That the Bill be now read a second time.
My Lords, I have pleasure in moving the Second Reading of this innocuous little Bill to amend the Equality Act 2010 to grant 800,000 wheelchair users access to 70,000 shops and public buildings to which we are denied access at the moment. The Bill makes a tiny addition to the 2010 Act, would cost business very little to implement but would make a huge difference to wheelchair users. Let me assure your Lordships that my Bill does not touch in any way the protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010 of age, gender, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, or sex and sexual orientation. It is concerned only with one aspect of disability: the requirement for public buildings to make “reasonable adjustments” so that wheelchair users can access them.
My Bill is identical to one which received a Second Reading in November 2014 but was rejected by the Government. At that time, the Government could say that I and noble Lords who supported my Bill were on our own and that we had no evidence to back up our case. Ironically, within one month of rejecting my Bill, the then Minister for Disabled People published a joint Department for Work and Pensions and DisabledGo report. The press release stated:
“DisabledGo study shocks the Government with evidence of inaccessible British high streets … The Minister of State for Disabled People is urging shops and restaurants to improve their accessibility”.
What a pity the Government did not take that view a month earlier when they dismissed my Bill.
Since then we have had the authoritative Lords Select Committee report, Equality Act 2010: the Impact on Disabled People. The committee was chaired by the noble Baroness—indeed, I may say “my noble friend”—Lady Deech, whom I am delighted to see is speaking today, along with other noble Lords who served on the committee. The committee found that there were severe difficulties with the “reasonable adjustments” provision of the Act, in that no one was enforcing it and disabled people had to take cases to court themselves in order to get access improvements.
The noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, cannot be with us today, but she wrote and asked me to say:
“It is easy to tilt a pram or pushchair up a step but impossible in an electric chair. My chair weighs 90 kilograms alone and takes 3-4 strong people to lift with me aboard!”.
So this time it is not just old Blencathra with a bee in his bonnet; we have the evidence of the Department for Work and Pensions survey, the overwhelming weight of evidence given to the Lords Select Committee and the committee’s own conclusions.
What are the facts and figures about the problem? The NHS estimates that there are 800,000 regular wheelchair users. By “regular”, it means people who are permanently in a wheelchair and, at the other end of the spectrum, those such as me who can stagger around a little bit. That figure is supported by other organisations.
The number of public buildings in the UK comprising shops, fast food outlets, restaurants and pubs is about 355,000. In addition, there are post offices, banks, churches and all the other buildings to which the public have access. The Department for Work and Pensions and DisabledGo study visited and assessed a massive sample of 30,000 shops and restaurants. Its findings were that 20% did not have wheelchair access—and, if wheelchair users did get in, 30% of the places had no disabled changing rooms or toilets. If you extrapolate that 20% of 30,000 shops to the total of 355,000 public retail premises, you get a figure of 71,000 shops, pubs and cafés which wheelchair users simply cannot access. That is a scandalous number in this day and age.
The Equality Act 2010 lists nine characteristics that are all protected against discrimination, including disability. The Act has replaced all separate disability discrimination legislation. It is an offence under the Act to fail to make “reasonable adjustments” to premises so that disabled persons are not discriminated against. What is a “reasonable adjustment” naturally varies between the needs of different disabilities, persons, buildings and circumstances, but it can be enforced only by a person taking a service provider to court to compel that provider to make the adjustment.
The Lords Select Committee found that most disabled persons and disabled organisations felt very strongly that disability issues had taken a retrograde step in the 2010 Equality Act, because all potentially discriminating characteristics were now being treated equally. What is the problem with equal treatment, you may ask? The committee pointed out that people with other characteristics such as sex, colour, sexuality and ethnicity needed to be treated equally to avoid being discriminated against—but, for disabled people to achieve equality, they needed different treatment. That is an absolutely crucial distinction which was never considered when the 2010 Act was passed—and that is the motivation behind my Bill: to try to get equality for wheelchair users.
I turn to the clauses in my Bill. Section 20 of the Equalities Act defines “reasonable adjustments” as,
“(a) removing the physical feature in question,
(b) altering it, or
(c) providing a reasonable means of avoiding it”.
My Clause 1 states that, if a public building has a step of six inches or less, a ramp suitable for wheelchairs has to be provided. If a building has a step of less than 12 inches, a ramp has to be provided. If the building has more than one step, my Bill does not apply. The difference between a six-inch step and a 12-inch step is simply revealed by Clause 2, my commencement clause, which states that the requirement to remove a step of six inches comes into effect on Royal Assent and the requirement to remove a step of 12 inches comes into effect a year later. That is simply an acknowledgement that removing or replacing a 12-inch step is a slightly bigger undertaking than getting rid of a little six-inch step. Like the Equality Act itself, my Bill would apply to England, Scotland and Wales.
In a nutshell, that is what my Bill does. If noble Lords will permit me, I need to set out why the Government Equalities Office is adamantly opposed to making specific adjustments, is opposed to my Bill and wishes to reject it—and I shall try to persuade noble Lords why it is actually wrong. I and the Select Committee agreed that keeping the general principle of “reasonable adjustments” is sensible, and I do not seek to amend that principle at all in the Bill. However, when we have clear evidence that something is not working in a select, specific area of the Act, and after seven years of experience of the Act, it is not good enough to take the GEO line that the principles of the Act are sacrosanct and cannot be amended.
The Select Committee was highly critical of the failures of the 2010 Act to assist disabled people. On launching the report, the chair, the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, said:
“Over the course of our inquiry we have been struck by how disabled people are let down across the whole spectrum of life. Access to public buildings remains an unnecessary challenge to disabled people … When it comes to the law requiring reasonable adjustments to prevent discrimination, we found that there are problems in almost every part of society, from disabled toilets in restaurants being used for storage … to reasonable adjustments simply not being made”.
The GEO members were the only people giving evidence to the Select Committee who though that there was no problem. The Government Equalities Office head lawyer, Tracey Kerr, said that the concept of reasonable adjustments is well understood because of case law. She said:
“We have found that as the case law has developed it becomes clearer and clearer for people to understand what a reasonable adjustment might be in certain cases. So we think that that has been a successful development of case law”.
But the vast bulk of evidence to the Select Committee was that that was not the case.
Of course, a Government lawyer specialising in this work would lead herself to believe that everyone knew the case law and would be granted their rights—but that is not happening on the ground. The Select Committee said:
“It is worrying, therefore, that evidence of problems in obtaining this right have emanated from almost every part of society. We heard of problems in gaining reasonable adjustments from employers and education providers, on buses and trains, and in taxis, shops, restaurants and hospitals. We were told of sports grounds and other entertainment venues that failed to make necessary adjustment”.
It added that,
“witness after witness told us that, contrary to the Government’s view, the provisions were neither well known nor well understood”.
In evidence to the committee, the Law Centres Network said:
“There is a crucial difference between, on the one hand, awareness of the phrase ‘reasonable adjustments’ or the understanding that a duty exists and, on the other, an understanding of what the duty entails or how to comply with it in practice”.
The committee agreed with that, and said that the evidence suggested that,
“even where there was awareness, understanding was often poor”.
Thus all the evidence to the Lords Select Committee, and its findings, indicate that the duty to make reasonable adjustments is simply not happening. My Bill will not change the duty but will provide additional clarity.
What about the cost? I did my own survey of shops and cafés within half a mile of this Parliament. I looked at public retail buildings on Victoria Street, Strutton Ground, which is a lovely little shopping street, and Horseferry Road. The vast majority of big chain stores and shops on Victoria Street have level access from the pavement or a lip of about an inch at most. New-build shops nearly all have level access. However, in those three streets, within a few hundred yards of this building, there are three premises with multiple steps, two with steps of less than 12 inches, three with steps of less than nine inches, 26 with steps of less than six inches, and 28 with steps of less than three inches. Implementing the six-inch rule provision of the Bill would immediately make 54 of those 62 shops accessible to wheelchair users—an 87% improvement.
I reference the shops in this location because they are right on the doorstep of Parliament, but they are representative of the 71,000 others with the same lack of access in every street of every town and city of this country. The cost of a ramp, either lightweight aluminium or fibreglass, to access premises with a step of up to six inches, is generally less than £100. One-third of the inaccessible shops had a little step of less than three inches, which does not need a special ramp at all, but £10-worth of concrete to make a little slope—then the wheelchairs can get into them, as some shops have done. That is why we are so steamed up about this. We can see tens of thousands of buildings that we could easily get into with less than £100 of investment—and you cannot get a more reasonable adjustment than that.
Some of my noble friends who will follow me will make the case that we should be removing steps of whatever height. I agree that sooner rather than later we should do that, but I do not want cost to be used as another excuse not to get us access to 87% of the premises that we cannot get into now, when the adjustment would cost less than £100. I accept that, in a minority of cases, where the step is 12 inches and the shop door is right on the pavement, a ramp cannot protrude on to the pavement, and that the shop would have to recess its doorway a bit, which could cost possibly £2,000 to £3,000. But many retail premises already have a recessed doorway, and the step could be replaced with a ramp without altering the door or shop facade at all.
So if we cannot get in, what do we do? The government response from the Despatch Box to my last Bill was:
“They should first approach the service provider to discuss why … they cannot access the service or function in question, and discuss what adjustments they require. If, following discussion, the service provider fails or refuses to make a reasonable adjustment, the disabled person could take their custom elsewhere; alternatively, they might decide to bring a case of alleged disability discrimination before the … courts”.—[Official Report, 21/11/14; col. 664.]
That was the Government Equalities Office’s official response.
Imagine that you are out shopping and you cannot get in. How do we discuss it? Do we sit in our wheelchairs on the pavement and shout for the shopkeeper to come out to discuss it? If he does not have a ramp, what good is discussing it going to do? If he decides to buy one next week, it does not help us very much when we are shopping today, does it? Disabled people are told by the Government that if they cannot be served they should just take their business elsewhere. Would they say that to a black person, a gay person or anyone else in the protected categories? I hope to God that they would not.
The Select Committee concluded, based on the evidence of everyone except the GEO witnesses, that enforcement had failed. It was highly critical that disabled people had to go to court to get access. The following exchange took place during the Select Committee inquiry. Tracey Kerr, the head of legal services at GEO, said:
“We think it is most appropriate and it is quite unusual and it gives claimants quite a lot of power in relation to going to the courts and explaining … what is reasonable … for the courts to decide”.
The chair, the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, interrupted:
“How long is it going to take for something to go to court? Surely you cannot expect a disabled person to go through the whole judicial procedure just to get that determination. It is too late”.
The lawyer replied:
“One would hope that the employer, the service provider … would be aware of the need to make sure that they were taking into account the issues and the person before them … they should be building that into their thinking about how they are going to provide their services”.
What a ridiculous answer. The reason the disabled person has to take the service provider to court in the first place is that the provider has failed to do all the things which the government lawyer wished, hopefully, that they would be doing. It was quite an incredible answer.
Although I cannot understand the complacency of that answer, it was exceeded by the deputy director of the equality framework of the Government Equalities Office who, giving evidence in the same session and in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, about the failure of enforcement, said—and noble Lords should listen to this on Parliament TV to get the full flavour:
“Clearly where the difficulty comes … the nub of the issue and an extremely difficult one is trying to get some kind of handle on enforcement at the very earliest stage before in effect there has been any kind of dispute and that is the $64,000 question and the element that is invariably the most difficult to solve”.
I am not making this up. I do not have the imagination for such an extraordinary answer. When asked what the Government will do about the 800,000 wheelchair users who cannot get into public buildings because the Equality Act is failing, the official Government Equalities Office answer is that,
“that is the $64,000 question”.
