Report on disabled access to the restored Parliamentary estate

Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 8:15 pm on 4th June 2019.

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“(1) The Delivery Authority must publish a report setting out what steps it will take to ensure that the Parliamentary estate, including the restored Palace of Westminster, will be fully accessible to—

(a) Members of Parliament with disabilities;

(b) Members of the House of Lords with disabilities;

(c) visitors with disabilities;

(d) staff with disabilities; and

(e) any other person with a disability.

(2) The report under subsection (1) must include—

(a) reference to accessibility solutions for those with physical disabilities; and

(b) reference to plans to provide facilities and access for those with non-physical disabilities.

(3) The report under subsection (1) must be laid before both Houses of Parliament.”—

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

We have made excellent progress today and I do not want to detain the Committee much longer. Nevertheless, the question of access to the restored parliamentary estate for people with disabilities is important and deserves consideration. New clause 2 is similar to a couple of the amendments we discussed earlier, in that it requires a report to be published by the Delivery Authority setting out what steps it would take to ensure accessibility to the parliamentary estate.

The new clause is solely focused on ensuring that direct attention is paid to disability access within the restored Palace. Parliament needs to be an accessible and welcoming place for all people, including those with physical and non-physical disabilities. We are pleased that attention has been paid to supporting those with disabilities within the legislation. However, we believe that requesting a report will ensure that disability access is properly investigated and taken into account at every stage of the restoration and renewal process.

I particularly want to look at the question of hidden disabilities. Disability would not necessarily be as grave, in many respects, if we lived in a society that was designed around every ability. In the last 20 years, we have made progress through the Disability Discrimination Acts, but there is further to go. I want to focus on plans to support those with so-called invisible disabilities, but I by no means wish to ignore the accessibility challenges for those who rely on wheelchairs or other forms of mobility assistance.

The parliamentary estate is increasingly accessible, but there is still a long way to go to ensure that that the whole estate is open to everyone. Indeed, we know that easier access will benefit almost all of us at some stage in our lives, whether as a parent pushing a buggy, during pregnancy, or as an older person who is finding steps difficult to manage. We all value effective design for our access needs.

This is an historical building and there will be areas where we simply cannot manage to make physical adaptations to overcome access problems for people with disabilities. To blow the trumpet of my own constituency, Chester is an historical city with Roman, middle ages and civil war history. Much of the city centre is protected as a scheduled ancient monument. Nevertheless, Chester won a European Access City Award, as the most accessible city in Europe, despite those historical constraints. So changes and improvements are possible.

Physical disability access must not be overlooked in the Bill. We hope that the report would allow for a direct and constant focus on the issue. Crucially, it would allow for external experts, such as disability charities, to scrutinise the plans and suggest improvements as we proceed through their development and implementation.

The report would also highlight accessibility issues faced by individuals with non-physical disabilities. It is all too easy to identify an individual with mobility needs, if they have a wheelchair or mobility device, but many common disabilities, such as dyslexia and autism, are unrecognisable by sight. I will be honest with the Committee: I have made that mistake in the past. I have seen somebody coming out of the disabled toilet and thought, “Why have you gone in there? There is nothing wrong with you.” I admit that with great shame. There are disabilities, illnesses and impairments that are not immediately apparent but are just as debilitating and require adaptations as much as those that are immediately evident.

Invisible or hidden disabilities—any physical, mental or emotional impairment that goes largely unnoticed—can include: cognitive impairments; autism; chronic illnesses, such as multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue and chronic pain; levels of deafness; impaired vision; anxiety; depression; post-traumatic stress disorder; and many others.

Photo of Mark Tami Mark Tami Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend mentioned visual impairment. Clear glass doors, which we might think are quite nice, are a real hazard for visually impaired people. We need to think about what we are putting in place, to ensure that it works for everybody.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Before I started scrutinising the Bill, that would not have occurred to me. Only from listening to the debates was that example brought to my attention. The relevance of the amendment is that the proposed report would demonstrate that we are looking at such issues, and allow external bodies to audit, perfect and improve our proposals.

