Equality Act 2010 (Amendment) (Disabled Access) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:25 am on 24th November 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench 10:25 am, 24th November 2017

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.