Well, my Bill is a £100 answer to that question.
I am willing to do a deal with the Government. I acknowledge that six inches and 12 inches are arbitrary figures and we could have different heights—and of course they would have to be in centimetres. I acknowledge that businesses may need more time than Royal Assent or 12 months to implement any change. If we get to Committee, I am willing to fillet the specific details in my Bill and replace them with an order-making power for the Minister to specify in regulations the access requirements that I have outlined today. That would give the Government the chance to correct any errors they may perceive in my Bill. It also removes the excuse to do nothing about this problem. This time we are not just going to go away and shop elsewhere. Passing my Bill, or something like it, will not undermine the principle of “reasonable adjustments” in the 2010 Act—but it would grant 800,000 wheelchair users access to about 60,000 of those 71,000 shops that are currently inaccessible. It is little wonder that the Select Committee concluded:
“Government inaction is failing disabled people”.
I had an excellent meeting yesterday with the new Minister for Disabled People. Like her predecessor, she is caring, compassionate and determined to do all she can to help disabled people. But she has no power to change one comma of disability legislation because it is not in her department. I commend what she is doing with disabled champions and seeking to get an accessibility category added to the Great British High Street Award. I commend the city of Chester, which she told me about and which has excellent disabled access. These are all jolly good things—but we must have an amendment to the law if we are to get fair treatment for disabled people now rather than in the distant future.
I anticipate that the Government will dismiss the Bill. That is why I have tried noble Lords’ patience a bit this morning by setting out in detail why I think the GEO is utterly wrong. Wheelchair users are getting the runaround and being discriminated against multiple times. We cannot get into buildings in the first place; the Government will not change the law to assist us; the ECHR, which can do something about enforcement, does nothing to help; and disabled charities that would like to help are not allowed by law to help. My Bill does not tackle the problem of taxis and buses, or the failure of trains or platforms to have level access. It does not demand government expenditure or great private sector investment. It is confined to tackling one gross inequality which can be fixed cheaply, easily and quickly. I beg to move and commend my Bill to the House.
My Lords, I rise to support the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, and his splendid Bill. I am embarrassed to stand up at this point, I have to say. I had in mind just to add a few comments right at the end of this debate, just to show another voice of support. But I applaud the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, for his superb presentation of the case; it was truly outstanding, with his usual clarity, intellectual rigour and his delightful sense of humour. I think that we will all want to thank him for the pleasure of listening to him.
It seems obvious to me that those of us who are lucky enough to be able to run up a step into a pub or a shop—including the Minister, who I am sure would have no difficulty running up a step into a shop or pub—have a duty to ensure that those people who are unlucky enough to be locked out of so many of these buildings have the right of access. I have to confess that I had assumed, as a rather ignorant person, that when Alf Morris’s Bill went through Parliament, the discrimination against disabled people due to lack of access had basically been dealt with. I was shocked and very surprised to learn that, for 800,000 wheelchair users, it is still a major problem and that they are locked out of 71,000 shops, pubs and restaurants simply because of a little step. It was not something that I had expected. Quite clearly, the requirement under the 2010 Act for businesses to make “reasonable adjustments” to enable access for disabled people is simply too vague and not working. We need to applaud the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, for this very simple proposal to deal with such a massive inhibition for so many people.
Cleverly, the noble Lord includes two clauses, the second of which on first sight appears to cover the first. I had to reread them because I thought, “Hang on, why these two clauses?”. He of course distinguishes between a reform covering steps up to six inches and that covering steps up to 12 inches. He makes very clear the really quite significant difference in cost between these two levels. As he said, one could talk about different levels of step, but these two are quite interesting because the six-inch step can be sorted out with a spend of a mere £100. Thinking of smaller businesses, it seems to me that they really would not have a problem with that, so the big question is: why not?
The briefing makes it clear that if you are talking about 12-inch steps, that is much more significant, which I for one certainly would not have thought about. It would cost something like £3,000 or £5,000, and I can think of small businesses that would really struggle to cover that cost, certainly in one year. There is no question that we need greater access for wheelchair users, but I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, would consider it an appalling diminution of his Bill to limit it to the six-inch step, with its smaller demand.
I was particularly struck by the noble Lord’s personal research—it was rather delightful, I thought—looking at Victoria Street, Horseferry Road and Strutton Ground, and his finding that, in these streets, 87% of steps would be covered by the six-inch rule. He went on to say that all the evidence suggests that that 87% figure probably applies throughout the country. I find that reassuring. Maybe it would be worth implementing that provision to eliminate 87% of the problem. Surely no Government could refuse to do that. Why would they when the cost to a business would be £100? The bigger spend might be an issue, but that would not be the case here. Therefore, there are two possible approaches: one is to exempt small businesses below a certain level of turnover; another is simply to eliminate the provision on the 12-inch step and limit the Bill to the six-inch provision.
In conclusion, I hope that the Minister will be in a position to support the Bill—at least the 87% of it. I hope, as I am sure everybody in this Chamber does, that the whole Bill will be passed, but I implore the Minister to do all she can with her colleagues to support it.
My Lords, I was lucky enough to serve on the Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010 and Disability, and I am very grateful for the quotations that the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, provided from it. I look forward to the contribution from the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and I am sure that she will focus on the detail of the work of that committee.
I have been a wheelchair user for the last six years. I have an electric wheelchair which, without me sitting in it, weighs over 100 kilograms. Many people say, “We’ll just lift you in”, and when I explain its weight, they pale. It is also why I say, “Lifting me in is not an option under health and safety rules because you’ll damage yourself and I don’t want to be responsible for that”.
I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, for suggesting to those of us he thought might speak in this debate that we should consider our real-life experience over the last two or three weeks. I was in Barnes and East Sheen visiting family and I needed to get into a pharmacy. The first three local pharmacies that I came to all had steps. None had a bell and one had an enormous sign in the front window saying, “Disabled? We’re here to help”. How could I tell them?
I was asked to speak at two events in a rural market town. One had a step of under six inches and the next one had a step of just under 12 inches. The organisers had rung me and said, “We’ve just discovered the steps. What can we do?”. They went out and bought one of the lightweight ramps that the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, referred to, and I got into the first venue with absolutely no problem. However, at the second venue, the step was just too high for the length of ramp they had. Unfortunately, with a heavy wheelchair, you just get grounded at the bottom and cannot get in. That is why I have immense sympathy for the principles that the noble Lord outlines in his Bill but there definitely has to be guidance about the angle and length of ramps; otherwise, people will buy ramps and believe that they are fulfilling their obligations, but those of us in electric wheelchairs will find that we still cannot get into the building.
Last week I was asked to speak at a university. The organisers had booked me in March to launch a conference. On the Monday before I was due to speak on the Wednesday, they rang to say, “We’ve just discovered that there is a stage. You’re going to be on the stage, except that we don’t have the facility to get you on to it”. I did not want to be the only speaker not on the stage, so I said, “Sorry. Go away and find another solution”. The response came back, “This building is about to be remodelled. Maintenance have broken the ramp and they’re not prepared to repair it because the building’s going to be vacated soon”. They found another lecture hall where all the members of the panel were on one level, which was fantastic.
I apologise for the fact that my next example is not about a building but I think that it illustrates a wider point. I was picking up a cab just around the corner from here. It was one of those larger cabs—not a black cab but one that has doors that open automatically and no built-in ramp. The driver wound down his window and said, “I think my ramp’s a bit small for you. You can see it—I’m just pushing it out now”. He was referring to the automatic step, not the ramp. I said to him, “If you open the boot, I think you’ll find there is a ramp in there”. He got out and found it, but it took him five minutes to assemble it because he had never had to do it before.
Those last two examples raise one of my other key concerns, which I speak about a great deal, and that is training. It is about the attitude of the organisation and training the people who need to use the equipment. The problem in that last case would have been resolved simply by the driver knowing his way around the vehicle—he had clearly rented the cab and it was the first time he had come across the ramp.
That brings me to a further point. I am going to name and shame a couple of organisations. WHSmith is on both my name and shame and credit lists. You can get into most WHSmith shops if you are in a wheelchair, but unfortunately it has a new policy of cramming extra bits into the aisles—the hanging baskets from which you can pick your crisps. That means that if you are in a wheelchair in many WHSmith shops, especially in places such as stations where space is tight, you cannot get round the store. So a ramp might solve the problem of accessibility but the layout does not make me want to visit the shop.
When we read the Government’s response to the Select Committee report, many of us were as open-mouthed as we were when we heard some of the evidence during the committee’s hearings. I believe that this is still very much the Government’s stance. Paragraph 2 of their response says:
“Disability rights cannot be delivered by regulation alone. Forcing people to change their behaviours … will not … change their hearts and minds and changing hearts and minds will lead to better attitudes, better access and better outcomes for disabled people”.
I cannot disagree with that at all. However, the response then goes on to say that,
“Government has achieved more by initiating conversations between disabled people and the public, private and voluntary sector than by the … instrument of regulation”.
In paragraphs 15 and 16, they talk about the Minister holding,
“a roundtable with leaders of the hospitality industry, trade bodies and disabled people”,
and say that in the autumn—this would be 2016—they will provide an,
“accessibility 10 top tips guide”,
being developed with the British Hospitality Association. I have searched high and low through the web but can find no mention of any such launch. That, I am afraid, is why odd conversations with people, although held with the best intent, do not change the culture. There are times when regulation is needed and this is now one of them.
I am very aware that the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, has referred in the past to the idea of the bag of concrete resolving the problem. There are some people with disabilities—particularly those with prosthetic limbs—for whom a very short ramp might make a building inaccessible. I am more than happy to push the idea of ramps but we need to be careful that we do not make a building inaccessible for a different group of people.
I said earlier that I wanted to name and shame companies, but I have said in your Lordships’ House before, and I want to repeat, that the Institution of Civil Engineers, which is just around the corner on Great George Street, is a wonderful example of how to deal with a listed building and accessibility. It has two sets of front steps. One will retract and a lift comes up on to which you can position your wheelchair and move easily into the building. Only civil engineers could develop something like that. Two doors down, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers has not done the same thing. The last time I went in, I had to enter via an outside stairlift through somebody else’s conference room to get to the event that I was attending.
I want to end with two other examples located very close to your Lordships’ House. The first is the Marriott County Hall Hotel, just over the road. The management says that it is a listed building and that no adjustments can be made. An organisation with which I am involved stopped using it for special events. A couple of weeks ago they said that they had now changed. I was pleased to hear that and asked them to explain exactly what had changed. They said, “You still have to go round the corner to the back, up in a scissor lift and doors have to be unlocked, but you no longer have to go through the sea life centre; you can now go straight through to the back of the hotel”. That is not good enough for a five-star hotel.
I shall end on a really good example of an organisation that trains its staff to understand its attitude. The lingerie chain Bravissimo has ramps, bells and staff who understand their job. I would like to nominate it for the award for good high-street access.
My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to be able to support my noble friend Lord Blencathra in his important Private Member’s Bill. I applaud his tenacity, and that of other noble Lords who are speaking today, in seeking to improve access to public buildings for wheelchair users. That this duty—to take such steps as is reasonable to remove physical features which disadvantage disabled people— is already enshrined in law but is not being fully implemented, should make all of us pause for thought and ask how we can ensure that this duty is taken seriously.