I emphasise invisible disabilities because they are commonly overlooked when planning for disability access, as my right hon. Friend has pointed out. Specific investigations are required into how we can make the Palace of Westminster and surrounding sites sensitive to disabilities that are not necessarily obvious. For example, architectural consideration must be given to people with learning disabilities or autism. The noisy and busy halls of Westminster can present a challenge to many individuals. We need to be imaginative in working out how this place can be accessible. For example, specific quiet areas could provide a space for individuals with such needs to learn about Parliament in a comfortable setting.

As I walk around the Palace of Westminster, particularly on non-sitting days, when both Chambers are open to guests, there is a clear lack of seating for those suffering from chronic pain or fatigue, or older guests who might need to rest a little bit more often. Perhaps that could be rectified in the renewal of Parliament. I hope that hon. Members will support the amendment, should I decide to press it to a Division.

Access considerations for every form of disability must be at the forefront of our minds throughout the restoration and renewal process. By preparing a report, we can focus our minds and the minds of those on the Delivery Authority. It will give an opportunity to external bodies, which are experts in these areas, to help and guide us, and to provide new thinking, as thinking develops on how we support people with disabilities.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this evening, Mr Hanson. I rise to encourage hon. Members to participate in the different consultative sessions that are taking place for the northern estate programme on issues such as disability. That can feed into the wider considerations on disability that the hon. Member for City of Chester has raised. There are many opportunities for hon. Members to take part. I am afraid that on occasion the response is not overwhelming. It does provide a fantastic opportunity for Members to raise disability issues. Members will be aware that even in Portcullis House there are still issues—for example, for people in wheelchairs there are major problems going through doors. I encourage all Members to participate in the opportunities that are currently available.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I want to do the best for disabled visitors, Members and staff, but I do not have that expertise, as I said in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside. Would not publishing such a report allow us to call upon the expertise of external bodies to help us with our thinking on the design?

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union) 8:30 pm, 4th June 2019

Absolutely. With or without the report, I hope that such engagement will be very much at the heart of the project. We should seek the views of and engage with not only Members, who know how the building currently operates on a daily basis, but those organisations that are specialists on mobility issues or autism, for instance. I am sure that they would want to do that.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Finance Committee (Commons)

I agree with the thrust of what everybody is saying, but it is worth bearing in mind that this is a wholesale set of issues, down to the fact that the annunciators are in red and green, which colourblind people will not be able to differentiate between; the lighting in the room is nowhere near good enough for the majority of people who are partially sighted; and the wallpaper and carpets make it very difficult for many people with particular forms of personality disorder.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union)

I agree entirely. Indeed, in many places in the building some Members are not audible to others. There is a whole range of issues. Some rooms are used for large public events, where people at the back of the room are very unlikely to hear what the person at the front is saying. At the heart of this project, all these issues have to be addressed, which provides Parliament with an opportunity to design a building that is an exemplar in all those respects. I am sure that the Minister will seek to ensure that is the case.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I could not have put it better myself. We heard passionate speeches about ensuring that this is a Parliament for all; not only for Members with particular needs, but for those who want to come and be part of the democratic debate that happens here. We can be candid that the vast majority of our facilities are from another era, with regard to disability issues, and not just visible disabilities. The example was given of someone with a wheelchair trying to come through the doors of Portcullis House, or of a child with autism.

One of the most pleasurable experiences I have had here in the past few months—we have all had some perhaps not so pleasant experiences in this place over the past few months—was bringing a group from Combe Pafford School in my constituency, all of whom have autism, and thinking about how we could appropriately have a question and answer session and how we could see around the building. I must mention the look on one staff member’s face as we went on to the Terrace and I had to give the briefing that climbing on the wall was probably not the thing to do, given that on the other side is a straight trip to the Thames. However, the joy on those kids’ faces as they saw where I could hang my sword, where the Chamber is, where decisions are taken and when they got literally to stand where the Prime Minister stand when answering Prime Minister’s questions was an absolute joy to behold. Hopefully we will see more of that in the new building, as well as more accessibility.

