My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, for bringing this Bill before us today and congratulate him on his persistence and determination to bring about step-free access to all those people who use wheelchairs, and also for the extensive and well-informed briefings which he has provided. I also thank the noble Lord for agreeing to meet with me this week, which was most helpful.
The noble Lord makes a compelling case for action and has much evidence on his side. For example, all around the House today there was support for this Bill, including from our three formidable noble Baronesses, Lady Masham, Lady Brinton and Lady Thomas, with their great experience in this field. I give as an example the inquiry conducted by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee into disability and the built environment in February this year. The committee found that,
“too often, disabled people find their lives needlessly restricted by features of the built environment. Many workplaces and service premises are inaccessible”.
The committee believed that the Equality Act 2010,
“should, in theory, prevent inaccessible buildings and public spaces being created and enduring”.
It went on to say that,
“the burden of ensuring that an accessible environment is achieved falls too heavily at present on individual disabled people, an approach that we consider to be neither morally nor practically sustainable”.
I think that says it all. Why should disabled people have to take this action themselves? This is wrong. As the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, said in 2014, not enough is being done regarding enforcement of Section 20 of the Equality Act 2010.
The Women and Equalities Committee recommended that Approved Document M of the building regulations, which is currently based on a 16-year old standard,
“should be updated to ensure it is still relevant and adequately addresses access for disabled people today, adopting an inclusive design, pan-impairment approach”.
It also recommended changes to the Licensing Act 2003 to mandate local authority licensing officers to act on failure to make licensed premises accessible.
The House of Lords Equality Act 2010 and Disability Committee, which the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, chaired, found that,
“evidence of problems in obtaining this right”— to reasonable adjustment—has,
“emanated from almost every part of society”.
The committee cited examples, such as shops, restaurants, hospitals, sports grounds and other entertainment venues failing to make reasonable adjustments. The committee found a lack of awareness among service providers of their obligations, particularly of the anticipatory duty. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, went on to say:
“Over the course of our inquiry we have been struck by how disabled people are let down across the whole spectrum of life. Access to public buildings remains an unnecessary challenge to disabled people. Public authorities can easily side-step their legal obligations to disabled people”.
In a Westminster Hall debate in February this year on publicly accessible amenities for disabled people, when asked what the Government were doing to ensure compliance with the enforcement of the Equalities Act 2010, Marcus Jones, Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government, said that compliance with the Act was a legal duty and suggested that,
“perhaps we need to remind service providers that that is a duty, not an option”.—[
If the Government are acknowledging this, then perhaps the Minister in her reply can say what action has been taken to remind service providers of their duty. Maybe that could go some way to ensuring enforcement.
We have had two committees in recent years holding inquiries into access for people with disabilities, and a debate in Westminster Hall in February. It is interesting to note that each one has said that much needs to be done to improve the lives of people with disabilities in terms of their obtaining access to public amenities. It seems that in this country today it is okay to effectively bar around 800,000 people in wheelchairs from being able to enter many places we take for granted such as shops, pubs and restaurants. How much does this curtail people from having what should be a normal and enjoyable day out with friends and family, because they are unable to enter a premise because of the steps?
In his speech, the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, said he could place some letters in the Library for Members of the House to read. I would be very pleased if he could do that, along with any other relevant letters he might feel would help in this case.
The Bill offers a solution that will make life better and easier for people in wheelchairs. We on our side support the Bill, and I am happy to have further discussions with the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra. I hope that we can work together and that the Government can give some positive responses to this today.