When I was 17, I broke my back in a riding accident. I was lucky. After many months, I was able to walk again, but not before being bedridden and spending considerable time in a wheelchair. My wheelchair was not like the modern wheelchairs today; it was not very grand. It was rented from the charity Hospital Saturday, and although it made a huge difference and I was enormously grateful, I think it must have been related to a supermarket trolley because it certainly had a mind of its own. On my first outing my mother started to push me down a hill and then panicked as she lost control. “I’m just going to have to let you go!”, she shouted. Luckily, plan B came along in the shape of a hedge, and she simply rammed me into that instead.
Even to this day I remember vividly the way that she and I struggled with the little things, such as the kerbs and the steps—the things that able-bodied people do not give a second thought to, as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, said, but which are massive obstacles to those with the inability to overcome them. My wheelchair did not even have the added problem of the weight of an electric chair. Wheelchairs are marvellous things; they give great freedom and independence. That makes it all the more frustrating when you simply cannot get to where you want to go.
A couple of weeks ago, I was flipping between channels on the television when I came across a repeat of the documentary about your Lordships’ House, “Meet the Lords”. My immediate instinct was to change the channel, except I saw that it was the rather moving part of the programme where the film crew followed my noble friend Lord Blencathra as he tried to find different ways of steering his wheelchair through this beautiful Palace to reach his destination. In his Bill, my noble friend is not asking for monumental changes on the accessing of public buildings. He is simply seeking a way of ensuring that the duty to make reasonable adjustments to buildings to allow access for those with a disability is taken seriously. He has found a sensible and practical way to accomplish that.
I have known my noble friend Lord Blencathra for many years, so I know that it goes against the grain of his political DNA to impose unnecessary costs and regulations. That is why his proposals in the Bill are modest and proportionate, and why they deserve to be supported.
My Lords, I welcome the Bill and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, for his opening speech, which was a veritable tour de force. I have no wish to repeat the catalogue of facts and figures which he evinced—the case is compelling, and I think that was the view of your Lordships’ House in response to the noble Lord’s opening speech.
When I was preparing for the debate, I of course read the relevant sections of the report from the Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010 and Disability, chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, who we will be hearing from later. I will not seek to repeat many of the points in the report but will merely say that it is very impressive work. My confession is that, at the time of its publication last year, it entirely passed me by. That is my fault, but I am probably not alone in having failed to appreciate the significance of the report. It makes it abundantly clear that the overwhelming evidence received was that the Equality Act has been a retrograde step for disabled people, who had been better served by the Disability Discrimination Act and the previous, separate Disability Rights Commission. This is a quite shocking finding. One has to suppose that it is one of those examples of well-intentioned legislation having unforeseen perverse consequences. In his briefing notes for the debate and in his speech, the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, clearly highlights the shortcomings of the Act for disabled people and, in particular, the failures of subsection (9) and the concept of reasonable adjustments.
Some people are born with their disabilities, many others become disabled due to accidents or through developing medical conditions. In our extended family, my wife’s late brother-in-law endured myotonic dystrophy, a progressively wasting illness, for over 25 years. His mobility progressively reduced, and for many years he could only get about in a wheelchair.
Others perhaps come into a fourth category: those of us who have come close to being disabled but got away with it—the “there but for the grace of God” category. I am one of those people. I have lived an active life: I am a mountaineer and a climber. I have often accepted that there are risks involved in those sorts of sports. A few years ago, doing a not very high-risk activity, I broke my back. It happened in a Zodiac accident off the coast of the Faroe Islands, in rather choppy and troubled sea. The Zodiac went down a hole in the sea and hit a standing wave and there was a tremendous thump, which broke a vertebra in my back. At the time, I was paralysed for a short period and then there were weeks of recovery, and my back got progressively better. I had not realised how close I had come until I was being investigated for a completely different condition and had a series of MRI and CT scans. That was relatively recently, and the diagnosis was that they did not find what they were looking for. However, they asked, “When did you break your back?”. At that point I realised that the injury I had received was probably a lot more serious than I had ever thought at the time.
With a strong sense of having had a close brush with near-disability, and having seen the obstacles for wheelchair users through my late brother-in-law’s eyes, I am all the more aware that it is not the big obstacles to mobility that are the cause of small, daily miseries for disabled people, it is the small obstacles—the little steps that prevent entry to the Dog and Duck, the café or the restaurant. Most disabled people probably do not want to climb Ben Nevis. It is the other, small obstacles that the Bill will address.
The Bill’s measures are modest and, for small amounts of expenditure, will bring about great improvements in access to public buildings. It accepts that the Equality Act, for all its shortcomings, is here to stay, and does not seek to undermine it in any way. Instead, it strengthens subsection (9) in practical ways for the benefit of disabled people. I strongly support it.
My Lords, I am delighted to support my noble friend Lord Blencathra at the Second Reading of this excellent, well-crafted and beautifully straightforward Bill. Legislation often asks Governments to take steps but in this instance that is exactly what it is doing. I ask the Minister: if not this step, what step will address this most simple and straightforward access issue?
On Black Friday, no matter how bad the bustle and crush is, how much blacker is it for those wheelchair users and other access-impaired people who cannot even access the stores to get to the bargains? I was fortunate to be on the board of the Disability Rights Commission in the early 2000s when many of the best features of the Disability Discrimination Act came into force, not least those related to access to goods and services. We knew at the time that this cuts across all of civic society—retail, leisure and religion. Tiny steps effectively deny people access to pay, play or pray.
Many of the arguments at the time of the passage of the DDA, and then when Part 3 came in in the early 2000s, were: “It’ll be too expensive” and, “We can’t possibly do this—businesses will fold”. As we have seen, almost a decade and a half later, no businesses actually folded as a result of the regulations and the legislation. Rather than seeing it in those terms, why not just flip it the other way round and see the positive economic boost that businesses can have if they are accessible to all members of society? I know that personally. I am not a wheelchair user but I have experienced what it is like to be denied access to supermarkets, restaurants and minicabs. I went to a restaurant a few years ago and the proprietor actually stood in the door to bar me entrance to the restaurant. He said in very straightforward terms: “We don’t serve dogs”. I said, “That’s okay—I don’t eat them”.
But there is a fundamental point behind this because, when you experience denial of access and discrimination, you do not experience it in a cerebral state, you feel it. You feel it in your heart and in your guts. It is to be denied fairness, with no dignity, no respect and no equality, just exclusion. That is the beauty of my noble friend’s Bill. It is not actually anything to do with steps, it is simply to do with inclusion. Why would a business or building not want to be inclusive for all members of society? Imagine: what could be simpler than taking this Bill right through the Lords and Commons, passing it and enabling that inclusion right across the United Kingdom? Tens of thousands of small steps would be removed, enabling access and economic activity. We are talking only about the removal of small steps. Actually, there is no “only”. It is just the removal of small steps. One small step for premises, one great leap for inclusion.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for bringing this Bill before your Lordships. The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, epitomises someone who wants to be as independent as possible. The noble Lord has explained his Bill so clearly that I cannot believe it will not be accepted. Many people who have to use wheelchairs also wish to be as independent as possible. I am sure that they would be pleased if, on their behalf, I wholeheartedly thank the noble Lord for his continued efforts on this important matter, which would help not only thousands of wheelchair users but their helpers and people using babies’ pushchairs.
Our society has changed in the past few years and we have a growing elderly population, many of whom are using electric wheelchairs due to strokes, Parkinson’s, spinal injuries, arthritis and many neurological conditions as well as heart and cancer problems. Also, many young people suffer long-term conditions such as cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and other types of disabilities, including spinal injuries and brain injuries from accidents and tumours. I have to declare an interest. I have always been a very active person. As a child, I milked cows by hand and rode ponies from an early age. At school, I was keen on sport. When I broke my back and became paralysed, I took part in paraplegic sports and played table tennis in many countries with the Paralympics. But all my sport and using a manual wheelchair for many years has caused the upper body, hands and shoulders to be overworked. It has taken its toll and I have had to graduate to using an electric wheelchair.
I know only too well that electric wheelchairs cannot negotiate steps and are too heavy to lift manually. Therefore, ramps are essential. Two weeks ago, I was shopping in Harrogate, using my electric wheelchair. I wanted to go to L’Occitane, a shop in James Street, but found that there was a four-inch step, which the electric wheelchair could not negotiate. The person with me went into the shop to see if they had a ramp. “Sorry”, they said, “No ramp”, but offered to help with my helper, but it was no go because the electric wheelchair was too heavy. My helper then went to the next-door shop, Molton Brown, which had a similar step, but it had a portable ramp, so we asked if we could borrow it to go to the shop next door. Yes we could.
So with the borrowed ramp, we entered L’Occitane. The shop assistant was most apologetic. I assured her that it was not her fault, but the responsibility of the management. When I told her about the noble Lord’s Bill, she thought that it was an excellent idea. We returned the borrowed portable ramp to Molton Brown and I made a second purchase, having used the ramp. It is interesting to find two similar shops next to each other, one without a portable ramp and one with one. Is it that one wants to help disabled people and the other cannot be bothered? I hope that it is not because they do not want people using wheelchairs in the shop but because of a lack of knowledge of how easy it is to get portable ramps.
In my small home town of Masham in North Yorkshire, there is only one pharmacist. It has a four-inch step and no ramp. Nobody using an electric wheelchair can enter and people using manual wheelchairs or walking frames could find it difficult to do so unaided. This pharmacist just cannot be bothered or thinks that there is no legal requirement. Ramps are not only useful for people; they are useful for wheeling in heavy goods. Some people using wheelchairs may want some confidential advice or to purchase something private. They want to be self-sufficient. All pharmacists should have access to everybody.
How much more does the noble Lord have to do to convince the Government that his Bill is necessary? This is something that will not cost the Government money. Many disabled people have elderly carers who struggle with steps, and wheelchairs may be the last straw, when the obstacle could be removed so easily with a ramp. It is really frustrating.
I hope that this time the Bill will have a speedy journey through both Houses and that the Minister can give your Lordships some good news today. I hope also that the Government will listen to people with first-hand experience of steps and ramps. However, at a reception held recently at 10 Downing Street, I noticed that portable ramps were set up at the entrance, while upstairs there was a splendid lift with steps that could disappear while the lift came out; it was very modern. The Government know what is necessary and now is the time to help the whole population so that they all can enter shops and other places.
My Lords, this modest Bill should be supported throughout the House. Indeed, my only criticism is that it is too modest. My only declarable interests are as a property developer and housebuilder. I am pleased to say that all houses should now be built without a front step to make them wheelchair-accessible.
Historically, I have had a great deal of interest in wheelchair accessibility. First, I believe that I was the first person to put in a planning application for a large development of 100% wheelchair-accessible houses for the private sector rather than social housing. This was at the suggestion of my late friend the great Sir Bert Massie. He explained that using a wheelchair cost him a fortune in whisky. His friends could get into his house, but he could not get into theirs, so he was always the host. This, for a gregarious chap like Bert, was one of the many extra costs of disability.
Secondly, as chief executive of Manganese Bronze Holdings plc, the maker of the London taxi, I led the team which made all black cabs wheelchair-accessible. We were designing a ramp for a step rather greater than six inches to access the cab. It was 16 inches high rather than the six and 12 specified in the Bill. It was difficult, but it was done. Once we had designed it, various people in my company said that we should sell the taxi with the ramp as an optional extra, but I demanded that it should be standard equipment and that we should never disclose the extra costs of producing it. However, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, pointed out that the level of training for taxi drivers could sometimes be better. Accessibility is now just a feature of the taxi—nothing special because it is standard equipment, and the same ought to be true of all shops and buildings.
