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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:42 am on 24th November 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Deputy Speaker (Lords) 11:42 am, 24th November 2017

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Blencathra on securing a Second Reading for his Bill. It gives this House the opportunity to consider how legislating with the very best of intentions to ensure equality of opportunity can have unintended consequences, as the noble Lord, Lord Haworth, said, and thereby fail to deliver the very improvements that it was designed to help.

My noble friend’s briefing before today and his introduction of the Bill have demolished many, if not all, of the arguments that have been deployed along the way to say that nothing more needs to be or should be done. It is absolutely vital to have post-legislative scrutiny of legislation, something which this House instituted and at which it excels. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, who has spoken today, and to her committee for its report because it makes clear the crucial point: that for disabled people equality of opportunity, to the extent that it is achievable, often requires different treatment—not the same treatment.

Clearly, further work is needed in legislation to make accessibility a reality for wheelchair users, and the Bill shows us one way forward. As with so many Private Members’ Bills, it is not a perfectly crafted vehicle and my noble friend has recognised some of its shortcomings. He has chosen to use the imperial measures of six inches and 12 inches in Clause 1 since he, very reasonably, said that those could be more easily visualised and understood by most people in trying to get across the concept of the Bill. He has accepted that if the Bill proceeds, which I hope it may, there would need to be amendments. In opening the debate, he made generous offers about how those amendments might be secured, including by inserting an order-making power. As my noble friend Lady Morris said, we do not normally expect to hear from my noble friend Lord Blencathra about having further regulation, but he has made that offer.

The fact that the drafting needs to be improved does not undermine the value of our debate today, which goes to the very heart of the question of attitudes and what kind of society we want in this country. The purpose of my noble friend’s Bill is indeed modest. He has made it clear throughout that he recognises that the objective is to achieve access for wheelchair users at reasonable cost. Other noble Lords have given practical examples of that. It is of course not just the responsibility of central and local government to make sure that there is accessibility for wheelchair users; we all have a role to play. I would like to give one or two examples, but in so doing I make it clear that I do not say that only private action will take these matters forward; sometimes, legislation and further regulation is required.

We can all be aware and take action when we note discrimination in access, as others have said today. Those in business should be aware that providing good access is not only the right thing to do but good business, too. Every year, my husband and I go away for a long weekend with 11 of our friends, whom we have known for about 50 years. If a hotel is not accessible for one of our friends, Carol, who uses a wheelchair then we do not stay there. If a pub is not accessible, we do not eat or drink there. The business does not lose two customers; it loses 13, permanently.

There are of course other issues and it is a matter of attitudes. There is so much that businesses could do that cost hardly a thing, and yet they do not. For example, why do businesses not make restroom facilities accessible in a simple way, by providing grab rails? I am advised that if they did, a great proportion of the 800,000 people who use wheelchairs could—with some difficulty, it is true—get access to those toilets. But people simply do not make the effort. Why do more businesses not only add access statements to their websites but at least make sure that those are accurate, so you do not have to spend half your time making phone call after phone call, only to arrive and then find that it is not accessible after all.

My noble friend’s Bill raises, for me, another crucial issue: a duty to ensure wheelchair access for staff members, too, and not just customers. Wheelchair users surely should have access as employees in public buildings. Why should their careers be curtailed because adaptations which are reasonable have not been made? The businesses could be barring the best employees that they never get to have. Individual pressure can of course have some effect but not always enough. My noble friend has pointed out that it has not been enough so far.

As we plan our path to leave the European Union, this is absolutely the right time for my noble friend to bring the Bill forward. The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, currently being considered in another place, will convert applicable EU law into UK law, giving businesses and us all the certainty that rights and obligations will not be subject to overnight change. In leaving the EU, the UK will retain our current standards, but that should be only the first move in the right direction. Surely, we should then build upon them and show that the UK intends to lead the world in making accessibility a reality for all. Brexit is not a time to make a dive to the bottom; it is a time to lead a race to the top. Whether or not we use wheelchairs, we have the right to reach the same destination and I welcome my noble friend’s Bill.