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.