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House of Commons Hansard
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Equalities Legislation: Guide Dogs
05 September 2018
Volume 646

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the enforcement of equalities legislation relating to guide dogs.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. Enforcement of the laws we enact in this place matters. Without a robust and credible enforcement system, statutes risk becoming dead letters and the whole legislative process turns into a cosmetic exercise. There are practical steps we can take to support better enforcement of equalities legislation relating to guide dogs, and to improve the lives of people with disabilities.

I sought the debate because of the troubling experience of one of my constituents. The more I drilled into what he told me, the more I discovered that his experience was not isolated but symptomatic of a wider issue. My constituent, who prefers to remain nameless, is blind. In March, he tried to walk into a restaurant in Cheltenham with his guide dog, but the owner refused him entry, citing health and safety regulations. Those objections were entirely spurious. That was, prima facie, a clear breach of the Equality Act 2010.

A video of the incident was posted to the internet and carried on the GloucestershireLive website. The response was enormous, reflecting deep and proper concern about the injustice among people in my constituency and beyond. In fairness to the owner of the restaurant, I should say that the subsequent apology was suitably full and apparently sincere. It is important to note that neither I nor my constituent are calling for disproportionate retribution. In some ways, I am calling for quite the opposite: a system of process-driven enforcement, without the need for trial by social media.

My constituent’s story is not unusual. There are more than 5,000 active guide dog partnerships and approximately 2,000 assistance dogs of other varieties—dogs other than guide dogs—working in the UK. A survey of more than 1,000 assistance dog owners conducted by Guide Dogs in spring 2015 found that 75% had been refused access at some point because they had an assistance dog with them; 49%—nearly half—had been refused access in the past 12 months; and 37% had been refused access to a restaurant in the past year. Those are sobering statistics. It is hard to communicate the impact of that to the extent it deserves. People affected feel humiliated, dehumanised and rejected by society. One guide dog owner in Hove said he felt “useless and…inadequate”.

What is the law? The Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person with a disability and requires service providers to make “reasonable adjustments” to accommodate people. Taxis and minicabs are often cited as the most frequent offenders for turning guide dog owners away, but such a breach by a taxi owner is a criminal offence, so police and local authorities are better able to take action. For non-criminal breaches of the Equality Act—where someone is refused entry to a café or restaurant, for example—the options are very different, and none of them is terribly attractive.

What are those options? The gov.uk website states:

“If you find it difficult to access a local service—for example, you cannot use a local takeaway or sandwich shop because the counter is too high—you should contact the organisation and let them know. It is in their interest to make sure everyone can use their service.”

In effect, the advice is, “Tell the perpetrator.” That is one option. The second is to issue proceedings in the county court. Not everyone will want to go through the hassle, expense and rigmarole of litigation in the county court. True, there is an equality advisory service, a legal advice helpline and help from the Equality and Human Rights Commission. None the less, given all the stress that comes with it, issuing legal proceedings is a daunting step, particularly where the breach is isolated. The third option is to report the breach on social media. However, in so doing, the victim loses control and may unleash a kind of digital vigilantism that they feel is disproportionate and inappropriate. The net result is that all too often justice is not done, and the options for the injured party are not palatable and not always appropriate.

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I concur with what he says about the expense of litigation and the other options available. Is not raising awareness about the Equality Act 2010 a far better option in trying to ensure that the law is enforced?

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Raising awareness is crucial, but where efforts to raise awareness have been unsuccessful, we need a process that is proportionate, streamlined and victim centred to ensure that justice is done in a way that is not as hit-and-miss and patchy as it is now.

The other problem is that local authorities usually do not keep records. For example, in the case of an individual transgression on the door by an 18-year-old who has not been properly trained, one might understand that there are mitigating circumstances and that what is required is better training, but what if the same thing happens six months later? Surely, a record should be kept so that the excuses that were advanced first time around start to ring a little hollower.

