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City Centre Security Measures and Access for Disabled People

Volume 731: debated on Tuesday 25 April 2023

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Andrew Stephenson.)

I am grateful to have been granted the opportunity to have this debate. The centre of York is a special place. It is one that my community really values, with its amenities and services, its heritage and its friendships. Imagine someone being told that they are no longer allowed entrance. Why? Because they are a disabled person. Disabled not by the debilitative impairment that they have learned to live with, but “dis-abled” because the new security barriers prevent them using the blue badge access on which they depend. For some, alternatives may be found, but if their vehicle is their only means of transport and Motability alternatives do not work for them—or if it is where they store their medicines or equipment, such as a nebuliser, or it is their safe space—then being denied entry takes away their human rights and dignity.

We had these debates decades ago, resulting in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. We understand the social model of disability, which is about the barriers—in this case, literally barriers—that prevent people from living their life without detriment. People are now locked out of their city not because they have an impairment, but because of intransigence within the local authority or authoritarians within it not recognising their basic human rights. As if life was not hard enough already, that one moment in the week when they go to the bank or post office, meet a friend for a coffee, or go to church or the cinema is now forbidden. Even the St Sampson’s centre, a specialist social space for older people, is cordoned off. It is discrimination.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent opening to her speech. Does she agree that a local authority seeking to ban disabled people from being able to access the centre of York amounts, pure and simple, to direct discrimination? It is a breach of their civil and human rights, and if the local authority were to rethink this, it would lift that ban and remove the barriers so that disabled people can freely access the city within which they live.

I am really grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point so powerfully, because this is an infringement of somebody’s rights and it is discrimination.

While the UN General Assembly and special rapporteur say that human rights and security are not in conflict, but complement each other, those with a poor knowledge of human rights have set them against each other. Tonight, I want to set the scene in York and say what the Government need to do to uphold human rights while strengthening security, as Labour would.

May I commend the hon. Lady, who in her time in this House has been an assiduous and dedicated MP? I think her constituents should be very proud of her actions, and indeed of what she is doing here tonight.

Does the hon. Lady not agree that, while we have come on in leaps and bounds in improving disabled access and taking action to legislate for disabled people, there is a need for greater awareness of disability needs? She has outlined this specific case, which I believe shows discrimination and bias. I hope that the Government and the Minister, who I believe are responsive and sympathetic to what the hon. Lady is saying, will act to ensure that she gets what she needs on behalf of her constituents.

I am grateful for the hon. Member’s intervention. We should not have to be having this debate here tonight, but we are, and we are determined to see the ban reversed.

Nice and Berlin witnessed hostile vehicle terrorism in 2016 and Barcelona, Westminster and others in 2017—we will never forget—so, following discussions, the police, the counter-terrorism unit and what is now the National Protective Security Authority believed that York needed protections. The minster was the first out of the blocks, as blocks were literally put around that magnificent cathedral to prevent vehicle incursion. Discussions also suggested that some thoroughfares might present a risk and needed further mitigation. Years passed and nothing happened, so clearly urgency was not apparent. In June 2020, barriers suddenly appeared without any consultation. That was due not to terrorist threats, but to covid and the need for social distancing. No one talked to disabled people. They were locked out by section 18 of the Traffic Order Procedure (Coronavirus) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2020, which provided for a temporary ban for blue badge holders. We were then told by Green party councillors that it was because that was better for the environment, as if disabled people caused climate change and did not also want to save the planet. Then the barriers were for street cafés, to aid covid recovery, as opposed to ensuring that disabled people could spend their “purple pound” in York.

In November 2021, the Liberal Democrat-led City of York Council applied under the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 for a traffic regulation order, under which a counter-terrorism jurisdiction must

“avoid danger to persons or other traffic using the road.”

Any jurisdiction with any sense would recognise that protecting the environment, the economy, safety and blue badge holder access are not mutually exclusive things, but are complementary. If security was genuinely such an issue, what about all the other inconsistencies, such as the patchwork CCTV, with some cameras switched off, or the commercial vehicle access available when barriers are in place? Why can bollards simply be lifted out of their portals at any time, and why do bin vans sit with engines running? Why do the barriers lift at 5 pm when the streets are crowded, while at 10.30 am, when it is quiet, those barriers are down? I am not questioning the threat; I am questioning the logic.

