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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:28 pm on 24th November 2017.

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Photo of Lord Blencathra Lord Blencathra Chair, Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee 12:28 pm, 24th November 2017

My Lords, I thank the 17 Peers from all sides of this House who have participated in this important debate. I am particularly grateful to those who are not wheelchair users but who support the Bill simply because they agree that there is a fundamental injustice here that can be easily corrected. Noble Lords had many different points to make, and I shall try to address them all as quickly as I can. However, every single Peer who has spoken, apart from the Government, made the point that wheelchair users are being discriminated against unfairly, and that it has to stop, and that my Bill or something like it is a simple and cheap solution to much of the problem. It does not solve all the access problems, but it tackles over 80% of them.

My noble friend Lady Anelay of St Johns was right to emphasise the importance of post-legislative scrutiny, as carried out by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and her committee. She made the point that, to be treated equally, disabled people need to be treated differently. I am very willing to amend the Bill in any way, so long as we can get access over those little steps—whether it is six inches or 10.325 centimetres, I do not care. She mentioned unemployed people and their rights, which was covered extensively in the Select Committee report, but I have not covered it in my Bill. And she is right: I try to avoid cafes, restaurants and bars, but if they cannot let me in to be served, I am not going to be served out on the street—they can clear off, and I would say that to them quite bluntly.

The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton, said that if everyone spent 12 hours in a wheelchair it would open their eyes. I remember when the Labour Peeress, the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, was introduced, and a few weeks later she broke her leg. She was stuck out in plaster for a few weeks. She was appalled; she could not get to most of this House or Parliament, let alone all the other places in the high street. It is ironic that we can get into every park around London, but we cannot get into 20% of the shops and pubs around those parks.

I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Borwick for the wonderful work that he has done in ensuring that London black cabs are accessible. Frankly, I dread the idea of what I regard as the criminal and vile company Uber putting London black cabs out of business, because wheelchair users would never travel in a taxi again. Uber has no responsibility for providing wheelchair-accessible taxis. I agree that more training is necessary. In my little chariot, I carry a short, stubby screwdriver, because half the cabbies cannot find the screwdriver to undo the ramp. He also stressed the additional cost of disability, including the whisky; I agree entirely with that. He is also right that the Bill would benefit up to 4 million people using pushchairs, prams and baby buggies in addition to wheelchairs.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, also did sterling work on the Lords Select Committee. I agree on the need for guidance on the steepness of ramps. A few years ago, I was in a hurry trying to get to the Gatwick Express. I zoomed out of a black taxi, down the ramp; it was not on a high kerb and I did not wait for the cabbie to help me—my little chair went over backwards and I cracked my head open, and I was in hospital for a little while. That may explain some of my speeches afterwards. So yes, we need some guidance on the steepness of ramps. Some of us in chairs take risks that we are not supposed to take. I, too, commend the Institution of Civil Engineers on One Great George Street. I do not have to go in there, but I sometimes use that ramp for the fun of using it—it is such a magnificent construction.

I pay tribute again to my noble friend Lady Deech for her superb chairing of the Lords Select Committee. The whole House and the Government should heed her wise words. I agree with her that the government response to her committee’s report was feeble. Disabled people have been let down across the piece. If the Government or the House do not want to listen to me because I may be slightly biased, not just because of my party allegiance or because I am in a chair, as a distinguished Cross Bencher chairing that committee she is not biased, and the committee’s report was authoritative. Quite rightly, she said that there was there is a callous or ignorant denial of rights to wheelchair users.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, the spokesman for the Opposition. I am very grateful for her and for her party’s support. She is right to say that the onus all falls on disabled people to fight for access, and that is not right. It may be okay for us middle-class users such as myself and the three noble Baronesses here today in wheelchairs—we are articulate agitators and we can fight for some of our rights—but there are tens, indeed hundreds, of thousands of wheelchair users who are not like us and do not have the privilege of being able to make speeches like this to fight for those rights.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Haworth, on his speech. He emphasised the Select Committee’s point that the 2010 Act was a retrograde step for disabled people. The Act was well-meaning but had unintended consequences. He again emphasised that it is all the little things that make life a misery. I understand perfectly well that I cannot get up the six steps to the Cinnamon Club—I have not had a nice dinner there bought by someone else in many years—but I am annoyed that I cannot get into the place next door that has only a three-inch step, which they could easily have removed.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb; I am very grateful for her contribution. I appreciate that she has to dash off any second—I told her that I would prefer her to speak and go rather than not speak at all. She is also one who has no experience of a wheelchair but says that it is the sense of justice that annoys her and that the Act is just not fair. What better justification for changing the law than to do it out of a sense of justice.

My noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond gave a magnificent speech—what a powerful contribution, as always. I believe that he is the only person to win a record six gold medals in one Olympic Games. We have seen him champion many worthy causes in this House, and I am particularly pleased that he is championing my Bill. It gives me more justification than anything else for thinking that I must be on the right track, because I consider his support significant. He is right that business would get a boost if disabled people could get into shops. And he is also right that you can feel it in your gut and it makes you pretty angry and stroppy at times when you cannot get into a place that you should easily be able to get into.

The noble Baroness, Lady Masham of Ilton, has tremendous experience and I hope that the House will listen to the most senior female Peer in this building, because her opinion counts. She made the point that solving the problem of a four-inch step is pretty easy. One shop can do it; the one next door simply has not thought about it. Why would people in a wheelchair want to get into the shop? Well, if you do, what is the problem? She stressed that my Bill has no cost to the Government.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and I take her point. If the Government will do something about steps of six inches or lower, I will be quite happy in Committee to drop, or postpone for some time, the 12-inch problem, which has a greater cost. As I said, if we deal with steps of six or fewer inches, we would deal with 87% of the problem, so I am happy to put the 12-inch problem on the back burner for a bit, if that is the mood of the House.

My noble friend Lady Morris of Bolton made an excellent point. I, too, have lost control of my chair—luckily I have managed to avoid running into a hedge, but I can always grab a lamp post, which has saved me on a few occasions. My noble friend is also right that it is all the little things that cause us problems. I have tried to keep the costs down in my Bill. In the briefing that I circulated, I referred to the famous case of Allen v the Royal Bank of Scotland, taking place at 5 Church Street in Sheffield. He won his case; he could not get into the bank, a listed building. Eventually, it got to the High Court, after he spent his money to fight it. The judge ruled that providing a lift for this person in this listed building at a cost of £200,000 was a “reasonable adjustment”—yet the Government quote a possible cost of a few hundred pounds as one of the justifications for opposing my Bill.

I will try to be as quick as I can, but I do not want to miss anyone out. I listened carefully to what my noble friend Lord Shinkwin said. I do not pretend to fully understand all the complexities of the case, but I am certain that he was treated fairly shabbily by the EHRC. He was appointed to be the disability champion, but that post was scrapped before he got there. If nothing else, it all adds to the evidence that disability issues have fallen down its agenda. I urge him to stay to fight in the EHRC for disabled issues. It has been my experience—indeed, all our experience, as parliamentarians—that we can spend an awful lot of time worrying about conspiracy theories and waste a lot of our lives without getting to the bottom of them. But there is a real job to be done in the EHRC in fighting for disabled people. If he does not stay to fight, I cannot and nobody else can. My noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond does a magnificent job. We need him in there fighting for it and putting other issues behind him—let us go forward.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, for her marvellous work on the Lords Select Committee. She adds to the evidence that many small shops are inaccessible. It is a very good point that local authorities should do more. I like the idea of local mayors or chambers of commerce taking the initiative. We need others to take the initiative if the EHRC will not.

My noble friend Lord Wasserman quoted the Prime Minister talking about building a society that works for everyone. I wish that I had thought of that, because it is a brilliant point. He again stressed the economic benefits of the Bill and the strong moral reasons to remove stumbling blocks.

I agree with the point by the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, about places of worship and other public buildings. Many are old buildings where it is more difficult to deal with multiple steps. I had not thought of the problem of mosques and I am very happy to have discussions with him to see what can be done and how the Bill can, if necessary, be amended to tackle that problem.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, for speaking in the gap. I agree with him that reasonable adjustments should cover every eventuality but, as all the evidence to the Select Committee showed, it simply does not happen on the ground. I also agree that these steps should already have been removed. When I searched on Google for “reasonable steps” and “getting rid of steps”, nearly all the hits were for companies advising people that, because of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, they had to remove steps. I could not find a single Google hit saying that they had to get rid of steps because of the 2010 Act. All the examples listed had done so because of the DDA 1995. I can also tell the noble Lord that I looked at Section 22. It gives the Minister order-making powers but not to do the specific things suggested in my Bill. Therefore, it does not technically cover what I am seeking to achieve here.