The thing we learned is that while access for disabled people is very important, we all spend time in a wheelchair. It is normally called a pushchair or a baby buggy. We are very lucky if it is only at the beginning of our lives that we need wheels. Moreover, there are far more baby buggies than wheelchairs in use. A pushchair has a similar turning circle to a wheelchair and encounters many of the same access problems. Any ramp that can be used by a disabled person’s wheelchair is excellent for a pushchair. There must be vast numbers of parents with pushchairs who are discouraged from going into shops because of the task of having to remove the child from the pushchair, collapsing and carrying both it and the child up the stairs, then putting the child back in the chair. Very wise is the simple advice, “Let sleeping babies lie”. When we look at the positive effects of my noble friend’s Bill, it is not only disabled customers who will benefit from these amendments, but parents and children everywhere.
The question should not just be about the number of wheelchair users who will benefit from the Bill, and whether there are 1.2 million part-time or 750,000 to 800,000 full-time users, we should also consider the 3.9 million children under the age of four who will benefit from it, along with their exhausted parents. I therefore suggest that the Government support this Bill with enthusiasm.
My Lords, I support the Bill and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, on his efforts on this subject. I should like to draw the attention of the House to one or two things, and ask that “public places” include places of worship. I have visited almost every kind of place of worship including churches, gurdwaras, mandirs and mosques. However, I want to refer in particular to mosques.
There are thousands of mosques, both big and small, in this country. Many are in converted buildings, ranging from ordinary houses and warehouses to listed buildings. Some, of course, are modern, newly built structures that may comply with most DDA requirements. However, while external access to a mosque may not be such an issue, noble Lords will know that ablutions are compulsory for any member of the congregation who attends a mosque for prayers. I have noticed that in most mosques, particularly those sited in older buildings, hardly any consideration has been given to mosque-goers using the washing facilities. There are few facilities such as wheelchair access and aids for visually impaired people. I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, that perhaps we could have a discussion before Committee to see how mosques could be included in the list of public buildings.
I understand that almost all mosques are run on voluntary contributions and we do not want to put too much of a burden on them, particularly if a mosque is situated in a building that would make it too difficult to comply. Even so, there is a dire need to include mosques in the terms of the Bill, so a meeting before Committee stage would be a good idea to table an amendment that would cover this area.
My Lords, in July 2016, shortly after having been asked by HM the Queen to form a new Government, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said that it was her “mission” as Prime Minister to make Britain,
“a country that works for everyone”.
She also said that the Government she led,
“will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives”.
If I were asked to propose one short Bill to give effect to the Prime Minister’s twin objectives of building a country that works for everyone and giving ordinary people more control over their own lives, I could not think of anything better than the Bill presently before your Lordships’ House. At a stroke, the Bill would give people control over a large part of their own lives, affecting some 800,000 of our fellow citizens who through no fault of their own, but simply because they are confined to wheelchairs, are unable to enjoy the full benefits of what this great country of ours has to offer.
But this Bill goes very much further than offering a better life to those who are confined to wheelchairs, a point made by my noble friend Lord Borwick and the noble Baroness, Lady Masham. If the Bill were to become law, it would also make life infinitely easier and better for many others: for those who are elderly and find it difficult and dangerous to negotiate steps, particularly in the dark or in the rain; for those with prams, pushchairs and baby buggies; and for those like me who do the weekly shopping with a shopping trolley which by the end of the expedition is usually overflowing with a heavy mixture of boxes and bags, not to mention loose fruit and veg.
Those are some of the social benefits of the Bill, but it would also have significant economic benefits. Indeed, I believe that it could be seen as primarily an economic Bill, as it would make an important contribution to achieving the Government’s newest economic objective, that of improving our nation’s productivity. This it would do in at least two ways, which I will explain. Although the digital economy has made it possible for us to shop for everything from food and drink to furniture and major electrical appliances with no more physical effort than the click of a mouse, it still requires physical effort on the part of someone for our purchases to be delivered to us. Many of these purchases arrive in packages that are bulky or heavy, or both. The easiest and quickest way to handle these packages is to use a porter’s trolley, or what I understand is correctly known as a hand truck. However, manoeuvring hand trucks upstairs, even a single six-inch step, can be tricky and dangerous; with a heavy load, it requires a good deal of brute strength. For this reason, delivery companies are less inclined to use hand trucks than they might otherwise be. As a result, two people are often employed to deliver a van load of packages when the same load could easily be delivered by one person with a hand truck. Although the Bill refers only to public buildings, it would clearly make ramps and the use of hand trucks much more common, thus making the average cost of delivering packages of all kinds, including online purchases, much cheaper as well as quicker.
When the Bill becomes law, it will make a significant contribution to achieving the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s objective of improving our national productivity. However, there is at least one other way in which ramps would contribute to improving that: by reducing the number of work days lost through injury, particularly back injury. According to the latest figures from the Health and Safety Executive, 22% of non-fatal injuries to employees are incurred when lifting or handling goods. I think we can be pretty confident that this figure will keep rising as our use of the digital economy becomes increasingly widespread; there is no doubt that ramps and hand trucks would significantly reduce the number of workplace injuries due to lifting and handling, and hence the number of working days lost each year. That is not the whole story in relation to workplace injuries. I have no doubt that a further large number of workplace injuries are attributable to employees carrying packages and failing to notice the existence of a single shallow step between the pavement and the building entrance. Sadly, the HSE figures I have seen do not identify such accidents separately, but I know from my own experience that they are common and sometimes both painful and very embarrassing. It has just occurred to me that, when one thinks about the economic benefits of the Bill, it should have been introduced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself, as a contribution to achieving a faster growing economy, rather than by my noble friend Lord Blencathra, as a contribution to a fairer and more compassionate society.
Finally, I support the Bill because, besides all the practical advantages I have mentioned, it has a strong moral dimension. It gives practical form to a moral teaching that goes back thousands of years to the biblical injunction that one should not place a stumbling block before the blind. If a six-inch stone or concrete step in front of a public building is not a stumbling block for someone in a wheelchair, I do not know what is. For these reasons, both temporal and spiritual, I urge the House to give the Bill a Second Reading and urge the Government to support it enthusiastically.
My Lords, I had the privilege of chairing the 2016 Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010 and Disability; we produced a report a year and a half ago. When I say “privilege”, I am not following the normal courtesy of reference; I mean it very literally. We heard, saw and received written evidence of the heartbreaking, and often unnecessary and unthinking, obstacles faced by disabled people in their everyday lives, in doing things that the majority take in their stride. We admired the courage of our witnesses and their ability both to function in the way they do and find the extra energy to campaign on behalf of all disabled people. I salute the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, and other noble Lords who are disabled—I must single out the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, who never stops campaigning. They do the same.
The Bill, and the report I referred to, should not be seen as a project for the 11 million or so disabled people, most of whom acquire their disabilities after birth. It is for all of us. The statistics show that, as we live longer in general, unless we are extremely lucky we will all experience a disability in our last few years, whether of sight, hearing or mobility—as many noble Lords will be only too aware. The Bill is not about special pleading; it is about making premises accessible to the entire population in the fullness of time. I say to our sprightly young Ministers: your time will come, too.
The government response so far to the Select Committee report has been ungenerous and disappointing. The committee was careful to make sure that its recommendations did not cost much. We established that there is relevant law, but that implementation and detailed guidance are lacking, especially in transport and access. So the Bill has my full support, as it should have from every right-thinking person.
Not only has the government response been unhelpful, but the Equality and Human Rights Commission seems to be going backward on this. The statutory Disability Committee has been replaced by the Disability Advisory Committee, with no similar powers, and the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, was disappointed to discover that, when appointed as a commissioner, he would not have the special responsibility for disabled people that seemed so obvious for him and for which he had hoped.
The message to and from the Select Committee was that disabled people suffer from the rolling-in of disability as a protected characteristic into all other such characteristics under the Equality Act. Disabled people must have equal treatment, but to get to the level playing field they may need an adjustment that is not needed by others. Access by ramp is just one example. The cost of putting in the ramps will be more than met by the increased custom in time.
As I have said before, disabled people are let down across the whole spectrum of life. Access to public buildings is a fundamental right. The removal of legal aid has made it even harder and more costly for individuals to challenge the blockages to their rights. The burden is on them alone, for class and proxy actions are not allowed. It has been proposed that local authorities should have the power to refuse to grant or renew the licences of premises such as restaurants, pubs and clubs unless they are accessible, which would go a long way to curing the problem. The House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee supported a similar approach, and recommended changes to the Licensing Act 2003 to mandate licensing officers to act on a failure to make licensed premises accessible. I and other experienced noble Lords put forward an amendment to that effect last December when the Policing and Crime Bill was passing through this House.
The Government opposed the amendment on the ground that it was duplicating already existing law—which was not in fact the case—and the Opposition decided not to vote on the amendment for what they called “strategic reasons”. It was one of the most disillusioning events for me since I entered this House. There is a chance now to remove that blot on the record of both parties and to show the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that its critical report on the UK’s compliance with the treaties has been listened to. We recall the special pride and joy taken in our Paralympic champions. That sentiment should not be forgotten when slightly less athletic disabled people seek the nation’s help.
The Bill is the tiniest step in the right direction. It has been said that legislation should be slow to place additional regulatory burdens on business, but this is a zero-sum game. The reduction of the regulatory burden on business means an increase in the burden on a group far less able to bear it: namely, disabled people. The Government may well point to their accessibility projects such as the Built Environment Professional Education Project; but that has been handed over to the Construction Industry Council, and at best will only influence future design, not make adjustments to existing premises. Likewise, the Accessible Britain Challenge morphed into the Disability Confident scheme for employees—these bold words disguise action not commensurate with their tone—leaving a gap that can be filled only by this Bill.
There is another gap. The Select Committee referred to the need for codes of practice and specific guidance on the concept of reasonable adjustments for disabled people, most often in the workplace. But even if they are produced there will be owners of premises who are unaware of them or will ignore them, knowing that they can get away with it. Support for this Bill is essential to stop the callous or ignorant denial of an easy remedy of accessibility for all of us. Any Government who care for minorities or those who are not just about managing must bring it into law.
My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Deech. I commend her and her committee for their excellent report on the Equality Act 2010 and disability. I declare an interest as a member of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. As we are discussing the duty to make reasonable adjustments, I should also tell the House that 20 or so years ago I had life-saving neurosurgery. I took three years to learn to talk again. I am still trying to teach my body to co-operate and speak more quickly, but I beg the indulgence of the House during the debate if I do not speak as quickly as I would like.
I thank my noble friend Lord Blencathra for the service he has done your Lordships’ House, disabled people and society at large in introducing the Bill, as my noble friends Lord Borwick and Lord Wasserman made clear in their contributions, thereby giving the Government the opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to disability equality and to keeping the flame of our party’s landmark disability rights legislation, the DDA, alive. As we have already heard, the Bill is pragmatic, principled and practical. As a wheelchair user, I agree with everything that has been said. Having served on the National Disability Council, set up to advise the Government on the implementation of the DDA more than 20 years ago, I am more sorry than I can say that your Lordships’ House is still debating such a modest Bill.
I will address my remarks to a matter to which my noble friend Lord Blencathra and the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, referred—the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It was the profound sense of frustration with the lack of access highlighted by my noble friend’s Bill that drove me to respond to an advert for the specific post of disability commissioner on the commission. I applied and I was interviewed for that post because I wanted to lead in making tangible progress, such as the very measures highlighted in the Bill, as well as to contribute to securing positive change on equality generally.
On 21 April this year I received a letter from Justine Greening, in her capacity as Equalities Minister, inviting me to join the commission. Within 24 hours the chair of the commission had rung to congratulate me. At no point did either of them mention the intention to abolish the position of disability commissioner, for which I had applied and been interviewed.