The burden to enforce the Equality Act should pass to local authorities. They have the power to bring trading standards prosecutions for breach of copyright. If someone is selling dodgy DVDs on the Promenade in Cheltenham or perpetrating blue badge fraud, the local authority can intervene to take action, so why can it not bring proceedings for breach of the Equality Act as part of its licensing duties, thereby at least sharing the burden with the complainant? There should be a duty on local authorities to keep records of breaches so that those breaches can be put before the licensing committee when decisions are made about license grants or extensions. In that way, repeat offenders would be found out and such breaches could be taken into account when they applied for a new or extended licence.

The bottom line is that the Equality Act 2010 is a good piece of legislation, particularly in relation to disabled people, but it needs to be given more teeth if it is to fulfil its true potential.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. I am here on behalf of all my constituents, but one particular constituent, who is visually impaired, contacted me to report that discrimination against guide dog owners when they try to access businesses and services is disturbingly common, despite being against the law. A Guide Dogs report showed that three-quarters of the assistance dog owners surveyed had been turned away because of their dog. As the hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned, taxis and minicabs are the most frequent offenders for rejecting guide dog owners. In one year, 42% of assistance dog owners were refused by a taxi or minicab driver because of their dog. The discrimination and confrontation that assistance dog owners face when trying to carry out everyday activities undermines the independence that those dogs bring them, leaving them feeling more embarrassed and angry.

That evidence of the frequency of refusal of access shows that the law is still not well understood, which presents guide dog owners with significant challenges in enforcing their rights and making those rights a reality. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that taxi and minicab services and drivers should be required to undertake disability equality training as part of their registration process, so that they fully understand the rights of assistance dog owners?

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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that full intervention. I agree with everything she says. To pick up that point, which was also made by the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), training and awareness are critical, but there is a disconnect with the enforcement regime in respect of taxi drivers, where the police and local authority can intervene to bring a prosecution and a conviction can lead to a fine of up to £1,000. If the breach relates to a bricks-and-mortar premises rather than a vehicular premises, the enforcement regime is completely different. It seems to me, and indeed to those people with disabilities whom I have spoken to, that that is a distinction without a difference. It is just as humiliating and dehumanising to be refused access to a restaurant or a café, and yet it is far more difficult to seek redress. An individual who has been wronged in that way must be supported to seek redress that is proportionate and streamlined. It should not require an individual potentially having to get legal advice or issue proceedings, at considerable personal cost, or to get witness statements, an allocation to the fast-track, defences and all that sort of thing, which is a stressful and time-consuming process. The system needs to be more victim-centred and streamlined.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. I have been involved in these issues for over 20 years. Equality legislation is crystal clear that disabled people and guide dog owners cannot be discriminated against in a range of areas; unfortunately, it is also clear that since the 2012 changes about applying for an adjudication against discrimination came into force, the number of cases has dropped by 60%. I am keen to hear from the hon. Gentleman and the Minister how they think that should be addressed, so that the clear rules on discrimination, which would stop discrimination against owners of guide dogs and assistance dogs, can be properly enforced and those discriminating against them can be properly charged.

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The hon. Gentleman is right. There is a wider point here about access to justice—a point made by Lord Reed in a recent Supreme Court case in the context of employment tribunals. He said that unless there is proper access to justice, the whole process of election of MPs to pass laws risks becoming “a meaningless charade”.

There is an issue about whether people can get before courts, but my point is slightly different: should that be the only credible remedy and recourse for the wronged party? I do not think it should. The system as it relates to taxi drivers recognises the fact that it is wrong to place the entire burden on the individual. With taxi drivers, the police can get involved; they can go along and say to an individual, “Did you realise that it is a breach of the Equality Act not to allow that person into your taxi with a guide dog? I may or may not decide to press this and bring proceedings for a £1,000 fine.” However, the police and, indeed, councils do not have that discretion when it comes to bricks-and-mortar premises. That strikes me as inconsistent, and it means that the individual is faced with the dilemma of whether they want to spend a considerable amount of time, effort and stress, and head off to the county court to issues proceedings, when ultimately the remedy may be relatively modest from a financial point of view.

In my experience, individuals want to seek justice—that is to say, the breach being marked, a record being made and advice or training being given as required. Crucially, if the premises becomes a repeat offender, it must be possible to make that clear and for consequences to follow for the business’s livelihood. That is what justice is.