I come to the Minister’s speech. I say straightaway that she is an excellent Minister. She is the Minister of State at the Home Office—I have been there and done some of that, so I know what it is like—and she has an enormous and difficult portfolio covering countering extremism and hate crime, integration, devolution, data strategy, identity and biometrics, better regulation and animals in science. In addition, she has to answer for everything else here in this House. She is not the Minister for the Disabled, yet she has drawn the short draw today, having to stand at that Dispatch Box and, in my opinion, defend the indefensible. Therefore, my condemnation of what she has had to say is no reflection on her whatever, as she has my deepest personal respects.

It is obvious that the Government Equalities Office has produced the usual discredited litany of excuses for doing nothing to help disabled people. It says that “reasonable adjustments” is a well-understood mechanism, if only by government lawyers. The Select Committee said that the concept of “reasonable adjustments” should stay. I agree entirely, but the Government have ignored every other bit of criticism from the Select Committee about the failures of the Act. The Government also say that making specific requirements for wheelchairs would open up a Pandora’s box of other specific adjustments. However, if it were another category affecting 800,000 deaf or partially sighted people and there was an easy technical solution, I would say, “Open that box and make that amendment as well. Justice demands it”. Another excuse is that forcing disabled people to take service providers to court personally somehow empowers them. In the past, the Disability Rights Commission would fight for them, but no more. Of course, there is also the old chestnut about costs.

How have the Government, which I have supported since I was a 14 year-old, got themselves into this hole where disabled people are no longer on their radar? It was a Conservative Government who introduced the ground-breaking Disability Rights Act 1995 but now, as everyone giving evidence to the Select Committee said, disability has dropped way down the interest scale with the 2010 Act. As the committee said:

“Our conclusion is that the Equality Act 2010 has led to a loss of focus on disability”.

How have decent, caring Ministers lost control of policy on the disabled to the civil servants at the GEO, who guard the 2010 Act like fanatical vestal virgins guarding the sacred flame that must never be allowed to go out? It must not be amended, no matter what its failings and no matter how easy it is to amend it at little cost.

On 16 March this year, the Government told me in a Written Answer that since 2015 the Government Equalities Office has issued 75 press releases and statements on transsexual and transgender issues and 12 on disability. The department is obsessed with dealing with a tiny minority of the transgender lobby, and it does not seem to give a damn about the 11 million disabled people in this country. The transgender lobby demands the right to use male, female or whatever toilets, but 800,000 people cannot get into a building in the first place to have the right to use any toilet.

The new Minister for Disabled People, who is also a decent Minister—I met her yesterday—offered me a round-table discussion with other Peers on this problem, but she does not make policy, which is firmly in the grip of the GEO. I shall take her up on that round table and will invite other Peers to join us, but we are not going to go away quietly.

I urge Ministers to get a grip of the civil servants running this policy and to tell them that wheelchair users have rights too. We do not want special treatment but, in order to get equality, we need different treatment, as the Select Committee pointed out. Wheelchair users have no option but to take our business elsewhere, to the shops that are “caring” enough to let us in. But we will continue to demand that the Government legislate for this injustice, either in my Bill or through an order-making power.

Yesterday, I received a letter from the Secretary of State for the Environment assuring me that the Government recognise animals as sentient beings and promising to improve animal welfare standards. I suggest he should send it to the Government Equalities Office and tell it to treat disabled people with half the concern we rightly have for animals.

In the meantime, since the Minister is responsible for dealing also with hate crime, I should perhaps say—and not jokingly—that every wheelchair user should call the police and report a hate crime every time we cannot get into a shop or are refused access. If every one of us did that then we would add at least 10,000 new offences every day and they would be as valid as some of those already reported. We will fight with renewed vigour, and I ask that the Bill get a Second Reading so we can continue the battle for justice for wheelchair users. I beg to move.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.