My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for bringing this Bill before your Lordships. The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, epitomises someone who wants to be as independent as possible. The noble Lord has explained his Bill so clearly that I cannot believe it will not be accepted. Many people who have to use wheelchairs also wish to be as independent as possible. I am sure that they would be pleased if, on their behalf, I wholeheartedly thank the noble Lord for his continued efforts on this important matter, which would not only would help thousands of wheelchair users, but their helpers and people using babies’ pushchairs.
Our society has changed in the past few years and we have a growing elderly population, many of whom are using electric wheelchairs due to strokes, Parkinson’s, spinal injuries, arthritis and many neurological conditions as well as heart and cancer problems. Also, many young people suffer long-term conditions such as cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and other types of disabilities, including spinal injuries and brain injuries from accidents and tumours. I have to declare an interest. I have always been a very active person. As a child, I milked cows by hand and rode ponies from an early age. At school, I was keen on sport. When I broke my back and became paralysed, I took part in paraplegic sports and played table tennis in many countries with the Paralympics. But all my sport and using a manual wheelchair for many years has caused the upper body, hands and shoulders to be overworked. It has taken its toll and I have had to graduate to using an electric wheelchair.
I know only too well that electric wheelchairs cannot negotiate steps and are too heavy to lift manually. Therefore, ramps are essential. Two weeks ago, I was shopping in Harrogate, using my electric wheelchair. I wanted to go to L’Occitane, a shop in James Street, but found that there was a four-inch step, which the electric wheelchair could not negotiate. The person with me went into the shop to see if they had a ramp. “Sorry”, they said, “No ramp”, but offered to help with my helper, but it was no go because the electric wheelchair was too heavy. My helper then went to the next-door shop, Molton Brown, which had a similar step, but it had a portable ramp, so we asked if we could borrow it to go to the shop next door. Yes we could.
So with the borrowed ramp, we entered L’Occitane. The shop assistant was most apologetic. I assured her that it was not her fault, but the responsibility of the management. When I told her about the noble Lord’s Bill, she thought that it was an excellent idea. We returned the borrowed portable ramp to Molton Brown and I made a second purchase, having used the ramp. It is interesting to find two similar shops next to each other, one without a portable ramp and one with one. Is it that one wants to help disabled people and the other cannot be bothered? I hope that it is not because they do not want people using wheelchairs in the shop but because of a lack of knowledge of how easy it is to get portable ramps.
In my small home town of Masham in North Yorkshire, there is only one pharmacist. It has a four-inch step and no ramp. Nobody using an electric wheelchair can enter and people using manual wheelchairs or walking frames could find it difficult to do so unaided. This pharmacist just cannot be bothered or thinks that there is no legal requirement. Ramps are not only useful for people; they are useful for wheeling in heavy goods. Some people using wheelchairs may want some confidential advice or to purchase something private. They want to be self-sufficient. All pharmacists should have access to everybody.
How much more does the noble Lord have to do to convince the Government that his Bill is necessary? This is something that will not cost the Government money. Many disabled people have elderly carers who struggle with steps, and wheelchairs may be the last straw, when the obstacle could be removed so easily with a ramp. It is really frustrating.
I hope that this time the Bill will have a speedy journey through both Houses and that the Minister can give your Lordships some good news today. I hope also that the Government will listen to people with first-hand experience of steps and ramps. However, at a reception held recently at 10 Downing Street, I noticed that portable ramps were set up at the entrance, while upstairs there was a splendid lift with steps that could disappear while the lift came out; it was very modern. The Government know what is necessary and now is the time to help the whole population so that they all can enter shops and other places.