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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:57 am on 24th November 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Thomas of Winchester Baroness Thomas of Winchester Liberal Democrat 11:57 am, 24th November 2017

My Lords, once again, I am very happy to support this Bill. It makes me smile that the noble Lord is introducing a Private Member’s Bill when his job at one time was to shout “Object” to every such Bill in the other place. Well, I shout “Support” now.

It is also very welcome that so many more non-disabled Peers are here to support the Bill. Perhaps, one way or another, this means that the time is now right for us to make some real progress. As has been said by nearly every speaker, what is simply not recognised in general is that there is no person or body actually and actively in charge of policing access to public buildings, such as shops. I wonder if shopkeepers believe they have to do something only when they are told by someone in authority that they have to do it—and if they are not told, they do not. Funnily enough, a lot of people have heard of the DDA, but because it is never talked about, as it has been subsumed into the Equality Act, they do not think it matters any more.

Since the summer, I have had the pleasure of living in a hotel room on Westminster Bridge Road in the Waterloo area. I have since rather fallen in love with this part of London, with its wonderfully old-fashioned feel and its surprisingly vibrant community. One of the streets is called Lower Marsh, which has much in common with Strutton Ground—which the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, mentioned last time—in the way of a street market and little shops, although it is not quite as well heeled. But, sadly, most of the shops are up a little step or two and so are quite out of reach for those of us on wheels. The exceptions, of course, are Boots, Greggs and the Co-op, which therefore do well.

As far as I can see, nothing has changed for the better since the last debate on this Bill. The Government may have appointed shopping champions—I wonder whether they have—but unless they actually make a difference, there is not much point. Nor do I think that chambers of commerce are much help in this. Why not? We need a concerted campaign in this area. Shopkeepers need all the help they can get with everyone buying everything online. Why are local authorities not helping them by trying to come up with solutions? I wonder whether there is explicit guidance anywhere about how a reasonable adjustment could be made to solve the problem of small steps up to small shops in a street with narrow pavements. We heard in our committee deliberations that no more explicit guidance was needed on reasonable adjustments, but we all thought that that advice was wrong.

The Bill is about permanent ramps, but I have been doing a little research into portable ramps, which are better than nothing and could be put down to allow a wheeled vehicle in and out and then be taken away. After all, in some settings a permanent ramp is just not possible. Obviously a permanent ramp would be the best solution, but it might intrude too far on to the pavement. Local councillors should be lobbied to get their council officials to help with this. I am informed that there is much they can suggest, and I will give another plug to that estimable organisation, the Access Association, which can also help. But as a temporary measure, I say we should get chambers of commerce or mayor’s offices to put some money into buying a stock of portable ramps, if shopkeepers will not take action themselves. They could run an experiment for six months or so to see what the take-up was. A notice could be put on the shop window or door saying a ramp was available, with a bell to push.

As for listed buildings, Westminster Abbey has a couple of portable ramps it puts down for vehicle users, which work very well. Our church, St Margaret’s, has a built-in ramp—even better. From the Minister, we do not want aspirations, we want action. So I hope she will come up with a concrete plan—I choose my words deliberately.