I beg to move,
That this House
has considered publicly accessible amenities for disabled people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability, I have the privilege of hearing about the lives of disabled people from across the United Kingdom. From what I have heard, it is clear that disabled members of our communities are being prevented from obtaining full access to fundamental services, including public transport, sports grounds and shopping centres, to name but a few.
To begin with, I would like to share the experience of one of my constituents who was prevented from attending his Department for Work and Pensions fitness to work interview because the assessment centre was unable to provide access to him in his mobility scooter. To reiterate, he was not able to be assessed regarding the impact of his disability on his social and occupational functioning because the very building in which assessments occurred was not accessible to him.
The assessment was rearranged for a different centre in a separate location, at great inconvenience to the gentleman. At that centre, the car park, including both of the two disabled parking bays, was occupied. As such, he struggled to make his way to the building for the assessment. That situation effectively summarises the lack of consideration that widely abounds for individuals with disability, such that they are prevented from seeking support for their disability as a result of the lack of reasonable adjustment for it. It is particularly shocking that that occurs even in Government-approved contractors’ buildings. How can we expect individuals to seek support to reach their full potential in life and lead full lives when they are prevented from accessing basic public services?
There are currently about 11.6 million disabled people in Great Britain, constituting 16% of the working age adult population. That means that about a sixth of our population is likely to hold factors that, by definition, could act as a barrier to their engaging in valued activity.
As we know, legislation exists to support the access needs of disabled individuals. The Equality Act 2010 makes clear that service providers must take reasonable steps to ameliorate the substantial disadvantage experienced by an individual as a result of their disability. That requirement holds whether the cause of disadvantage is the manner of provision, a feature of practice, a physical feature of a service or, in fact, the absence of an auxiliary aid. Similarly, the 2006 United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, which the United Kingdom has signed up to, states that member countries
“are to guarantee that persons with disabilities enjoy their inherent right to life on an equal basis with others”.
Given the legislation, it is remarkable that such substantial disadvantage continues to take place.
The House will be aware of the recent experiences of Anne Wafula Strike, an award-winning Paralympic athlete, who was unable to access a toilet on a three-hour train journey and was therefore forced to urinate herself. That demonstrates the huge practical and emotional toll of the lack of equitable access for people with disability. In Ms Wafula Strike’s situation, the train did have an accessible toilet but it was out of order and no appropriate alternative was provided. Simply providing a basic level of service and assuming accessibility is achieved in insufficient. It is surely reasonable in this day and age to expect access to a disabled toilet. Anything less than that is simply unacceptable. As Ms Wafula Strike stated:
“People with disabilities don’t want perfection, we just want the basics and to have our independence. But lack of access and inclusive facilities make us feel as if we are an afterthought.”
The Government, working alongside business, industry and public service providers, need to ensure that individuals with disability are not an afterthought, and indeed that services are designed with accessibility right across the United Kingdom.
Experiences similar to Ms Wafula Strike’s were reported in the BBC investigation of late last year in which two researchers with disability attempted to engage in leisure activities such as going to a restaurant or taking a taxi. That highlighted the vast proportion of companies and service providers in the United Kingdom that do not act in proper accordance with the 2010 Act. Disabled individuals are being marginalised and excluded from public services every day of the week. As a result, they are excluded from a wide range of leisure activities. Data indicate that disabled individuals are less likely than non-disabled peers to participate in cultural, leisure and sporting activities.
I would like to spend some time speaking about three important areas: public transport; sporting and leisure grounds; and shopping centres. I am sure colleagues will add other issues to the debate. In terms of public transport, the key issue for the disabled population is accessibility. It is a basic issue: simply being able to gain access to public transport services. The recent Supreme Court ruling in the case of Paulley v. FirstGroup PLC, the bus company, gives a good example of the difficulties faced by disabled individuals.
In February 2012, Mr Paulley, a wheelchair user, was refused transport on a bus, as the dedicated wheelchair space was in use by a non-disabled service user. We must support the calls made by Lord Toulson in the ruling for greater clarification of the law. Clarity in legislation will ensure the appropriate and consistent application of the law such that disabled individuals can be confident that it will be applied on all occasions and in all settings. One such opportunity presents itself with the upcoming Second Reading of the Bus Services Bill, which includes recommendations for improved information to be provided to passengers in an accessible format on all bus services nationally.