This leads me to feel I need to clarify what I told the House, in good faith, on 29 June at Hansard cols. 624-25. First, Written Answers to a number of Parliamentary Questions asked in the other place have since established that, contrary to what I had been led to believe by the chair and deputy chair of the commission when they met me on 9 May, the board of the commission had not already decided to abolish the position of disability commissioner. The board decided to do so only on 11 May, two days after I had been told that the board’s decision had already been taken and two days after I had pleaded with the chair and deputy chair of the commission to urge the board to reconsider.
I now have evidence—I thank a Member of your Lordships’ House for procuring this information—of deliberate concealment that the matter was even discussed in the board’s unminuted pre-meeting of 11 May. Whereas the first draft of the main board minutes refer to the fact that the unminuted pre-meeting discussed the role of the disability commissioner, the eventual, sanitised version of the draft board minutes instead state:
“In the informal pre-meeting session, the Board had discussed the Disability Advisory Committee and the role of its chair”.
I mention this example because it is symptomatic of the commission’s tendency to conceal and to misrepresent. Consistent with this approach, on 25 October the chair of the commission told the Women and Equalities Select Committee in another place that he was sorry that I had decided not to engage with the commission. As I have since made clear to him in a six-page letter, which I would be very happy to place in the Library of the House should any Member ask me to do so, nothing could be further from the truth.
I have touched on the commission’s shocking behaviour. However, what has shocked and, indeed, saddened me perhaps even more is the evidence that has come into my possession about the Government’s involvement in this sorry situation. On 29 June on the Floor of the House I asked the Government not to get involved. I gave them the benefit of the doubt that they were not already involved. Today, I have to clarify my remarks of 29 June because evidence I have been given and which I have shared with the Prime Minister shows that the Equalities Minister was involved in the process that led to the abolition of the disability commissioner.
I am referring to an email of 28 March from the director of the body my noble friend Lord Blencathra mentioned, the Government Equalities Office, updating colleagues on a meeting between Justine Greening, in her capacity as Equalities Minister, and the chair of the commission. The email states that the chair of the commission told her that he had attended a meeting of the commission’s disability committee the previous day, and,
“they were anxious about there being no one in the Disability Commissioner role currently”.
The email does not record the chair of the commission as saying that the commission’s disability committee was urging him to press for the abolition of the disability commissioner role—quite the opposite. The email records that the Equalities Minister confirmed, and again I quote,
“the decision to appoint Lord Shinkwin”.
Barely a fortnight later, after the chair of the commission had pressed the Equalities Minister for an announcement on a new disability commissioner and learned that I was to be appointed—a decision I stress I was not aware of—a memo sent to Justine Greening from the Government Equalities Office, dated 13 April 2017, states,
“it is now intended that Lord Shinkwin will be appointed as a general Commissioner”.
In other words, the countdown to the abolition of the position of disability commissioner had begun, and the Equalities Minister had effectively helped start the stopwatch towards its abolition.
Sadly, the cynicism of the whole situation is underlined by the fact that another Written Answer, WA 4778, in the other place, has since revealed that the very disability committee whose desire for an announcement of a new disability commissioner the chair of the commission had cited in his meeting with Justine Greening on 28 March was not even consulted about the abolition of the role of disability commissioner. Why? The reason given was that the interim disability advisory committee was not constituted at the time the chair and commissioners were considering this issue. So much for taking heed of what disabled people—indeed, of what the commission’s own disability committee—thought. Why not wait until the committee had been reconstituted? How else could the commission present me and everyone else with a fait accompli on the abolition of the post of disability commissioner as quickly as possible?
I should make it clear at this point that none of this should come as a surprise to the Government or, indeed, to the Prime Minister, with whom I have exchanged letters on the matter and shared all the evidence. Moreover, I completely understand why the Prime Minister said in her letter to me:
“I do hope … that you are clear that the Government had no involvement in the EHRC’s decision to abolish the disability commissioner role”.
Of course the Prime Minister hopes that but, as I told her in my reply, the evidence points in the other direction. I am not going to dance on the head of a pin here: the Equalities Minister did not take the actual decision to abolish the role—it was not in her power to do so—but all the evidence I have seen points to the fact that the Equalities Minister, Justine Greening, was involved in the process that led to the abolition of the position of disability commissioner.
I do not intend to detain the House for much longer, but I think noble Lords will want to know that in my reply to the Prime Minister of 21 November, I also told her that I would like to be able to say in this debate today that I have received a written assurance from her that she was not made aware of the last-minute decision to seek the abolition of the crucial role of disability commissioner, made after my appointment to the commission, as I have explained; that she totally dissociates herself and the Government from the position’s abolition; and that she will write to the chair of the commission to urge him to reinstate the position of disability commissioner, to appoint me, in that capacity, chair of the commission’s disability advisory committee and to allow me to lead in the recruitment of new members to that committee. I also told her with great sadness that if I had not received such assurances, and a copy of her letter to the chair of the commission, before today’s debate, which I have not received, I would have to fight for disability equality and for the reinstatement of the position of disability commissioner from the Cross Benches.
Today, I am deferring my decision to give the Prime Minister, whom I want to believe was not personally involved or even informed by her Equalities Minister of the process she herself had helped set in train, the opportunity to stop this grubby cover-up. My message to the Prime Minister today, with all due and sincere respect, as one Conservative parliamentarian to another, is this: please give me and Parliament the assurances I seek and show us the evidence that the Equalities Minister did not go behind my back, the backs of the UK’s 11 million disabled people, the 800,000 wheelchair users that my noble friend mentioned, and, Prime Minister, behind your back. Please release all communications between the Government Equalities Office and/or the Equalities Minister and/or the commission concerning the disability commissioner position and prove to me and to Parliament that the Equalities Minister did not collude in weakening the voice of disabled people—and making the measures that my noble friend has set out in his Bill so much harder to achieve—by helping to set in train the process to remove the position of disability commissioner.
In conclusion, I say to the Prime Minister, I have shown you the evidence of the Equalities Minister’s involvement. Please show me and Parliament evidence that the Equalities Minister, as her role obliges her to do, did absolutely everything in her power to stand up for disabled people and to dissuade the chair of the commission from pushing for the abolition of the disability commissioner role after he had been told that I was to be appointed. The burden of proof is now on the Prime Minister, because if she cannot counter the evidence I have shared with her and now with your Lordships’ House and provide the assurances I seek, then I fear that I can reach only one conclusion: the very fact that the Equalities Minister has allowed the position of disability commissioner to be abolished on this Government’s watch means that the Equalities Minister has acted in flagrant dereliction of her duty to me as a disabled person and to all disabled people. The Equalities Minister’s position will therefore be untenable, and she will have to resign.
I finish with this question: what message does it send to the UK’s 11 million disabled people, to the 800,000 wheelchair users who would benefit and to the parents of young children who would also benefit from my noble friend’s Bill, if a Conservative Equalities Minister colludes in the abolition of the UK’s disability champion, the disability commissioner? I await the Prime Minister’s considered response to my remarks in this debate. I will then decide whether I can continue to serve with integrity the party I love.
My Lords, it is a privilege and, indeed, humbling to follow the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin. I am not in a position to comment on his disturbing speech: others will, I am sure, do so. It is humbling because it is a fact that, until disability directly affects us or a close family member, we simply cannot understand the frustrations of everyday life for the disabled. I sometimes think that if all of us able-bodied people were confined to a wheelchair for just 12 hours we would find it a revelation, and not a pleasant one. That is why those of us who do not need a wheelchair have a responsibility to pursue this fight on behalf of those who do.
As regards my personal experience, the trials and tribulations that the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, so brilliantly outlined have been brought home to me by my daughter who, in her early 30s, has crippling arthritis and two lively young children—a challenging combination. Thanks to her mobility scooter, she is able to go to the park with her children, but invariably she cannot go shopping with them. Even when she can, the aisles are often too narrow to take wheelchairs. Unless her husband is there to unload her chair or scooter, she is limited to places which she can, as it were, wheel herself to. If more shopping centres had chairs or scooters that could be hired, disabled people would be less reliant on helpers and more self-sufficient. Self-sufficiency gives greater dignity and that, I suggest, is what the noble Lord’s Bill is all about. Every human being deserves as much human dignity as we can bestow upon them.
If I may digress for one moment from the intricacies of the six-inch or 12-inch step, once you are over that hurdle the disabled, the hard of hearing and the visually impaired face other obstacles. Noble Lords have recently debated in this Chamber not just equality but data control, and it might be useful for the Minister if I pass on a comment that I have received from a disabled group. There is a worry that because of the confidentiality of medical records, which is of course essential, common sense could nevertheless be submerged. In a nutshell, receptionists and doorkeepers might not be able to be properly informed of the needs of the disabled, the deaf and the visually impaired—the need to stand in front of someone who is deaf, or the fact that someone who may sound inebriated has had a stroke. I accept that these are all extensions to the precise problems we are dealing with today.
I entirely support the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra. The Minister may need more than a ramp to overcome the determination of the noble Lord, the Select Committee and other noble Lords who seem to be expressing unanimous support for the Bill.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Blencathra on securing a Second Reading for his Bill. It gives this House the opportunity to consider how legislating with the very best of intentions to ensure equality of opportunity can have unintended consequences, as the noble Lord, Lord Haworth, said, and thereby fail to deliver the very improvements that it was designed to help.
My noble friend’s briefing before today and his introduction of the Bill have demolished many, if not all, of the arguments that have been deployed along the way to say that nothing more needs to be or should be done. It is absolutely vital to have post-legislative scrutiny of legislation, something which this House instituted and at which it excels. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, who has spoken today, and to her committee for its report because it makes clear the crucial point: that for disabled people equality of opportunity, to the extent that it is achievable, often requires different treatment—not the same treatment.
Clearly, further work is needed in legislation to make accessibility a reality for wheelchair users, and the Bill shows us one way forward. As with so many Private Members’ Bills, it is not a perfectly crafted vehicle and my noble friend has recognised some of its shortcomings. He has chosen to use the imperial measures of six inches and 12 inches in Clause 1 since he, very reasonably, said that those could be more easily visualised and understood by most people in trying to get across the concept of the Bill. He has accepted that if the Bill proceeds, which I hope it may, there would need to be amendments. In opening the debate, he made generous offers about how those amendments might be secured, including by inserting an order-making power. As my noble friend Lady Morris said, we do not normally expect to hear from my noble friend Lord Blencathra about having further regulation, but he has made that offer.
The fact that the drafting needs to be improved does not undermine the value of our debate today, which goes to the very heart of the question of attitudes and what kind of society we want in this country. The purpose of my noble friend’s Bill is indeed modest. He has made it clear throughout that he recognises that the objective is to achieve access for wheelchair users at reasonable cost. Other noble Lords have given practical examples of that. It is of course not just the responsibility of central and local government to make sure that there is accessibility for wheelchair users; we all have a role to play. I would like to give one or two examples, but in so doing I make it clear that I do not say that only private action will take these matters forward; sometimes, legislation and further regulation is required.
We can all be aware and take action when we note discrimination in access, as others have said today. Those in business should be aware that providing good access is not only the right thing to do but good business, too. Every year, my husband and I go away for a long weekend with 11 of our friends, whom we have known for about 50 years. If a hotel is not accessible for one of our friends, Carol, who uses a wheelchair then we do not stay there. If a pub is not accessible, we do not eat or drink there. The business does not lose two customers; it loses 13, permanently.
