Amendment 7

Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill - Committee (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 8:15 pm on 22nd July 2019.

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Lord Blunkett:

Moved by Lord Blunkett

7: Clause 2, page 2, line 45, leave out sub-paragraph (ii) and insert—“(ii) (after completion of those works) all parts of the Palace of Westminster used by people working in it or open to people visiting it,”

Photo of Lord Blunkett Lord Blunkett Labour

Amendment 7 is grouped with Amendment 17, which would insert a new clause into the Bill. I will be brief, as we have been over this issue tonight. There is a really important message to the world out there, as we said a moment ago, and it is on accessibility. We discussed this briefly at Second Reading. It is not a question of access to but access within the building for staff, parliamentarians and, where appropriate, visitors. The message should be that we are going to make this an exemplar project, learning from what has been done at some of the most historic features in the world and building on them, and learning from what is happening with the development of new technology to enable access for people with particular disabilities, possibly in a way that was not true even a few years ago.

I shall not overegg the point—I shall be very brief. It is crucial that those who carry out this project, including the designers, the delivery authority and the companies that are taken on to do the work, are absolutely clear that we are intent on making as much as possible of this place easily accessible and usable for people with a whole range of disabilities. To do otherwise would be betrayal.

I have been approached very gently—people are very gentle with me these days because I am getting to the point where they do not have to knock me about in the way that they used to. They have been telling me that rooms 6/12, 6/13, 15/28, 15/79, 8/95, 8/96 and 15/22—noble Lords will notice that we are going backwards in terms of age here—are not very accessible. There are rooms in a couple of turrets with stairs that make it impossible for a wheelchair to get up there. I accept all that. The interesting thing about being approached and nudged about how difficult it is, is that it displays the mentality with which people approach these issues. They approach them from the point of view—they have been told, presumably—of how difficult they will be. That is why I want these amendments in the Bill; if they are not accepted by the Government, I will want them to be voted on in September. I am determined that we will send a message from all parts of this House that we are going to make everything we can accessible.

Of course, there will be turrets that are not accessible. I would not take my dog into an operating theatre. I would not become a commis chef around the corner and take my dog into the kitchen. There has to be a degree of common sense and give and take, but people tell me there are places in the subterranean parts of this House that will never be accessible—actually, they will. When we have ripped out the wiring, the pipework and all the rubbish, we will be liberating quite a lot of space. There is nothing down there to do with heritage, although there will be a bit of archaeological digging, which, as I understand it, might dig up more than we are bargaining for.

Tonight, I just want to put on record that, yes, there are 1,100 rooms and, apparently, 65 levels—I presume they mean steps as there are certainly not 65 floors in this place—but they will be accessible.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Needham Market Baroness Scott of Needham Market Liberal Democrat 8:30 pm, 22nd July 2019

If I may help with that, there are apparently 65 changes of level; so, not 65 steps but 65 places where the levels in the House change. I do not know if that helps.

Photo of Lord Blunkett Lord Blunkett Labour

I am grateful to the noble Baroness; until I was nudged along, I did not know anything about this. I am enlightened by it, and it is all the more reason why we should have absolute clarity that we are going to tackle the issue. I will give noble Lords one example: there are steps currently that are completely unusable by certain members of staff and parliamentarians. The problem looks really difficult but if, without damaging the heritage, you put in a moving staircase that is accessible only by people with a particular card to activate it—this will be possible in the 20 years it will take before we come back into this place—you could do it. This is what I said at Second Reading. We are fighting the “mind-forg’d manacles” that William Blake referred to. We have to put these aside and use a bit of common sense. If noble Lords do not like the amendments, they should come back with something that meets the requirement. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, that I have every faith in the sponsor body as it stands at the moment, but, as I said earlier, people will not be there. I am trying to future-proof what we do. If we do not do it for people with disabilities, we are not doing it for ourselves. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative

My Lords, I want to follow the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, because I have added my name to his second amendment. In the Joint Committee, we had long discussions about the whole question of access, particularly, as the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, has said, about access within the building once one gets in. I want to support the noble Lord in his desire to get something written on to the Bill with regard to disability. We had long discussions in Committee about this. It is a matter not just of people getting into this building but, once they are in the building, of how they get around it. The figure quoted in one of the briefings we had is that currently only about 12% of this building is accessible to people with a disability. As the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, has indicated, there will be rooms in this building that will not be accessible after renewal and I am sure that is probably right. I think it falls on the sponsor body itself to decide what is an acceptable percentage: if it is 12% now, are we talking about 25% or 30% eventually?