Achieving a fully accessible public transport system is a key element of policy. Some work has been done on UK railways, with the Access for All programme ensuring that 150 of the UK’s 2,552 railway stations—a small proportion—are step-free, with smaller-scale adaptations at other stations. However, I understand that funding for the programme is being cut. I would be obliged if the Minister responds to that point. Work is already being done at only a proportion of stations, and the cutting the programme would simply make accessibility even poorer for the disabled population.
That situation can be contrasted somewhat with London, where Mayor Sadiq Khan has committed a further £200 million to increase the number of step-free underground stations from 70 to at least 100. That still represents just over one third of all the capital’s underground stations, leaving the rest inaccessible. With recent increases in disabled individuals using rail transport—research indicates a rise in train assistance for disabled individuals of 21% over the three years up to 2015—further support to facilitate use is sorely needed.
I for one would like to know whether providers anticipate meeting targets. If not, what steps can be taken to ensure that they do so in as timely a fashion as possible? A programme of clear checking of improvements with timescales and appropriate penalties when an Act is not adhered to will help to ensure that disabled individuals can have faith in the frameworks used to ensure their wellbeing and inclusion. In that regard, we can look for guidance from excellent third sector organisations, including, for example, Changing Places, which is doing admirable work to ensure that toilets are accessible for all of those who might need them.
In relation to sports grounds, I am sure that colleagues will join me in the assertion that the many impressive achievements of UK athletes in the Olympic and Paralympic games have been a source of tremendous national pride, and an opportunity to increase participation in sporting activity throughout and across our communities. The stated legacy of the 2012 Olympic games included that:
“Every man, woman and child can find a sport they enjoy and in which they are able to get involved easily, regardless of their ability or disability”.
However, sufficient progress has not been made in the infrastructure and accessibility of sporting centres to successfully capitalise on the national mood.
The Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport recently published its “Accessibility of Sports Stadia” report, which details the results of the investigation in to the basic accessibility of sports stadia, primarily football stadia. It found
“a shocking lack of provision for supporters with disabilities of all kinds, including in some cases a failure even to train staff in basic disability awareness.”
Despite the assertion from all premier league football clubs that accessibility would be improved by August 2017, a recent update has demonstrated little discernible improvement. We should also be looking at stadiums right across the United Kingdom—people enjoy sports, particularly football, in other nations too. The Committee reports:
“Detailed best practice guidance exists at both national and European level, but some clubs seem content to do the minimum legally required, without considering whether access is really adequate.”
That strongly echoes the findings on accessible travel I already discussed. Although legal and policy frameworks exist to protect the accessibility rights of disabled individuals, there is a fundamental absence of appropriate mechanisms to monitor adherence to that guidance and to follow up with reasonable consequences for breaches.
If we consider that access to grounds for disabled spectators is insufficient, it is not unreasonable to suspect that the direct involvement of disabled individuals in sporting activity is similarly poor. It is important to note that, where accessible leisure facilities are already available, they are not invulnerable to the pressures of our current climate. For example, I understand from people across the United Kingdom who have contacted me in my capacity as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability that the council-run Jubilee pool in Bristol, which has a range of accessibility aids, is due to be closed following recent council budget cuts. Surely that is a retrograde step. It cannot be taken. Given the paucity of freely accessible sports and leisure facilities, it is particularly sad that increasing financial restrictions are stopping local councils from continuing to support their citizens with disabilities to access vital public services.
The final area of accessibility I would like to discuss today is shopping centres—I am a bit of an expert on them, as my husband would attest. The 2014 DisabledGo investigation audited 27,000 high-street retail outlets and found that one fifth of stores failed to provide wheelchair access, only one third of department stores had wheelchair accessible changing rooms and one third did not have an accessible toilet. Only 15% of retailers had hearing loops to support customers with hearing impairments. Again, despite the framework provided by the Equality Act, shoppers with disabilities are restricted in the simple act of shopping. A follow up to that investigation to track more recent advances would certainly be welcome.
The situation is also an economic error. As a large segment of our population, disabled individuals and their families hold a combined spending power of £200 billion—what the Department for Work and Pensions has termed the “purple pound”. For us to block the financial contribution of this segment of the community from our economy is both unnecessary and absolutely illogical.
Furthermore, the employment capabilities of individuals with disability are vastly underused, with a gap in employment between disabled and non-disabled individuals of 32%, which clearly results in further economic disadvantage. Accessibility—accessing potential workplaces or public transport to workplaces—is relevant in that respect. It is my belief that tackling accessibility will take us in the right direction towards the Government’s stated aim of halving the disability employment gap.