There are of course other issues and it is a matter of attitudes. There is so much that businesses could do that cost hardly a thing, and yet they do not. For example, why do businesses not make restroom facilities accessible in a simple way, by providing grab rails? I am advised that if they did, a great proportion of the 800,000 people who use wheelchairs could—with some difficulty, it is true—get access to those toilets. But people simply do not make the effort. Why do more businesses not only add access statements to their websites but at least make sure that those are accurate, so you do not have to spend half your time making phone call after phone call, only to arrive and then find that it is not accessible after all.
My noble friend’s Bill raises, for me, another crucial issue: a duty to ensure wheelchair access for staff members, too, and not just customers. Wheelchair users surely should have access as employees in public buildings. Why should their careers be curtailed because adaptations which are reasonable have not been made? The businesses could be barring the best employees that they never get to have. Individual pressure can of course have some effect but not always enough. My noble friend has pointed out that it has not been enough so far.
As we plan our path to leave the European Union, this is absolutely the right time for my noble friend to bring the Bill forward. The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, currently being considered in another place, will convert applicable EU law into UK law, giving businesses and us all the certainty that rights and obligations will not be subject to overnight change. In leaving the EU, the UK will retain our current standards, but that should be only the first move in the right direction. Surely, we should then build upon them and show that the UK intends to lead the world in making accessibility a reality for all. Brexit is not a time to make a dive to the bottom; it is a time to lead a race to the top. Whether or not we use wheelchairs, we have the right to reach the same destination and I welcome my noble friend’s Bill.
My Lords, I support the “innocuous little Bill” of the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra. It is remarkable that every single person who has spoken so far is in favour of the Bill, which raises the question of why the Government are so obstinate on this issue when so many of us agree, particularly on the Government Benches. I spoke to the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, before the debate to explain that I have to catch a train at lunchtime, so I might have to leave before the summing-up, but everybody—almost everybody—has been so concise that I think I can stay until the end. He gave me his full pardon and forgiveness; I also checked with the Minister, who was slightly less willing to give me her forgiveness but I think she was joking—I hope so.
I wanted to speak today not because I or anybody in my family is disabled but partly because I wanted to join in such a wonderful cross-party debate. For me, the Bill touches my sense of justice about what the world should look like and how we should include absolutely everybody possible. As many noble Lords have said, it is not just wheelchair users who will benefit from this. Even I—and I consider myself still relatively healthy—will benefit when I, like the noble Lord, Lord Wasserman, have a heavy shopping trolley. This will enable so many people. As our population ages, it is essential that we think ahead on issues such as this to make it easy and possible for people to access every single building and every single home. I, too, salute the intention of the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, to make things fully accessible. That is what we should be aiming for. I subscribe to the social model of disability, which is based on the view that society disables us; it is not we who are disabled but society that forces it on us if it does not make things easy. We have to adapt society if we are to achieve equality.
Those of us in this House who see a six-inch step as a small or negligible obstacle must not allow our good fortune to inhibit the possibilities for people for whom it is a huge obstacle. The current regime of making reasonable adjustments is clearly inadequate. Ministers have previously said that the current duty is quite powerful and should be used more effectively rather than bringing in new legislation. Fine, but what do the Government propose to do about it? What are they going to bring in to make it possible?
I commend the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, for his persistence in promoting this Bill. I believe that this is its fourth reincarnation, which shows considerable persistence. I think that the Government have to go away to consider this very deeply. In fact, I am hoping for a change of heart. Perhaps the Government will be able to accept the Bill and do the open and transparent deal that has been offered and make a statement about improving society here and now today.
My Lords, I must apologise to the House for not getting my name down and for further taking up the time of your Lordships this morning, but I want to speak in the gap to indicate my strong support for the noble Lord who is bringing forward this Bill. I meant to sign up but I was working hard on something else and I am afraid that I took my eye off the ball—so I am sorry about that.
I commend the noble Lord on the thoroughness of his research and the excellent briefing that he has provided for us. In saying that, I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me if I say that there is one thing I do not quite agree with in his excellent briefing. Unless I have it wrong, at one point he says that there is no legal requirement to remove steps and replace them with ramps and that no one is compelling businesses to carry out their duty to make reasonable adjustments. I agree with the second part of that statement more than the first. With respect to the noble Lord, there is a duty. It does not refer to steps as such, but most of what the noble Lord wants to achieve would comfortably be covered by the reasonable adjustment duty. So far as service providers are concerned, it is anticipatory: that is to say, it is owed to disabled people generally. The service provider needs to make adjustments in anticipation of disabled people coming along and cannot fulfil their duty by simply waiting until a disabled person turns up. This is not the case for employers, but that is not a problem because the noble Lord’s Bill is about service providers. So there is a duty—but, like the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, I believe that the real issue is with enforcement. This Bill should not be necessary; it should have been widely, if not generally, complied with already.
I served on the National Disability Council, which advised the Government on the implementation of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 as soon as it came into force, and later on the Disability Rights Commission, which had rather stronger powers. One thing I remember from those days is that the DDA came in in three stages. The duty to remove policies, procedures and practices which discriminated against disabled people came in straightaway; the duty to provide auxiliary aids and services, such as hearing loops, came in after four years; and the duty to remove or alter physical features that discriminated against disabled people came in after eight years. So the removal of steps and the provision of ramps should have been fully implemented and complied with as long ago as 2003.
So there is a duty; the real issue is with enforcement. In a very conciliatory part of his speech—indeed, it was all conciliatory—the noble Lord said that he would be willing to do a deal with the Government in Committee over his Bill if they would agree to bring in regulations that would give effect to the provisions of his Bill. I suggest that the power to make these regulations is already there in the Equality Act. Section 22 lists a number of matters on which regulations may be made, and I shall mention three of them. Regulations may be made on,
“matters to be taken into account in deciding whether it is reasonable … to take a step”—
that is, “step” in the sense of actions that service providers have to take, not physical steps—
“things which are, or which are not, to be treated as physical features”,
“things which are, or which are not, to be treated as alterations of physical features”.
If the Government were to use this regulation-making power, I do not pretend that it would necessarily be a magic bullet, but I suggest to the Minister, and I would like to hear her view on this, that if the Government would give serious consideration to making such regulations, it could take us a significant step closer to getting service providers’ compliance with their duties under the Act and with the duty that the Bill is seeking to lay upon them.
My Lords, once again, I am very happy to support this Bill. It makes me smile that the noble Lord is introducing a Private Member’s Bill when his job at one time was to shout “Object” to every such Bill in the other place. Well, I shout “Support” now.
It is also very welcome that so many more non-disabled Peers are here to support the Bill. Perhaps, one way or another, this means that the time is now right for us to make some real progress. As has been said by nearly every speaker, what is simply not recognised in general is that there is no person or body actually and actively in charge of policing access to public buildings, such as shops. I wonder if shopkeepers believe they have to do something only when they are told by someone in authority that they have to do it—and if they are not told, they do not. Funnily enough, a lot of people have heard of the DDA, but because it is never talked about, as it has been subsumed into the Equality Act, they do not think it matters any more.
Since the summer, I have had the pleasure of living in a hotel room on Westminster Bridge Road in the Waterloo area. I have since rather fallen in love with this part of London, with its wonderfully old-fashioned feel and its surprisingly vibrant community. One of the streets is called Lower Marsh, which has much in common with Strutton Ground—which the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, mentioned last time—in the way of a street market and little shops, although it is not quite as well heeled. But, sadly, most of the shops are up a little step or two and so are quite out of reach for those of us on wheels. The exceptions, of course, are Boots, Greggs and the Co-op, which therefore do well.
As far as I can see, nothing has changed for the better since the last debate on this Bill. The Government may have appointed shopping champions—I wonder whether they have—but unless they actually make a difference, there is not much point. Nor do I think that chambers of commerce are much help in this. Why not? We need a concerted campaign in this area. Shopkeepers need all the help they can get with everyone buying everything online. Why are local authorities not helping them by trying to come up with solutions? I wonder whether there is explicit guidance anywhere about how a reasonable adjustment could be made to solve the problem of small steps up to small shops in a street with narrow pavements. We heard in our committee deliberations that no more explicit guidance was needed on reasonable adjustments, but we all thought that that advice was wrong.
The Bill is about permanent ramps, but I have been doing a little research into portable ramps, which are better than nothing and could be put down to allow a wheeled vehicle in and out and then be taken away. After all, in some settings a permanent ramp is just not possible. Obviously a permanent ramp would be the best solution, but it might intrude too far on to the pavement. Local councillors should be lobbied to get their council officials to help with this. I am informed that there is much they can suggest, and I will give another plug to that estimable organisation, the Access Association, which can also help. But as a temporary measure, I say we should get chambers of commerce or mayor’s offices to put some money into buying a stock of portable ramps, if shopkeepers will not take action themselves. They could run an experiment for six months or so to see what the take-up was. A notice could be put on the shop window or door saying a ramp was available, with a bell to push.
As for listed buildings, Westminster Abbey has a couple of portable ramps it puts down for vehicle users, which work very well. Our church, St Margaret’s, has a built-in ramp—even better. From the Minister, we do not want aspirations, we want action. So I hope she will come up with a concrete plan—I choose my words deliberately.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, for bringing this Bill before us today and congratulate him on his persistence and determination to bring about step-free access to all those people who use wheelchairs, and also for the extensive and well-informed briefings which he has provided. I also thank the noble Lord for agreeing to meet with me this week, which was most helpful.
The noble Lord makes a compelling case for action and has much evidence on his side. For example, all around the House today there was support for this Bill, including from our three formidable noble Baronesses, Lady Masham, Lady Brinton and Lady Thomas, with their great experience in this field. I give as an example the inquiry conducted by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee into disability and the built environment in February this year. The committee found that,
“too often, disabled people find their lives needlessly restricted by features of the built environment. Many workplaces and service premises are inaccessible”.
The committee believed that the Equality Act 2010,
“should, in theory, prevent inaccessible buildings and public spaces being created and enduring”.
It went on to say that,
“the burden of ensuring that an accessible environment is achieved falls too heavily at present on individual disabled people, an approach that we consider to be neither morally nor practically sustainable”.
I think that says it all. Why should disabled people have to take this action themselves? This is wrong. As the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, said in 2014, not enough is being done regarding enforcement of Section 20 of the Equality Act 2010.
The Women and Equalities Committee recommended that Approved Document M of the building regulations, which is currently based on a 16-year old standard,
“should be updated to ensure it is still relevant and adequately addresses access for disabled people today, adopting an inclusive design, pan-impairment approach”.
It also recommended changes to the Licensing Act 2003 to mandate local authority licensing officers to act on failure to make licensed premises accessible.
The House of Lords Equality Act 2010 and Disability Committee, which the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, chaired, found that,
“evidence of problems in obtaining this right”—
to reasonable adjustment—has,
“emanated from almost every part of society”.
The committee cited examples, such as shops, restaurants, hospitals, sports grounds and other entertainment venues failing to make reasonable adjustments. The committee found a lack of awareness among service providers of their obligations, particularly of the anticipatory duty. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, went on to say:
“Over the course of our inquiry we have been struck by how disabled people are let down across the whole spectrum of life. Access to public buildings remains an unnecessary challenge to disabled people. Public authorities can easily side-step their legal obligations to disabled people”.
In a Westminster Hall debate in February this year on publicly accessible amenities for disabled people, when asked what the Government were doing to ensure compliance with the enforcement of the Equalities Act 2010, Marcus Jones, Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government, said that compliance with the Act was a legal duty and suggested that,
“perhaps we need to remind service providers that that is a duty, not an option”.—[Official Report, Commons, 23/2/17; col. 472WH.]
If the Government are acknowledging this, then perhaps the Minister in her reply can say what action has been taken to remind service providers of their duty. Maybe that could go some way to ensuring enforcement.