The other thing that we had a long conversation about was how people come into the building in the first place. The Cromwell Green entrance is totally inadequate for our needs now. It sometimes takes people an hour to get in, and if it is raining it is pretty miserable. Access to the building needs to be looked at as well.

I will not pre-empt the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, but it is not just those with physical disabilities who have difficulty accessing the building—those in wheelchairs or like the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, have difficulty in getting around. There are also people with hearing disabilities, but I will leave that issue to the noble Lord, Lord Stunell.

There are many ways in which this building could be made much more friendly and supportive of people so that we could use everyone’s skills that otherwise would not be included. I am very happy to have put my name to this amendment. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will be more supportive of this one than of some of the others. When I broke my ankle last year, as I reflected at Second Reading, that made me realise the true difficulty of getting around this building; I think there are something like 90 different stairs, and many of the lifts are not accessible. If I can go further, some of the ladies’ and gentlemen’s facilities are totally inadequate for those with disabilities. This is an opportunity to put those basic needs right.

My questions for the shadow sponsor body are: where are your priorities going to come in this? In view of where you are going, what way can you see of achieving that while recognising that some of the building will not, I suspect, be suitable for getting the sort of access that most of us would like to see? I am hoping that my noble friend will be more encouraging later. I am very pleased to support these amendments.

Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Labour

My Lords, I spoke about some of these issues in response to an earlier amendment. All I will say is that the amendment asks for a report for the building to be fully accessible, which I support, but to achieve that and the things that my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, have mentioned—including lifts, toilets and other areas that are currently inaccessible—will involve some massive works in this building and they will be very expensive. They will also reduce the amount of space available for other things, but I am sure that they have to happen.

My Amendment 17A proposes that the same criteria that my noble friend has put in Amendment 17 in respect of this building when we come back are also applied to the temporary accommodation that we might have in the QEII or wherever.

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, to some extent my contribution has been prefigured, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for that. I strongly support everything that the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, has said. I particularly want to pick out his phrase about making this an exemplar project.

In the many discussions that I have had over the years about making this place accessible to people with physical deficiencies, if you want to put it that way, or disabilities—I speak as someone who is not profoundly deaf but is quite deaf and certainly needs his hearing aids—all too often the attitude and the response have been grudging, a sort of reluctant admission that under the Disability Discrimination Act they have a duty to do it, but it is certainly not one undertaken with great joy.

I would have thought that this building—as we are a national Parliament and representatives of a democracy that in other aspects is trying to promote civilised values around the world, and here I am thinking of the work of our international development department, our Foreign Office, God bless them, and others, where we are constantly saying that we set an example—should surely set an example when it comes to access for those of limited mobility or with some other disability.

I want to put a word in for my noble friends Lady Brinton and Lady Thomas of Winchester, who, as noble Lords will know, make their way around this building in electric wheelchairs. This brings into focus the fact that our different priorities are in conflict. A whole lot of additional fire doors have been put in, which make it virtually impossible for those two noble Members to proceed around the building other than with an assistant to open and close the doors. Various arrangements have been put in place for the doors to be left open during sitting hours and so on, but for all sorts of reasons—some might say bureaucratic reasons—those commitments do not always work.

Each of my noble friends has personal stories about the problems they have had of being trapped behind those doors waiting for somebody to come and open them. There are challenges, but there are solutions. One can imagine that in 10 or 15 years’ time, it will be entirely feasible for every door and every electric wheelchair in this building to be fitted with a transponder, and for the doors to open when a wheelchair approaches. However, the idea of anybody thinking of or implementing that seems a very long way away.

As for deafness, I am inclined to say: do not get me started. Can we at least make sure that the new provision complies with existing law? This building does not comply with existing law and although people have wriggled and squiggled when they have talked to me about how they believe they have put in place various so-called first aid measures to make it okay, it all comes down to the person with the disability fitting into a system which, frankly, does not work or deliver. We certainly need to make sure we have standards that comply with existing legislation.

