officials for physical developments.
Noble Lords will also know that Mark Harper, Minister of State for Disabled People, launched the Accessible Britain Challenge last September. This aims for communities to become more inclusive and accessible by engaging and working with disabled people to remove barriers that get in the way of them being full and active contributors in their community. Like the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, I was delighted to read the Accessible Britain Challenge case study setting out how the InterContinental group is providing training and employment opportunities for people with learning disabilities, and demonstrating the benefits of such a diverse workforce. Clearly, it can be done.
By demonstrating that they recognise the barriers that disabled people face daily, and making the reasonable adjustments necessary where they are able to, our hotels can benefit from an important part of the community who spend more than average on a trip—because they tend to stay longer than average—and ensure that they are truly welcoming to all visitors. That will ensure that disabled people can enjoy a quality of access that the rest of us take for granted.