We have had two committees in recent years holding inquiries into access for people with disabilities, and a debate in Westminster Hall in February. It is interesting to note that each one has said that much needs to be done to improve the lives of people with disabilities in terms of their obtaining access to public amenities. It seems that in this country today it is okay to effectively bar around 800,000 people in wheelchairs from being able to enter many places we take for granted such as shops, pubs and restaurants. How much does this curtail people from having what should be a normal and enjoyable day out with friends and family, because they are unable to enter a premise because of the steps?
In his speech, the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, said he could place some letters in the Library for Members of the House to read. I would be very pleased if he could do that, along with any other relevant letters he might feel would help in this case.
The Bill offers a solution that will make life better and easier for people in wheelchairs. We on our side support the Bill, and I am happy to have further discussions with the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra. I hope that we can work together and that the Government can give some positive responses to this today.
My Lords, I am the last to have the opportunity to congratulate my noble friend Lord Blencathra on succeeding in getting his Bill before this House for a second time. He is obviously well loved and very much agreed with, and I thank him for the opportunity that it gives me to restate this Government’s commitment to protecting disabled people and improving their life choices and opportunities through the Equality Act 2010.
It is now more than 20 years since Parliament first enacted the duty on specified people to make a reasonable adjustment, a duty that is now enshrined in the Equality Act and remains a cornerstone of the protection offered to disabled people. It achieves the delicate balance of taking account of the rights of disabled people and what is reasonable to expect of those under a duty to make an adjustment.
Specifically, the duty establishes the need for service providers to adjust or provide a reasonable means of avoiding a physical feature, such as a ramp instead of steps to access a building. There is also an expectation that the service provider should take a proactive approach in considering what reasonable adjustments are needed and not simply wait to be asked. However, the legislation recognises the need to strike a fair balance and requires a service provider only to make adjustments that are reasonable in all the circumstances of a particular case, as my noble friend pointed out. For example, if the cost of making the adjustment would put the service provider out of business or would require them to break another part of the law, such as the rules on listed buildings, that clearly would not be reasonable. I should add that while a service provider is able to decline unreasonable requests, if an adjustment is reasonable then it must be made. An adjustment is either reasonable or it is not, to state the obvious.
Separately, Part M of the Building Regulations 2010, which pertains to the access to and use of a building, also requires reasonable provision to be made for wheelchair users to gain access to new buildings or when an existing building undergoes significant alternation or extension. I hope this explanation of the existing duty will help the House to appreciate that the Government believe that the existing legislation is already comprehensive in this regard.
We have every sympathy for the aims of my noble friend’s Bill but there are a couple of areas that I am concerned about, and I will go through those for the benefit of noble Lords. The Bill would essentially remove the reasonableness filter and require service providers, without exception, to provide ramps for wheelchair users wherever there was a single step that was less than six inches in height in a public area. The Bill would also take no account of the cost of the installation, although my noble friend has given his estimate of what the cost might be. Secondly, the existing provisions in the Act are deliberately and carefully worded to allow for greater scope in considering how best to solve the particular problem being experienced by the disabled person.
In Committee my noble friend talked about doing a deal with the Government over some sort of order-making power. Of course we will consider his Bill carefully if he wishes to change it into a different form, but he will be aware of our reservations that this would inevitably result in numerous calls to have other specific remedies spelt out in the Act or in further technical guidance. As my noble friend will appreciate, a one-size-fits-all approach cannot address the many and varied needs of our citizens. The noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, also talked about using a regulating power in the Act to increase compliance. I note and very much agree with the noble Lord’s thoughtful speech. As I have made clear, we are looking carefully at the enforcement of the Equality Act, and we will consider his advice very carefully.
The House of Lords Select Committee report The Equality Act 2010: The Impact on Disabled People found that despite the problems described with the statutory provisions on reasonable adjustment, the flexibility that they provide is necessary for their effectiveness. The Government agree on that point. When my noble friend’s Bill was last debated in this House, much concern was expressed that it was all very well to refer such matters to the courts but there are fundamental flaws in how the Equality Act is enforced, especially by disabled people. It is a fundamental principle of anti-discrimination law, accepted by successive Governments since the 1960s, that such law is enforced by the individual who thinks they have suffered discrimination. There are good examples of disabled people enforcing the duty to make reasonable adjustments. Noble Lords will no doubt have heard of the case of Mr Paulley, who has successfully enforced the Act on many occasions. While individual rights of enforcement must remain, the Government have been looking carefully at whether the enforcement of the Equality Act can be improved.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission recently conducted a pilot scheme to increase access to justice for people experiencing disability discrimination. It offered disability groups more than £25,000 of legal assistance in over 100 cases to provide direct routes to justice for disabled people facing a range of problems. The commission is also increasing its legal capacity to advise on discrimination cases.
The Equality and Advisory Support Service equality and human rights helpline refers specific cases that have been raised with it to the EHRC for possible enforcement action. We can ensure that cases of the sort with which my noble friend’s Bill is concerned are included in those earmarked for EHRC referral. In addition, our manifesto earlier this year committed to strengthening the enforcement of equalities law so that private landlords and businesses who deny people a service are properly investigated and prosecuted, and we are considering how best to take that forward.
I shall home in on specific issues that noble Lords have raised. My noble friend Lord Blencathra made the point that the Equality Act does not provide adequately for disabled people who need differential treatment. The 2010 Act is specifically designed to recognise that disabled people may need to be treated differently to achieve equality in three main areas: it is not discrimination to treat disabled people more favourably; there is a duty to make reasonable adjustments, as I have outlined; and the Act prohibits discrimination because of something arising from disability that is unique to disability.
My noble friend made the point that disabled charities are not allowed by law to help with enforcement proceedings. There is nothing in law to prevent disabled charities assisting disabled people to enforce the Equality Act, either financially or with practical support. It is true that charities cannot bring cases on a disabled person’s behalf, but they can help the disabled person to bring them. The EHRC is currently working with disabled charities to assist with individual legal cases, as I mentioned earlier.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, brought a new case of taxi accessibility before us with her story of a taxi driver who did not realise he had a ramp in his boot—he had obviously never looked there. As she will know, the outstanding provisions in Section 165 and 167 of the Equality Act 2010 were commenced in April 2017, ensuring that wheelchair users receive the assistance that they need when travelling in taxis and private hire vehicles designed as wheelchair-accessible. She might remind the next taxi driver of that fact, if he needs to be reminded. The Equality Act powers mean that local licensing authorities may choose whether to publish a list of designated vehicles, and so apply the Section 165 requirements—to provide appropriate assistance and not to charge extra—to their drivers. We have strongly encouraged authorities to do this and will continue to do so.
The noble Baroness also pointed out that the ramp will not necessarily help you to get into a shop: you may still be unable to use it, depending on the steepness of the slope. I agree that many technical issues underlie the concerns that the Bill is intended to address. For example, for 12-inch steps, a ramp would need to be 6 metres long. We need to be very careful that we do not agree new legislation which extends across whole sectors only to find that this legislation, in turn, is unsatisfactory due to unforeseen circumstances.
The noble Lord, Lord Haworth, said that disability should not have been included in the Equality Act 2010 with other characteristics. I can only note that the committee chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, recommended, and both Houses of Parliament voted for, full harmonisation of all protected characteristics at the time. The Act in fact preserved and added to the protection for disabled people already in the Disability Discrimination Act.
My noble friend Lord Holmes asked what steps the Government have been taking to address accessibility issues. Building regulations now require all building works to consider and allow access for everyone, including wheelchair users. All new-build public buildings must make reasonable provision to be step free.
My noble friend Lord Shinkwin mentioned an issue that he is pursuing with the EHRC and my right honourable friend in the other place. Without talking about individual cases, I can only restate that the roles and responsibilities given to board members of the Equality and Human Rights Commission are matters for the commission itself, and the Government have no power to reinstate the EHRC’s disability commissioner role.
The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, asked whether we are considering access to religious buildings. Building regulations of course come with statutory guidance on use of buildings, and that includes religious buildings—for example, mosques and churches. New buildings of this kind must comply with guidance, independent standards such as BS 8300, and provision on spaces between buildings, for external spaces and for the approaches to and use of facilities in buildings.
The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, talked about access to licensed premises. Licensed premises are where many of us choose to socialise, and are therefore an important part of our daily lives. Too many of these venues are difficult for disabled people to access. I mentioned that the Conservative manifesto in 2017 made a commitment to review disabled people’s access and to amend regulations if necessary to improve disabled access to licensed premises, parking and housing. We will consult disabled people’s organisations better to understand the extent of the problem from the perspective of those with a broad range of disabilities, their carers and families. We will work with the National Association of Licensing and Enforcement Officers, which gave evidence to the Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010 and Disability, and representatives of the licensed trade to explore what practical measures can be taken. We hope that this will result in significant improvements for disabled people without the need for additional regulations.
However, we agree with the recent House of Lords committee report on the Licensing Act 2003 that adding to the licensing objectives is not the answer. The 2003 Act and the licensing objectives must be able to address issues that apply to licensable activities and are therefore unique to licensed premises. The 2003 Act should not be used to control other aspects of licensed premises. This would be outside the scope of the licensing regime and contrary to the principles of better regulation.
The noble Baroness also noted that the EHRC has gone backwards on disability. As I said, the EHRC’s disability committee came to an end by statutory order provided for under the Equality Act 2006. The EHRC now has a disability advisory committee and is working extensively with disability groups. I am sure that the chair of the EHRC would be happy to write to her about this.
My noble friend Lady Anelay of St Johns and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb—no, I would not have been cross had the noble Baroness left and would have still responded to her—made the point that the Equality Act 2010 shows how legislation can be undermined by unintended consequences. I take note of what my noble friend and the noble Baroness said, and I talked about unintended consequences earlier in my response. However, we need to be careful when we try to mend the unintended consequences of legislation by passing more legislation.
My noble friend’s speech also underlined the importance of effective enforcement of existing laws, and it is that which the Government and the Equality and Human Rights Commission is now looking to improve. My noble friend also talked about wheelchair access for employees as well as service users. The Equality Act already imposes a duty on employers to take reasonable adjustments for disabled employees and prospective employees. That would include making places of work wheelchair accessible whenever it is reasonable to do so. That duty is frequently enforced in the employment tribunals, not only in relation to wheelchairs but for other adjustments as well.
Finally, my noble friend made the point that Brexit is not an opportunity to race to the bottom. The Government have already made a commitment to retain all the protections in the Equality Act as we leave the EU, and we will have committed to tabling a government amendment before Report stage of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, whereby Ministers bringing in Brexit-related legislation will make statements on its consistency with the Equality Act. I hope that, on that positive note, I can assure noble Lords of this Government’s continued commitment to protecting the rights of disabled people. Our concerns for the Bill do not affect that and our belief that every disabled person has the right to have an adjustment made for them that is reasonable.
My Lords, I thank the 17 Peers from all sides of this House who have participated in this important debate. I am particularly grateful to those who are not wheelchair users but who support the Bill simply because they agree that there is a fundamental injustice here that can be easily corrected. Noble Lords had many different points to make, and I shall try to address them all as quickly as I can. However, every single Peer who has spoken, apart from the Government, made the point that wheelchair users are being discriminated against unfairly, and that it has to stop, and that my Bill or something like it is a simple and cheap solution to much of the problem. It does not solve all the access problems, but it tackles over 80% of them.