We need to consider what standards we as a legislature will impose upon employers and other public buildings when we get to 2035. Will our standards for them have risen? If so, can we make sure that we design our standards to do that as well? In fact, I would go further than that and say we ought to set outstanding standards and aim to be best in class for a public building in the United Kingdom—and why not best in class throughout the world? We need to see what that would mean and how we would make it work, rather than reluctantly dragging this along behind us and seeing what we can get away with.

This debate fits somewhere in between the debate we have already had on public engagement and the one we are going to have on future-proofing. I will just make the point that if you exclude or do not engage with people with disabilities, you are not doing the job that we set out to achieve in the first set of debates. I will not use all my ammunition on future-proofing at this point, but when we get to those amendments, it is worth remembering that not just the standards but the expectations of people in 20 years’ time will not be lower than they are now. If we are not achieving current standards now, simply doing things the same way in the revised, upgraded building will not do it.

I strongly support what the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, said. He has much more experience than I do of both being a guerrilla and sitting at the big desk taking the decisions. In so far as I can give him any support from either of those dimensions, I shall certainly do so.

Photo of Lord Norton of Louth Lord Norton of Louth Conservative

My Lords, I very much support these amendments. My noble friend Lady Byford and the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, have picked up on the importance of catering for not just those with physical disabilities but those with non-physical disabilities, which are not always visible and which we are therefore not aware of.

I want to make one point, because if I do not, I suspect nobody else will. At the moment, there are parts of the Palace which are difficult, indeed inaccessible, for anybody who suffers from acrophobia—a severe fear of heights. There are real difficulties. I am conscious that architects do not take that into account when designing new buildings. Some buildings are extremely problematic. I want to put that on record because I suspect otherwise nobody else will, but it needs to be taken into account.

Photo of Baroness Wheeler Baroness Wheeler Opposition Senior Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Lords) 8:45 pm, 22nd July 2019

My Lords, we fully support the amendments from my noble friend Lord Blunkett, which would place a duty on the sponsor body to ensure that all parts of the completed buildings used by people working in them, or open to the public visiting, are accessible, and on the delivery authority to publish a report on how it will ensure that the restored Palace of Westminster is fully accessible to MPs, Peers, visitors and staff with disabilities. My noble friend Lord Berkeley is absolutely right to highlight with his Amendment 17A the importance of provisions for disability access in temporary buildings under the project.

The Government’s response to the Joint Committee promises that,

“the works to the infrastructure of the Palace of Westminster will ensure that the Palace is more accessible for those with disabilities”.

We welcome the shadow sponsor body’s commitment to ensuring that improving access will form part of the vision and strategy, and to aim for access for everyone. However, the term “more accessible” must have the definition and clarity of what actually needs to be achieved as set out in these amendments. My noble friend Lord Blunkett is right to seek a firm commitment in the Bill on what this vision and aim must cover and will mean in practice, and to make sure that the Bill requires the relevant bodies to have a legal obligation to ensure access for those living with disabilities. Of course, there are already obligations in statute, such as the Equality Act, but the Bill needs to make it clear that this is a core intention behind the restoration.

At Second Reading, my noble friend Lady Smith asked the noble Earl to explain the remit of the disability sub-committee proposed by the Government during the passage of the Bill in the Commons. Can the Minister provide any further information on this, or undertake to write to noble Lords on the proposed committee’s work and role?

I would like to raise the important issue of how the R&R programme will interface and communicate with our parliamentary committee structures. The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, referred to this at Second Reading. I would be grateful if the Minister responded to this point. I serve on the Services Committee, which has a special meeting in early September with the R&R team. The committee has been very careful to ensure that the current extensive parliamentary works programme always has a view to what is proposed as part of R&R.

On disabilities, the committee was told at its last meeting by one of the R&R team leaders that currently, only 12% of the Palace has compliant step-free access. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, mentioned this. The potential for replacing non-compliant lifts in their current locations is limited and when combined with local interventions such as ramps would increase the accessible area only to around 30%. Initial investigations indicate that providing an exemplary level of non-discriminatory access for people with disabilities and limited mobility would require the complete re-provision of lifts throughout the Palace. This is just one aspect of the scale of the challenge the sponsor body has to, and must, deal with.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I express my gratitude to the noble Lords, Lord Blunkett and Lord Berkeley, and my noble friend Lady Byford for tabling these amendments. The Government are grateful for the opportunity to work with the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, to bring forward his Amendment 7 today and its improvements to Clause 2(4)(e).