Before a traffic regulation order is made, a council must comply with statutory requirements set out in the Local Authorities’ Traffic Orders (Procedure) (England and Wales) Regulations 1996. Those include a requirement for formal consultation and advertisement, which the council undertook in a short summer consultation period in 2021. More than 200 objections were registered. The local government and social care ombudsman responded, saying that York’s council had failed to respond to the consultation. Instead, the council argued that because 60% of disabled people had responded in support of the plans, that was sufficient to implement them. Not all respondents lived in York, and the nature of their impairment was not clear. Rather than exploring what mitigation the 40% required, the authority homogenised disabled people. Human rights law makes it clear that majority preferences cannot simply override those of minority groups. In December 2021, The Department for Transport’s best practice guide, “Inclusive Mobility”, was published, but those criteria were not met either. We must take a holistic approach to protecting people, not just through hostile vehicle mitigation, but from damaging infringement on human rights.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. As a neighbouring MP, I support every point she has put forward. She is right to raise the point about the social isolation this is causing for people with disabilities who need access to our great city and its centre. Does she agree that there is also huge discrimination against rural communities? People from those communities with blue badges who need access to the city centre cannot access it at the moment because they do not have the required public transport. A lot of small rural communities are being left behind because of this policy.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that disabled people are more likely to experience loneliness—13% more likely—and because York is both urban and rural, the people living in communities in his constituency will also experience detriment. As we look across York, we know that security risks need to be addressed, but so do people’s human rights.

We live in a troubled world. Risks present themselves every day around the globe and here at home, and we must do all we can to keep our communities safe. There is no point in saying “if only” at the inquest when we had the chance to rechart the course of history. I understand risk and I want my city to be safe for all who enter. Mitigation must be proportionate and effective. But let us be clear: disabled people are not terrorists, yet they are the ones being excluded.

Imagine a sign saying “No disabled people”. Yet that is what York has sunk to: denying dignity to the 60-plus people who every day depend on their blue badge to access the city. My plea to the Minister is that blue badge holders need his help. In York, the council is clearly out of its depth. Some places have got this right and others horribly wrong. This is a very specialist area of policy, and central Government need to provide the specialism that localities do not have.

Barricades around our ancient city are nothing new. The centre already has the world-renowned wall, which makes for an enjoyable walk for those who can access it. There are 8 million visitors a year and just over 200,000 people living in York, and 34,592 residents identified as a disabled person in the 2021 census and around 7,000 have been issued with a blue badge, granting access and parking to reach shops, services, open spaces and entertainment across our city centre and beyond.

We have a heavy responsibility to ensure safety, but also to ensure that disabled people are not denied their rights. The latter has been poorly understood. A Labour Government would ensure that every town and city is safe and secure, and reverse the ban in York. I have been talking to my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Samantha Dixon), who says that it does not have to be this way. Access for blue badge holders has been facilitated there, overcoming the very issues that York has railed to grasp. Chester, the first British city to win the coveted European access city award for balancing safety and access, provides for access at barriers, which close only when risk is identified. Essential businesses and blue badge residents are on the list for access, and even visitors can apply in advance. Its infrastructure provides safety and access, and Chester understands the importance of involving and working with disabled people in planning.

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments about Chester. I have to ask why on earth City of York Council has not followed Cheshire West and Chester Council’s excellent example in this matter. Our city centre scheme has been worked on since late 2017. At every single step of the way, my council’s fantastic officers have worked assiduously with the access officer, the equalities team and, most importantly, disabled people themselves to accommodate their needs while balancing the imperatives of the wider security environment. The council has the powers, but uses them extremely sparingly. Indeed, they have been activated only three times. This measure should not be used as a barrier to disabled people leading their day-to-day lives.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments. Inclusion is about the co-production of outcomes. Chester is able, but the Liberal Democrat York administration has failed to commit to measures and is therefore barring disabled people from being able to access their city.

Turning to the law, I am grateful to the world-leading Centre for Applied Human Rights at the University of York, which produced an outstanding report, and to the Reverse the Ban campaign to provide access to disabled people. The UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, a human rights treaty, binds national and local jurisdictions, stating:

“Disabled people must never be treated less favourably than others, excluded from or denied access to services, education, work or social life on the basis of their disability.”

and must have access

“on an equal basis to non-disabled people”.

Further, it states that

“Disabled people’s full and effective participation and inclusion in society must be supported”.