My noble friend Lady Anelay of St Johns was right to emphasise the importance of post-legislative scrutiny, as carried out by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and her committee. She made the point that, to be treated equally, disabled people need to be treated differently. I am very willing to amend the Bill in any way, so long as we can get access over those little steps—whether it is six inches or 10.325 centimetres, I do not care. She mentioned unemployed people and their rights, which was covered extensively in the Select Committee report, but I have not covered it in my Bill. And she is right: I try to avoid cafes, restaurants and bars, but if they cannot let me in to be served, I am not going to be served out on the street—they can clear off, and I would say that to them quite bluntly.
The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton, said that if everyone spent 12 hours in a wheelchair it would open their eyes. I remember when the Labour Peeress, the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, was introduced, and a few weeks later she broke her leg. She was stuck out in plaster for a few weeks. She was appalled; she could not get to most of this House or Parliament, let alone all the other places in the high street. It is ironic that we can get into every park around London, but we cannot get into 20% of the shops and pubs around those parks.
I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Borwick for the wonderful work that he has done in ensuring that London black cabs are accessible. Frankly, I dread the idea of what I regard as the criminal and vile company Uber putting London black cabs out of business, because wheelchair users would never travel in a taxi again. Uber has no responsibility for providing wheelchair-accessible taxis. I agree that more training is necessary. In my little chariot, I carry a short, stubby screwdriver, because half the cabbies cannot find the screwdriver to undo the ramp. He also stressed the additional cost of disability, including the whisky; I agree entirely with that. He is also right that the Bill would benefit up to 4 million people using pushchairs, prams and baby buggies in addition to wheelchairs.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, also did sterling work on the Lords Select Committee. I agree on the need for guidance on the steepness of ramps. A few years ago, I was in a hurry trying to get to the Gatwick Express. I zoomed out of a black taxi, down the ramp; it was not on a high kerb and I did not wait for the cabbie to help me—my little chair went over backwards and I cracked my head open, and I was in hospital for a little while. That may explain some of my speeches afterwards. So yes, we need some guidance on the steepness of ramps. Some of us in chairs take risks that we are not supposed to take. I, too, commend the Institution of Civil Engineers on One Great George Street. I do not have to go in there, but I sometimes use that ramp for the fun of using it—it is such a magnificent construction.
I pay tribute again to my noble friend Lady Deech for her superb chairing of the Lords Select Committee. The whole House and the Government should heed her wise words. I agree with her that the government response to her committee’s report was feeble. Disabled people have been let down across the piece. If the Government or the House do not want to listen to me because I may be slightly biased, not just because of my party allegiance or because I am in a chair, as a distinguished Cross Bencher chairing that committee she is not biased, and the committee’s report was authoritative. Quite rightly, she said that there was there is a callous or ignorant denial of rights to wheelchair users.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, the spokesman for the Opposition. I am very grateful for her and for her party’s support. She is right to say that the onus all falls on disabled people to fight for access, and that is not right. It may be okay for us middle-class users such as myself and the three noble Baronesses here today in wheelchairs—we are articulate agitators and we can fight for some of our rights—but there are tens, indeed hundreds, of thousands of wheelchair users who are not like us and do not have the privilege of being able to make speeches like this to fight for those rights.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Haworth, on his speech. He emphasised the Select Committee’s point that the 2010 Act was a retrograde step for disabled people. The Act was well-meaning but had unintended consequences. He again emphasised that it is all the little things that make life a misery. I understand perfectly well that I cannot get up the six steps to the Cinnamon Club—I have not had a nice dinner there bought by someone else in many years—but I am annoyed that I cannot get into the place next door that has only a three-inch step, which they could easily have removed.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb; I am very grateful for her contribution. I appreciate that she has to dash off any second—I told her that I would prefer her to speak and go rather than not speak at all. She is also one who has no experience of a wheelchair but says that it is the sense of justice that annoys her and that the Act is just not fair. What better justification for changing the law than to do it out of a sense of justice.
My noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond gave a magnificent speech—what a powerful contribution, as always. I believe that he is the only person to win a record six gold medals in one Olympic Games. We have seen him champion many worthy causes in this House, and I am particularly pleased that he is championing my Bill. It gives me more justification than anything else for thinking that I must be on the right track, because I consider his support significant. He is right that business would get a boost if disabled people could get into shops. And he is also right that you can feel it in your gut and it makes you pretty angry and stroppy at times when you cannot get into a place that you should easily be able to get into.
The noble Baroness, Lady Masham of Ilton, has tremendous experience and I hope that the House will listen to the most senior female Peer in this building, because her opinion counts. She made the point that solving the problem of a four-inch step is pretty easy. One shop can do it; the one next door simply has not thought about it. Why would people in a wheelchair want to get into the shop? Well, if you do, what is the problem? She stressed that my Bill has no cost to the Government.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and I take her point. If the Government will do something about steps of six inches or lower, I will be quite happy in Committee to drop, or postpone for some time, the 12-inch problem, which has a greater cost. As I said, if we deal with steps of six or fewer inches, we would deal with 87% of the problem, so I am happy to put the 12-inch problem on the back burner for a bit, if that is the mood of the House.
My noble friend Lady Morris of Bolton made an excellent point. I, too, have lost control of my chair—luckily I have managed to avoid running into a hedge, but I can always grab a lamp post, which has saved me on a few occasions. My noble friend is also right that it is all the little things that cause us problems. I have tried to keep the costs down in my Bill. In the briefing that I circulated, I referred to the famous case of Allen v the Royal Bank of Scotland, taking place at 5 Church Street in Sheffield. He won his case; he could not get into the bank, a listed building. Eventually, it got to the High Court, after he spent his money to fight it. The judge ruled that providing a lift for this person in this listed building at a cost of £200,000 was a “reasonable adjustment”—yet the Government quote a possible cost of a few hundred pounds as one of the justifications for opposing my Bill.
I will try to be as quick as I can, but I do not want to miss anyone out. I listened carefully to what my noble friend Lord Shinkwin said. I do not pretend to fully understand all the complexities of the case, but I am certain that he was treated fairly shabbily by the EHRC. He was appointed to be the disability champion, but that post was scrapped before he got there. If nothing else, it all adds to the evidence that disability issues have fallen down its agenda. I urge him to stay to fight in the EHRC for disabled issues. It has been my experience—indeed, all our experience, as parliamentarians—that we can spend an awful lot of time worrying about conspiracy theories and waste a lot of our lives without getting to the bottom of them. But there is a real job to be done in the EHRC in fighting for disabled people. If he does not stay to fight, I cannot and nobody else can. My noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond does a magnificent job. We need him in there fighting for it and putting other issues behind him—let us go forward.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, for her marvellous work on the Lords Select Committee. She adds to the evidence that many small shops are inaccessible. It is a very good point that local authorities should do more. I like the idea of local mayors or chambers of commerce taking the initiative. We need others to take the initiative if the EHRC will not.
My noble friend Lord Wasserman quoted the Prime Minister talking about building a society that works for everyone. I wish that I had thought of that, because it is a brilliant point. He again stressed the economic benefits of the Bill and the strong moral reasons to remove stumbling blocks.
I agree with the point by the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, about places of worship and other public buildings. Many are old buildings where it is more difficult to deal with multiple steps. I had not thought of the problem of mosques and I am very happy to have discussions with him to see what can be done and how the Bill can, if necessary, be amended to tackle that problem.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, for speaking in the gap. I agree with him that reasonable adjustments should cover every eventuality but, as all the evidence to the Select Committee showed, it simply does not happen on the ground. I also agree that these steps should already have been removed. When I searched on Google for “reasonable steps” and “getting rid of steps”, nearly all the hits were for companies advising people that, because of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, they had to remove steps. I could not find a single Google hit saying that they had to get rid of steps because of the 2010 Act. All the examples listed had done so because of the DDA 1995. I can also tell the noble Lord that I looked at Section 22. It gives the Minister order-making powers but not to do the specific things suggested in my Bill. Therefore, it does not technically cover what I am seeking to achieve here.
I come to the Minister’s speech. I say straightaway that she is an excellent Minister. She is the Minister of State at the Home Office—I have been there and done some of that, so I know what it is like—and she has an enormous and difficult portfolio covering countering extremism and hate crime, integration, devolution, data strategy, identity and biometrics, better regulation and animals in science. In addition, she has to answer for everything else here in this House. She is not the Minister for the Disabled, yet she has drawn the short draw today, having to stand at that Dispatch Box and, in my opinion, defend the indefensible. Therefore, my condemnation of what she has had to say is no reflection on her whatever, as she has my deepest personal respects.
It is obvious that the Government Equalities Office has produced the usual discredited litany of excuses for doing nothing to help disabled people. It says that “reasonable adjustments” is a well-understood mechanism, if only by government lawyers. The Select Committee said that the concept of “reasonable adjustments” should stay. I agree entirely, but the Government have ignored every other bit of criticism from the Select Committee about the failures of the Act. The Government also say that making specific requirements for wheelchairs would open up a Pandora’s box of other specific adjustments. However, if it were another category affecting 800,000 deaf or partially sighted people and there was an easy technical solution, I would say, “Open that box and make that amendment as well. Justice demands it”. Another excuse is that forcing disabled people to take service providers to court personally somehow empowers them. In the past, the Disability Rights Commission would fight for them, but no more. Of course, there is also the old chestnut about costs.
How have the Government, which I have supported since I was a 14 year-old, got themselves into this hole where disabled people are no longer on their radar? It was a Conservative Government who introduced the ground-breaking Disability Rights Act 1995 but now, as everyone giving evidence to the Select Committee said, disability has dropped way down the interest scale with the 2010 Act. As the committee said:
“Our conclusion is that the Equality Act 2010 has led to a loss of focus on disability”.
How have decent, caring Ministers lost control of policy on the disabled to the civil servants at the GEO, who guard the 2010 Act like fanatical vestal virgins guarding the sacred flame that must never be allowed to go out? It must not be amended, no matter what its failings and no matter how easy it is to amend it at little cost.
On 16 March this year, the Government told me in a Written Answer that since 2015 the Government Equalities Office has issued 75 press releases and statements on transsexual and transgender issues and 12 on disability. The department is obsessed with dealing with a tiny minority of the transgender lobby, and it does not seem to give a damn about the 11 million disabled people in this country. The transgender lobby demands the right to use male, female or whatever toilets, but 800,000 people cannot get into a building in the first place to have the right to use any toilet.
The new Minister for Disabled People, who is also a decent Minister—I met her yesterday—offered me a round-table discussion with other Peers on this problem, but she does not make policy, which is firmly in the grip of the GEO. I shall take her up on that round table and will invite other Peers to join us, but we are not going to go away quietly.
I urge Ministers to get a grip of the civil servants running this policy and to tell them that wheelchair users have rights too. We do not want special treatment but, in order to get equality, we need different treatment, as the Select Committee pointed out. Wheelchair users have no option but to take our business elsewhere, to the shops that are “caring” enough to let us in. But we will continue to demand that the Government legislate for this injustice, either in my Bill or through an order-making power.
Yesterday, I received a letter from the Secretary of State for the Environment assuring me that the Government recognise animals as sentient beings and promising to improve animal welfare standards. I suggest he should send it to the Government Equalities Office and tell it to treat disabled people with half the concern we rightly have for animals.
In the meantime, since the Minister is responsible for dealing also with hate crime, I should perhaps say—and not jokingly—that every wheelchair user should call the police and report a hate crime every time we cannot get into a shop or are refused access. If every one of us did that then we would add at least 10,000 new offences every day and they would be as valid as some of those already reported. We will fight with renewed vigour, and I ask that the Bill get a Second Reading so we can continue the battle for justice for wheelchair users. I beg to move.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.