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I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this important debate to the House. My local council, Angus, which incorporates my local guide dog training centre at Forfar, has been brilliant in adopting a street charter to ensure that streets are not obstructed and are accessible by all; it has also exempted local guide dog owners from parking restrictions. Does he agree that not only should we be allowing easier access for people to get justice, if they have been unfairly treated, but we should promote better practice in local authorities, to ensure that advice is readily available for local shop or restaurant owners?

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I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and I commend her council for taking those enlightened steps. The problem is that geographically the approach taken is a bit hit and miss. It is patchy, so someone with disabilities might find that one year they live in a local authority that is proactive and in another year they live somewhere where the position is markedly different. I agree that better training and awareness is important, but with the carrot must come the stick. Premises that do not want to avail themselves of the guidance and teaching available must be aware that should they choose to ignore it, there could be consequences for them. Too many may take the view that it is part of the cost of doing business: they might get a bit of flak on social media, but from a commercial point of view, ultimately there will be no come back. We need to redress the balance so that there can be a proportionate comeback.

We should not be living a society where the individual who has been wronged is effectively left with the choice of opening the social media gates of hell. They may be uncomfortable with the kind of vigilante response that that could elicit. The last thing the responsible citizen who was wronged in Cheltenham wanted was someone putting a brick through the window. He did not want to see the business close down. He recognised that sometimes people fall into error. What stuck in his craw—and in mine—is that there does not seem to be a middle way where the breach can be marked in a proportionate, process-driven way.

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I apologise for not being here on time—I have visitors to the House today.

In Northern Ireland we have looked at opportunities for small businesses and start-ups to be given free training about the initiatives that are important in relation to guide dog legislation. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that should happen not just in Northern Ireland—where it happens across all councils—but across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

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Free training is an excellent idea, because it is not terribly onerous—the key tenets in the Equality Act could be summarised in about 10 minutes. If that were part of standard practice, that would be very positive, because in Equality Act matters, as in so much of public life, prevention is better than cure. The individuals I have spoken to want simply to be treated fairly and the problems not to happen in the first place. I entirely endorse that sensible call. This debate is about trying to pick up the pieces where, sadly, the message does not get through or the opportunities are not taken up.

We in the House are often encouraged—sometimes by social media or mainstream media pressure—to do something: to pass legislation, to show that we care, to show that issues are important to us. That is really only half the battle. Legislation without enforcement is a dead letter and risks bringing the legislative process into disrepute and tarnishing the reputation of this place. The good news is that there are steps that we can take to redress the balance where the Equality Act is concerned. It is within our grasp. There is an opportunity to make our society fairer and more decent for the people we should be seeking to serve—people of all abilities and disabilities.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for this important debate, Sir David, and to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), who is a tireless champion of his constituents and one of the best parliamentary speakers. Time and time again, he picks up incredibly important and relevant topics and champions them in Parliament, which genuinely makes a difference. This issue is predominantly covered by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Home Office, but it is with great pleasure that I respond as a former Minister for Disabled People and someone who has been personally active in connected issues. It is great to see such a turnout of MPs from across the House who are determined to see improvements in this area despite this being only a 30-minute debate.

My hon. Friend has been active on this issue for a number of years, and it came across in his speech that he is aware of all the challenges and opportunities. He delivered his case in a measured way. He was proactive, and he recognised that such situations, which we all want to prevent, are sometimes complex and—more often than not—unintentional, coming from a lack of awareness and understanding, and there are ways in which we can look to make improvements.

During my time as the Minister responsible for disabled people I was asked to appear on “Watchdog”—I love it. I was very excited; I was star struck. I was not allowed to see the footage, but I was told it was to do with access to venues. I then saw the footage live on air, and I was shown examples of problems with access, such as when managers in restaurants had turned the disabled toilet into an office, with shelves of books and filing cabinets in the toilet that people were expected to use. There were also examples of issues with assistance dogs. I was horrified and pledged that we needed to do more.