With the combination of the Equality Act 2010 and the Human Rights Act 1998, the rights of disabled people cannot be dismissed. Disabled people, under articles 8 and 14 of the Human Rights Act, have a right to participate in essential economic, social, cultural and leisure activities. Any limitations for security must be proportionate and inclusive. The Equality Act 2010 is even more relevant as it places a duty on public authorities to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people to exercise their rights and to

“advance equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic, and those who do not.”

Case law clarifies that public authorities must have due regard for the impact on elderly and disabled people when imposing parking restrictions. York fails that test. There were two equality impact assessments. The first, in June 2020, said that there was no infringement on human rights, yet it recognised that blue badge holders would be barred from the city. In November 2020 there was recognition of the breach, but no mitigation and no compelling reason for justification.

Removing the ability to drive and park in the streets will increase the distance that people with reduced mobility have to travel. They will be locked out of their city. Above all, under the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, the Government must ensure that the built environment is usable by disabled people on an equal basis to others. I recognise that that is difficult, but rather than the authorities making mistakes akin to York’s, the Government must intervene and assist.

First, funding is key to making places accessible. Infrastructure is not cheap, and project costs invariably spiral. We need Government funding and backing to support local authorities at risk. Secondly, security risks change, so continuous support must be available. A central unit of expertise that works with local partners with a strong understanding of security and the impact on human rights is essential. York needs an integrated security audit and plan, and the Government should assist it.

Thirdly, disabled people must be involved in the design of any consultation and subsequent mitigation measures. City of York Council ran three consultations, including one focused on disabled people and representative groups. In addition to wider infrastructure enhancements, public transport and information, it recognised the rights of disabled people. York then ignored them. Fourthly, there is a clear need for co-production of hostile vehicle mitigation measures, ensuring that safety and human rights obligations are met. Solving conflicts together produces stronger outcomes.

I believe that York must stop digging in and start listening, like Chester. Here is my proposal. Blue badges are identified to a person, not a vehicle. At barrier entry points, they can be shown to security personnel or a camera. Additional security—a password, identification or a QR code—could act as secondary security. That is a tried and tested method when operating security zones. Visitors will have to pre-register, but that is not arduous. It is simple, safe and secure, and it protects the city and human rights. York’s plans will deny access to disabled people between 10:30 am and 5 pm. Many disabled people find mornings difficult, and by 5 pm the shops and amenities will be closed. It is simply shameful that blue badge holders are locked out. The council executives should hang their heads in disgrace.

A Labour Government would not tolerate that and would reverse the ban. The Minister needs to intervene urgently with his expertise to keep people safe and enable people to be dignified in their city. I want him to work with me, halt the engineering works that commenced yesterday at a cost of £3.5 million to local people, and provide oversight, as York’s safety and access is of national concern. Getting it right in York will set a blueprint for elsewhere. Labour has already forced the administration to appoint an access officer and set up an access forum, but due to the abysmal record of the authority on equalities, I argue that an equality scrutiny committee needs to be established, so that all the authority’s work is examined and non-discriminatory mitigation is put in place.

My sincere thanks go to the 27 organisations representing disabled people, older people and allied and related organisations campaigning to reverse the ban, and to Flick Williams, who is a tour de force when speaking on behalf of disabled people to secure their human rights. The embarrassment is that York became the UK’s first UNESCO human rights city in 2017. This year it holds the prestigious international chair for human rights cities. My well-researched proposal would remedy the council’s shaming of York. I ask the Minister to intervene and to join me not only to immediately reverse the ban but to strengthen security and access, so we can all live safely and with dignity.

Does the hon. Lady agree that there is a chance at the ballot box? I believe that York has local elections. Would she encourage the residents of York to make their views on this matter known to the various candidates?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and, of course, this is a big issue for our city. It is imperative that people seriously consider where they put their crosses on 4 May, as that provides an opportunity to reverse the ban. If the Lib Dem-Green council will not reverse the ban, clearly the people of York must speak.

I close with the words of Dame Judi Dench:

“York city centre is a rare jewel that should be free for all to enjoy, including those with a disability and for whom accessible parking is essential… I should like to offer my wholehearted support to people in the City of York”.

I ask the Minister to offer his support too.

I start by conveying my sincere appreciation to the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) for calling the debate and for speaking so powerfully on behalf of her constituents, especially those who have been adversely affected by the installation of bollards, the removal of blue badge parking in York city centre and the many other issues she highlighted.

