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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:30 am on 24th November 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Party Chair, Liberal Democrats 10:30 am, 24th November 2017

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.