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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:13 am on 24th November 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Deech Baroness Deech Crossbench 11:13 am, 24th November 2017

My Lords, I had the privilege of chairing the 2016 Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010 and Disability; we produced a report a year and a half ago. When I say “privilege”, I am not following the normal courtesy of reference; I mean it very literally. We heard, saw and received written evidence of the heartbreaking, and often unnecessary and unthinking, obstacles faced by disabled people in their everyday lives, in doing things that the majority take in their stride. We admired the courage of our witnesses and their ability both to function in the way they do and find the extra energy to campaign on behalf of all disabled people. I salute the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, and other noble Lords who are disabled—I must single out the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, who never stops campaigning. They do the same.

The Bill, and the report I referred to, should not be seen as a project for the 11 million or so disabled people, most of whom acquire their disabilities after birth. It is for all of us. The statistics show that, as we live longer in general, unless we are extremely lucky we will all experience a disability in our last few years, whether of sight, hearing or mobility—as many noble Lords will be only too aware. The Bill is not about special pleading; it is about making premises accessible to the entire population in the fullness of time. I say to our sprightly young Ministers: your time will come, too.

The government response so far to the Select Committee report has been ungenerous and disappointing. The committee was careful to make sure that its recommendations did not cost much. We established that there is relevant law, but that implementation and detailed guidance are lacking, especially in transport and access. So the Bill has my full support, as it should have from every right-thinking person.

Not only has the government response been unhelpful, but the Equality and Human Rights Commission seems to be going backward on this. The statutory Disability Committee has been replaced by the Disability Advisory Committee, with no similar powers, and the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, was disappointed to discover that, when appointed as a commissioner, he would not have the special responsibility for disabled people that seemed so obvious for him and for which he had hoped.

The message to and from the Select Committee was that disabled people suffer from the rolling-in of disability as a protected characteristic into all other such characteristics under the Equality Act. Disabled people must have equal treatment, but to get to the level playing field they may need an adjustment that is not needed by others. Access by ramp is just one example. The cost of putting in the ramps will be more than met by the increased custom in time.

As I have said before, disabled people are let down across the whole spectrum of life. Access to public buildings is a fundamental right. The removal of legal aid has made it even harder and more costly for individuals to challenge the blockages to their rights. The burden is on them alone, for class and proxy actions are not allowed. It has been proposed that local authorities should have the power to refuse to grant or renew the licences of premises such as restaurants, pubs and clubs unless they are accessible, which would go a long way to curing the problem. The House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee supported a similar approach, and recommended changes to the Licensing Act 2003 to mandate licensing officers to act on a failure to make licensed premises accessible. I and other experienced noble Lords put forward an amendment to that effect last December when the Policing and Crime Bill was passing through this House.

The Government opposed the amendment on the ground that it was duplicating already existing law—which was not in fact the case—and the Opposition decided not to vote on the amendment for what they called “strategic reasons”. It was one of the most disillusioning events for me since I entered this House. There is a chance now to remove that blot on the record of both parties and to show the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that its critical report on the UK’s compliance with the treaties has been listened to. We recall the special pride and joy taken in our Paralympic champions. That sentiment should not be forgotten when slightly less athletic disabled people seek the nation’s help.

The Bill is the tiniest step in the right direction. It has been said that legislation should be slow to place additional regulatory burdens on business, but this is a zero-sum game. The reduction of the regulatory burden on business means an increase in the burden on a group far less able to bear it: namely, disabled people. The Government may well point to their accessibility projects such as the Built Environment Professional Education Project; but that has been handed over to the Construction Industry Council, and at best will only influence future design, not make adjustments to existing premises. Likewise, the Accessible Britain Challenge morphed into the Disability Confident scheme for employees—these bold words disguise action not commensurate with their tone—leaving a gap that can be filled only by this Bill.

There is another gap. The Select Committee referred to the need for codes of practice and specific guidance on the concept of reasonable adjustments for disabled people, most often in the workplace. But even if they are produced there will be owners of premises who are unaware of them or will ignore them, knowing that they can get away with it. Support for this Bill is essential to stop the callous or ignorant denial of an easy remedy of accessibility for all of us. Any Government who care for minorities or those who are not just about managing must bring it into law.