I thank the hon. Members for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova), for City of Chester (Samantha Dixon) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr Lord), for their contributions to the debate. I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), who is no longer in his place, for his contribution. I know he has similarly strong views to those articulated by the hon. Member for York Central. Both the hon. Members who represent the city of York are committed champions of the residents and businesses that call York home, and I know they share our ambition for that fine city, in the heart of the northern powerhouse, to continue to grow and flourish in the long term.

York attracts over 8 million tourists from home and abroad every year. We know the visitor economy is vital for the city, but it also causes the types of questions, challenges, trade-offs and considerations that the hon. Lady so eloquently espoused in her speech. An appropriate balance clearly needs to be struck, so in my response I want to provide clarity about the Government’s role and responsibility, while outlining some of the work around accessibility for disabled residents in York, and indeed in all our towns and cities.

First, I will talk about the UK shared prosperity funding, from which some money has been contributed to the work that has been discussed. I will then talk about accessibility and finally about blue badge parking.

As the hon. Lady will know, appreciate and accept, empowering places to identify and build on their own strengths and needs is a core tenet of the levelling-up agenda, which is why the UK shared prosperity fund is giving York £5 million. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that improving infrastructure costs money and takes time. The fund will help neighbourhoods and create more high-skilled, high-wage jobs of the future.

As the hon. Lady outlined, clear concerns have been expressed about the changes that have made to some of the projects, including the perceived heavy handed use of bollards that restrict accessibility for people in wheelchairs. In rolling out the UK shared prosperity fund, we have been clear that we want to give local areas the maximum amount of local discretion. The essence of devolution is affording local areas the freedom to forge their own path, but with rights come responsibilities.

The hon. Lady has expounded the concerns that she and many others have about the course of action that has been outlined so far by City of York Council. The Government have always been unequivocal in saying that our high streets must be open and accessible to everyone. Local authorities have a duty, under section 122 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, to exercise their functions in securing the

“expeditious, convenient and safe movement of traffic.”

Although councils are ultimately free to make their own decisions about the streets under their care, they need to take into account the relevant legislation. They are also responsible for ensuring that their actions are within the law. They are accountable to local people for their decisions, and indeed for their performance. There is no specific requirement for local authorities to use bollards; it is for each council to decide the most appropriate way to resolve these challenges.

Blue badge parking is a similar case. I know that the hon. Lady has been a champion of reversing the ban on blue badge parking since it was introduced in the city’s pedestrian zones as part of the measures introduced in 2021. I appreciate that the resident-led campaign has won the support of others, including Dame Judi Dench, as the hon. Lady outlined in her conclusion.

The blue badge scheme is a lifeline for many disabled people. It helps approximately 2.5 million people in England to remain independent, while preventing social isolation. The Department for Transport has published several documents and some non-statutory guidance for councils on how the scheme should operate. One such document, as the hon. Lady outlined, is “Inclusive Mobility: A Guide to Best Practice on Access to Pedestrian and Transport Infrastructure”, which sets out the provision that should be made for parking spaces. It states:

“Creating and maintaining an accessible public realm is crucial for ensuring that disabled people are not excluded from playing a full role in society… Inclusive design requires that the needs of all disabled people are considered from the outset of any transport and pedestrian infrastructure”.

Personally, I would strongly encourage the city of York to think carefully about reconciling the understandable challenges with which it has to grapple, which we all recognise—the hon. Lady was careful to articulate and highlight them in her speech—with an approach that meets the rights of disabled people in the way she outlined. There is always a balance to be struck between protecting the public and not unduly imposing on the rights and freedoms of disabled residents, blue badge holders or the wider public who need to park in the city for essential reasons.

In my opinion, City of York Council is clearly breaching the law. It does not even seem to be complying with its responsibilities under the public sector equality duty. Is there scope for the Government to intervene to instruct or encourage the council to reverse the ban?

I am grateful for that question, which goes back to my point that ultimately central Government have to recognise, if we believe in devolution, that local councils must have the aegis and the space to make decisions. However, councils must make those decisions in accordance with the law, must have regard to regulation, and must think carefully about the impact and implications of their decisions in the way the hon. Member for York Central outlined. The fact that the subject had to be raised in this place tonight is indicative of the level of concern that has been expressed on both sides of the House about the challenges facing the city of York.

I have to respect the devolution settlement. I have to recognise that, ultimately, it is right that decisions are made locally. Local government does fantastic things across the country on a daily basis, and we should congratulate it and thank it for doing so. Nevertheless, I hope that the city of York is listening tonight, that it has heard the concerns and comments that have been articulated, and that it will consider very carefully how to approach the matter in future.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.