Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:17 pm on 16th July 2020.

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Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Shadow Secretary of State for Housing 1:17 pm, 16th July 2020

I completely agree with my hon. Friend; it is as if he has read my speech, which says that the lack of public toilets disproportionately affects people with ill health or disability, the elderly, and also women—I mentioned menstruation—outdoor workers and homeless people.

Health conditions that require frequent trips and often privacy that a cubicle alone can provide include bowel cancer; stroke; multiple sclerosis; use of a stoma; urinary incontinence, which can happen for all sorts of reasons, including family history, and at all ages; inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis; and conditions that damage the nerves that control the bowels or bottom, which can include stroke, spina bifida, recent surgery and childbirth. One in 637 people has Crohn’s; one in 417 has ulcerative colitis; one in 500 people lives with a stoma; and one in 526 has multiple sclerosis. Every single right hon. and hon. Member in this House will have constituents who are thus affected.

Women need the loo more often when pregnant, menstruating or out with small children, or after childbirth. Differences in clothing and anatomy mean that it takes longer for women, which results in queues and waits, which in turn causes problems for women’s health. People’s whose job keeps them out and about have real problems if they cannot find a loo. I am sure that the Minister is aware of this, but I wish to add to his list of concerns rough sleepers and other homeless people: even if they have accommodation in a night shelter, they still need somewhere to go by day. We cannot expect them simply to stop functioning, and they may struggle to use options such as shopping centres or cafés. That is a lot of people I have listed.

The “Taking the P***” report rightly points out that we have a taboo about talking about natural bodily functions and, as a result, public loos and their role in assisting with hygiene, hydration, exercise and participation in public life are not recognised sufficiently as the public health resource that they truly are—I think I have become somewhat passionate about the subject of public loos. The British Toilet Association raised with me problems of public fouling, which has consequences for health, hygiene and enjoyment of public space. There is also a risk of covid transmission through human faeces. Fouling in parks and on beaches has particular risks for children, and that has been compounded during the crisis by the closure of many public loos.

The British Toilet Association also raised the fact that access to a public toilet is a human right under the UN sustainable development goals, and in particular that women and girls need somewhere private to change sanitary products. Closing public loos does not stop people needing them; it just stops some people going about their daily lives and causes others to do things that have health consequences for us all.

The Bill helps only the finances of buildings that are solely or mainly loos—so far so good—but it will do nothing to reverse the decline in numbers and will not help with the running costs of loos in other buildings. The Royal Society for Public Health estimates that the running costs of public toilets vary between £15,000 and £60,000 per year, depending on size and staffing. In 2018, the BBC’s “Reality Check” used freedom of information requests to obtain information from most councils, and concluded that at least 673 public toilets had closed between 2010 and 2018. By my calculations—the Minister may have a better calculator than me—that means that it will cost between £10 million, give or take, and £40 million, give or take, to replace those lost lavs. Given the consequences of those reductions in numbers for public health and people’s lives, will the Government at least check my workings and use their good offices to come to a more accurate figure that we can at least debate when we come to the next stages of the Bill?

As I said, we will not oppose the Bill, but we will seek to amend it at later stages. As a favour to the Minister, I shall outline the ways in which we might do that. Will the Government assess the number of public lavatories in buildings that would not qualify for the provisions in the Bill, and the opportunity cost of not giving them that same support, as well as the actual financial cost? We can then debate on a more informed basis whether we need to increase the Bill’s reach to include those lavatories. Will the Government assess the cost of replacing them all? Will they assess the need for increased capacity to meet the specific needs of parents with young children, people with relevant illnesses or disabilities, women and girls, and older people? That would mean an equality impact assessment. Will they use the Bill to create provisions for emergency temporary additional financial support for local councils to help with the costs of operating, cleaning and staffing public toilets during the continuing covid crisis?

I hope that by now the House will have heard my enthusiasm for reforming the provision of public loos, my urging of the Government to push the Bill further, and my utter lack of toilet puns, which frankly I need to be commended for—there may have been accidental ones, but I promise that I did not intend them—but I cannot close my speech without remarking that although this is a chronic and serious problem, it does not have the urgency of other issues under the purview of the Department for which it could, and arguably should, have used this parliamentary time before recess. Those issues include the renters’ rights Bill promised in the Queen’s Speech and the building safety Bill—legislation that covers urgent needs that are going to become apparent over the summer, as is particularly true of the renters’ rights Bill, what with the temporary ban on evictions set to end in August.

We would have helped the Government to get emergency temporary legislation across the line in time for the temporary evictions ban to make sure there was provision for those who felt the need to be protected by the Secretary of State’s good words back in March, when he said that nobody should be made homeless because of coronavirus, of which there is a real risk. That time has now gone. I am also concerned about the buildings safety Bill. It is obviously around—whispers have come to my ears—but we have not yet seen it, and three years on from Grenfell, people have spent the lockdown living in unsafe buildings and often paying for the cost of the waking watch.

All in all, the Bill is needed, though a curious priority compared with other urgent needs. Given that it is before us, however, we are disappointed that the Government have failed to seize the opportunity to restore public loos, help millions of people to enjoy daily life and redress the damage done over the last 10 years, but we will return to all of this in September, when the Bill returns for its remaining Commons stages.