My Lords, in July 2016, shortly after having been asked by HM the Queen to form a new Government, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said that it was her “mission” as Prime Minister to make Britain,
“a country that works for everyone”.
She also said that the Government she led,
“will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives”.
If I were asked to propose one short Bill to give effect to the Prime Minister’s twin objectives of building a country that works for everyone and giving ordinary people more control over their own lives, I could not think of anything better than the Bill presently before your Lordships’ House. At a stroke, the Bill would give people control over a large part of their own lives, affecting some 800,000 of our fellow citizens who through no fault of their own, but simply because they are confined to wheelchairs, are unable to enjoy the full benefits of what this great country of ours has to offer.
But this Bill goes very much further than offering a better life to those who are confined to wheelchairs, a point made by my noble friend Lord Borwick and the noble Baroness, Lady Masham. If the Bill were to become law, it would also make life infinitely easier and better for many others: for those who are elderly and find it difficult and dangerous to negotiate steps, particularly in the dark or in the rain; for those with prams, pushchairs and baby buggies; and for those like me who do the weekly shopping with a shopping trolley which by the end of the expedition is usually overflowing with a heavy mixture of boxes and bags, not to mention loose fruit and veg.
Those are some of the social benefits of the Bill, but it would also have significant economic benefits. Indeed, I believe that it could be seen as primarily an economic Bill, as it would make an important contribution to achieving the Government’s newest economic objective, that of improving our nation’s productivity. This it would do in at least two ways, which I will explain. Although the digital economy has made it possible for us to shop for everything from food and drink to furniture and major electrical appliances with no more physical effort than the click of a mouse, it still requires physical effort on the part of someone for our purchases to be delivered to us. Many of these purchases arrive in packages that are bulky or heavy, or both. The easiest and quickest way to handle these packages is to use a porter’s trolley, or what I understand is correctly known as a hand truck. However, manoeuvring hand trucks upstairs, even a single six-inch step, can be tricky and dangerous; with a heavy load, it requires a good deal of brute strength. For this reason, delivery companies are less inclined to use hand trucks than they might otherwise be. As a result, two people are often employed to deliver a van load of packages when the same load could easily be delivered by one person with a hand truck. Although the Bill refers only to public buildings, it would clearly make ramps and the use of hand trucks much more common, thus making the average cost of delivering packages of all kinds, including online purchases, much cheaper as well as quicker.
When the Bill becomes law, it will make a significant contribution to achieving the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s objective of improving our national productivity. However, there is at least one other way in which ramps would contribute to improving that: by reducing the number of work days lost through injury, particularly back injury. According to the latest figures from the Health and Safety Executive, 22% of non-fatal injuries to employees are incurred when lifting or handling goods. I think we can be pretty confident that this figure will keep rising as our use of the digital economy becomes increasingly widespread; there is no doubt that ramps and hand trucks would significantly reduce the number of workplace injuries due to lifting and handling, and hence the number of working days lost each year. That is not the whole story in relation to workplace injuries. I have no doubt that a further large number of workplace injuries are attributable to employees carrying packages and failing to notice the existence of a single shallow step between the pavement and the building entrance. Sadly, the HSE figures I have seen do not identify such accidents separately, but I know from my own experience that they are common and sometimes both painful and very embarrassing. It has just occurred to me that, when one thinks about the economic benefits of the Bill, it should have been introduced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself, as a contribution to achieving a faster growing economy, rather than by my noble friend Lord Blencathra, as a contribution to a fairer and more compassionate society.
Finally, I support the Bill because, besides all the practical advantages I have mentioned, it has a strong moral dimension. It gives practical form to a moral teaching that goes back thousands of years to the biblical injunction that one should not place a stumbling block before the blind. If a six-inch stone or concrete step in front of a public building is not a stumbling block for someone in a wheelchair, I do not know what is. For these reasons, both temporal and spiritual, I urge the House to give the Bill a Second Reading and urge the Government to support it enthusiastically.