I have been very clear that, although this might be a Royal Palace, there will not be Crown immunity from the standard rules on ensuring disabled access; there will be a requirement to consider the legal need to make reasonable adjustments. There will of course be challenges in a grade I listed building, where virtually every corner has history where something significant happened. We will have to balance that against what costs may be attached but also, like anywhere else, what reasonably should happen. We should aim not just to meet legal minimums, but to create an exemplar for accessibility, as was touched on.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I am heartened to some extent by what the Minister is saying about his expectations for the accessibility of Parliament, but I am concerned, following discussions at various levels, that there will need to be compromises between heritage and accessibility. Surely if our Parliament is not accessible by all, it will struggle to be representative. How far does the Minister expect that the project needs to go to ensure that it complies and can be a fully representative Parliament building?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The details will come from the Sponsor Body, but I would expect, when public business is being transacted, that someone with a disability should reasonably be able to observe proceedings, hear them and be part of them. They should be able to get to the room concerned, and not by being taken up in a service elevator, which—let us be blunt— is one of the pretty basic arrangements we have had to make to allow some access into the current building.

However, as with other heritage projects, that must be balanced with the fact that, for example, those steps in the Great Hall of Westminster are where Charles I was sentenced to death—they are historic in their own right. There are parts of this building that would be incredibly difficult to alter, but we will not put ourselves on a special pedestal. We will have to make reasonable adjustments, based on the law that exists. I think that getting the maximum level of accessibility possible, while working within the inherent constraints of a grade I listed building, some of which dates back to the middle ages, is something that all hon. Members are passionate about.

I would not describe it as compromising; it is about ensuring that we can balance the needs in this building, so that heritage does not always trump disability and disability works within heritage. As the hon. Member for City of Chester will know, there are some amazing heritage buildings that have found some amazing solutions to provide access to heritage that was not possible before, without compromising its protection. Again, I think we all hope that this project will be the exemplar.

In paragraph 26 of schedule 1, the Sponsor Body is required to produce a report, and I would expect the report to cover matters such as how it is taking forward questions of disability as part of meeting its legal and moral duties. In terms of getting the expertise that hon. Members particularly wished to refer to, the Sponsor Body can establish committees and sub-committees in undertaking its work. Once the Bill has become an Act and the Sponsor Body has been established, it would be a sensible decision for it to look at establishing a committee on disability. Finally, if the Sponsor Body chooses, it can also look to enhance that work with those with outside interests. Although I fully appreciate and support the sentiments that the hon. Member for City of Chester has expressed, I do not think that introducing the new clause would not be appropriate, given what is already in the Bill.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I am grateful to the Minister for that response. It is not my intention at this stage to put the matter to a vote. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

On a point of order, Mr Hanson. The Committee’s proceedings have gone very well today. I am most grateful to all hon. Members, and particularly to the Minister for the way he has handled this. We have continued largely in a vein of bipartisanship and a desire to get this through. I particularly thank the hon. Members on the Opposition side of the Chamber tonight; I have come to this fairly recently, but it is clear that they have built up a real expertise over a couple of years of this long process, and I know that will be put to good use as the process continues. I thank you, Mr Hanson, the Minister and other hon. Members for helping us to proceed so smoothly.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

Further to that point of order, Mr Hanson. I echo the thanks of the shadow Minister to all who have served on the Committee this afternoon. It has certainly been an interesting experience for my first Public Bill Committee as a Minister, particularly given the passion and interest—

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

In many ways, I hope they are, because it is quite right that Ministers face challenging questions from hon. Members who are passionately interested in the subject being debated. We may not necessarily all agree on every point, but certainly in this instance we are all very much agreed on the purpose, the direction and the overall desire, through this Bill, for this to be a project that really takes a Parliament that looks to represent all to being a building that is suitable for all, and that is fit and, crucially, safe for the 21st century and the centuries of history that will be created in this building long after today, as our forefathers and mothers have done.

For me, it has been a pleasure to serve on this Committee; I thank you, Mr Hanson, for your chairmanship this afternoon, and Sir Gary for his chairmanship earlier. It has certainly been an experience, and I look forward to when we next debate some of these issues on the Floor of the House, on Report.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn

I am grateful to right hon. and hon. Members, and I shall pass on their thanks to Sir Gary Streeter for his chairmanship.

Bill to be reported, without amendment.

Committee rose.