I organised a roundtable with representatives of the hospitality industry, and the key message was about that lack of awareness, particularly when a company has a regular turnover of employees. There were some good organisations that did training, but their staff changed over very quickly and that awareness needed to be embedded in the culture. We were able to get senior representatives from many major chains to engage, partly because if they did not turn up I was going to name them—always a good way—but I was encouraged by their willingness to do that. I was also delighted to champion the campaign by Tourism for All, “Tourism is for Everybody”, which aimed to help tourism businesses ensure a positive experience for every individual. That is vital. Not only is it completely unacceptable in 2018 for disabled people with guide and assistance dogs to be turned away from shops and restaurants—unless there is a very good reason for doing so—but it is also unlawful and makes little economic sense.

One in six people in this country have some form of disability, and their combined spending power, referred to as the “purple pound”, is estimated at £249 billion per annum. Businesses need to start waking up to that and tailor their accessibility to the needs of disabled customers, not only because that is right and a legal obligation, but to maximise the business opportunities that that will bring. It is a win-win situation.

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I entirely endorse every word the Minister says, and I have been saying such things probably for 20 years. Despite the fact that legislation has been in place for many years, I am genuinely shocked that the number of people with assistance or guide dogs who are turned away or discriminated against in restaurants or similar places has increased significantly over the past couple of years. There must be a reason for that, and I suggest it is because it is difficult for people to access legal remedies in such situations.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, which goes to the heart of some of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham. The onus should not be on the individual to have to go through complex and difficult legal channels; perhaps that should be a given and should be enforced—I will cover that point later in my speech.

It is more than 20 years since Parliament first built on the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 by introducing a duty on employers and service providers to make reasonable adjustments for employees and service users. That duty is now enshrined in the Equality Act 2010, and includes a requirement to provide or allow for auxiliary aids, including animals, for disabled people, to avoid their being put at a substantial disadvantage compared with people without disabilities. I very much recognise, however, the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham and in interventions, and we must consider this issue.

Part of the potential solution, and one suggestion that has been put forward, is that we could, in effect, replicate the enforcement that takes place in the taxi trade. Such enforcement includes criminal sanctions in which the police will get involved, and a licensing team that will take such issues into consideration. I understand why my hon. Friend would like a more hard-hitting approach, because without that we would not be having this debate. The Government are absolutely committed to reviewing access for disabled people and, if necessary, to amending regulations to improve disabled access to licensed premises, parking and housing. We are receptive to the points that have been raised today.

There have been calls for the licensing of venues and premises by local authorities to include certain conditions that relate to the satisfaction of reasonable adjustment requirements, or for repeat offenders who have refused entry to people with assistance dogs on more than one occasion to have to change their ways to renew their licence. I believe the Home Office considers that there may be some challenges to doing that, but it has committed to improving disabled people’s access to licensed premises as part of the alcohol strategy currently under review. That work will include understanding the scope of the challenges facing disabled people, and possible practical solutions. Everything that has been raised today will be fed into that, and I will ask my Home Office colleagues to meet my hon. Friend and talk through his proactive and very measured suggestions.

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On local authorities becoming more engaged and having more responsibilities, since 2010, Lewisham East has seen cuts to local government of £165 million, and we have halved the size of the council. Does the Minister agree that we need to invest in our local authorities and local government to fulfil duties such as the ones he mentions?

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I strongly suggest that the hon. Lady’s local authority talks to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) about how it has been able to share best practice proactively. We can all learn lessons from that.

Part of the work of reviewing the alcohol strategy will involve engagement with the Office for Disability Issues, bringing in its expertise and network of support from various disability charities to scope out the work and understand how best to engage formally with disabled people’s organisations and other representative groups. I am very encouraged by the Government’s move on that important issue. We also welcome the current inquiry by the Women and Equalities Committee into enforcement of the Equality Act 2010. That is timely, as it links into our commitment to improve and strengthen the enforcement of equality laws, so that businesses that deny people a service are properly investigated and rightly held to account. In conclusion, this has been a constructive, helpful, timely and measured debate, and all suggestions made will be filtered through. It is a priority for this Government to improve the situation, and I thank all hon. Members for their support in this vital area.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.