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.