The Bill currently provides that the sponsor body must have regard to the need to ensure that any place in which either House of Parliament is located while the parliamentary building works are carried out, and the Palace of Westminster after the works are complete, are accessible to people with disabilities. It is also already part of the shadow sponsor body’s vision to provide exemplary standards of access for everyone to a restored and renewed Palace—a far cry from the 12% referred to by my noble friend Lady Byford and the noble Baroness, Lady Wheeler. However, we have welcomed the opportunity to work with the noble Lord further on this very important issue.

The Government support this amendment, which specifies that:

“In exercising its functions, the Sponsor Body must have regard to … the need to ensure that … (after completion of those works) all parts of the Palace of Westminster used by people working in it or open to people visiting it … are accessible to people with disabilities”.

In the words of the noble Lord, this is to make exemplary standards of access for everyone, a phrase also used in the vision document for the sponsor body. We consider that this amendment strikes the right balance between ensuring that the sponsor body has regard to the need to make the Palace as accessible as possible for people with disabilities and operating within the parameters of existing legislation, as noted by the noble Lord, Lord Stunell.

To be clear, as several noble Lords mentioned, some parts of the Palace are likely to remain inaccessible. In particular, in the less-visited extremities of the Palace of Westminster the provision of step-free access is unlikely to be practicable. However, Amendment 7 will give members of the public with a disability access to the parts of the Palace they need to access, and parliamentarians, staff and contractors access to the areas they use. In response to the question about how much more of the Palace will be available—which I think was originally asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith—I undertake to write to the noble Baroness, Lady Wheeler, on that point and on the point about committee scrutiny, if I may.

Turning to Amendments 17 and 17A on reporting, I must express some reservations. We believe that these amendments reflect concern about the degree of commitment to ensuring disabled access. Given our agreement to Amendment 7, we believe that these amendments are no longer necessary. Amendment 17 would require the delivery authority to lay a report before both Houses, setting out what steps it will take to ensure that the restored Palace of Westminster is fully accessible for people with disabilities. Amendment 17A would require that report to cover any building used temporarily by Parliament during the works, as the noble Lord explained.

As I have already set out, the Government agree that these works are an opportunity to make the Palace more accessible for people with disabilities. That is why the Bill requires the decant locations to be accessible for people with disabilities, and I have just outlined our support for the noble Lord’s Amendment 7 to strengthen that commitment. The Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster said in its report in 2016 that the two decant locations were recommended not only for their locality and legacy benefits, but for the opportunities they present for greater accessibility. Indeed, it was a key recommendation that:

“All temporary accommodation should be designed with accessibility in mind, and make suitable provision for Members, staff and visitors with a disability”.

Under the Bill, the sponsor body and delivery authority will need to formulate proposals relating to the design, cost and timings of the works. This will form the outline business case, which must be approved by Parliament before the substantive works can proceed. It will include proposals on how the programme intends to make the Palace and the decant locations accessible for people with disabilities, in line with the spirit of Amendment 7. In formulating these proposals, the sponsor body will need to consult parliamentarians. This consultation will be an opportunity for Members to feed in what they feel is required on disabled access, as well as on other important areas such as safety and security, environmental sustainability and value for money. We are concerned that such a report on the specific issue of disabled access alone could reduce clarity and accountability in governance.

Noble Lords will appreciate that a balance needs to be struck between several factors in restoring the Palace. In considering access for people with disabilities, the sponsor body and delivery authority will need to comply with any legal obligations, such as those under the Equality Act 2010 and planning law, given that this is a grade 1 listed building. Any proposals put forward to Parliament for approval will also need to balance the various requirements for the programme, including those specified under Clause 2(4). For the programme to be truly independent of Parliament, the sponsor body must have the freedom to make those judgments. We are concerned that the report prescribed by these amendments could override these other requirements and blur the lines of accountability for different elements of the project. For the reasons outlined above, the Government support Amendment 7 relating to disability access, but have reservations on Amendments 17 and 17A relating to disabled access reporting. I hope noble Lords agree not to press those two amendments.

Photo of Lord Blunkett Lord Blunkett Labour

My Lords, my mother told me never to look a gift horse in the mouth. I never quite understood what that meant—especially in my case. Anyway, I am grateful to the noble Baroness and am happy not to move Amendment 17 and to agree Amendment 7, on which we now have consensus.

Amendment 7 agreed.