In Scotland, the 2010 framework, “A Working Life for All Disabled People”, underscores the importance of local authority support for employment, and the need to work with business partners to improve support and access for disabled people to enter the workplace. A new Scottish employability programme that will be introduced from April 2018 emphasises working in tandem with stakeholders to tackle the barriers to employment that face disabled individuals. It goes without saying that people with disability have a vast ability to contribute to their communities, their places of work and our society, and problems of accessibility should not prevent them from so doing. Further investment in creating advanced accessibility on the high street, in our stadiums, across our leisure facilities and in the workplace is needed.
The needs of disabled individuals throughout our communities and across the UK are not being met by the accessibility of our shops, transport and leisure facilities. We are therefore marginalising and excluding one sixth of our society—one sixth who are able to contribute so much, but who are prevented from doing so by simple, solvable issues of accessibility. I call that we amend the legislation so that consequences are put in place for business and industries who do not act in accordance with the law. In doing so, we can protect and support the rights of our fellow citizens to engage with valuable community activities, live the lives of which they are capable, and achieve their full potential.
We may also follow the guidance of our Scottish Government counterparts, who in 2016 developed a cross-governmental disability delivery plan, in which accessibility problems were identified as a significant barrier to improving outcomes for people with disability. A series of clearly defined actions, including, for example, the development of a Government-moderated accessible travel hub to collate information and share good practice on accessible transport, and a help guide with practical advice for businesses in increasing accessibility, have been identified and can now be monitored.
I have a number of questions for the Minister. What plans do the Government have to continue to increase access to public and leisure services for disabled people in our country? What power are the Government willing to use to ensure industry compliance with the terms of the Equality Act? Do Ministers anticipate any barriers to obtaining ongoing compliance, and how will they deal with them? What steps are the Government willing to take to ensure compliance with the Equality Act within publicly provided services? What value do the Government place on ensuring access to leisure activities for disabled people? Can they indicate whether it is held in parity with work access, which I am aware is a priority? I suggest that the Government undertake a wide-scale investigation into the inaccessibility of leisure activities, so that the full scale of the current situation is understood, and so that well-targeted plans to ameliorate disadvantage can then be devised. Will the Minister lend support to the development of a UK Government disability delivery plan, detailing commitments and actions to improve accessibility for all members of our communities?
I thank all the organisations, constituents and individuals from across all parts of the United Kingdom who contributed their thoughts and experiences for the debate today. We are in 2017—let us make 2017 the year in which we deliver for people with disability.
I congratulate Dr Cameron on securing this important debate—I apologise if I got my pronunciation completely wrong there.
It is absolutely right that we consider how we as a society can be as inclusive as possible. Too often, people with disabilities are left in uncomfortable, inconvenient and distressing circumstances because of the lack of adequate facilities.
In particular, I want to raise awareness of a local campaign in my constituency, which has the innocent-sounding title of “No More Floor”. I am pleased to be involved with the initiative, which seeks to install changing facilities in Leamington to make a huge difference for children with severe disabilities and their families. As the name indicates, those children and young adults often have to be changed on the floor of a public convenience. I admit my ignorance: until I was approached by the campaigners, I thought that a disabled toilet would be perfectly adequate and cover all eventualities. I now understand the need for a hoist, which is the only alternative to changing someone on the floor. Such facilities are absolutely imperative and, as the hon. Lady mentioned, Changing Places is one of the organisations that helps to install them.
I am grateful to the Royal Priors, a shopping mall in my constituency, for giving up the necessary space to make such a changing facility possible and for making a financial commitment to the campaign. It is a shame, however, that a private sector organisation has had to deliver something that ought to be accessible to all. There is certainly an argument to be made that provision of such facilities ought to be put on a statutory footing, so that local authorities construct them within a particular radius or for a certain size of population. There is a facility in Shire Hall, the county hall in Warwick, but the next nearest is in Solihull, which does not give people many options. Such heavy restrictions on families must be addressed.
I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the two families involved in the campaign, and specifically to Emily Naismith and Francesca Anker, for their hard work and persistence in their aim to make a real difference to their community. I look forward to continuing to work with them. I have tremendous respect for the families who—I am sure they will not mind me saying—have already had to jump through a number of hoops just going through their daily lives. I wish they did not have to fight for such facilities but, as the campaign gets going, there will be a great deal of support for what they are trying to achieve.
Also in Warwick, I am delighted that Network Rail’s Access for All programme includes the installation of lifts at the train station. Warwick is a wonderful town and attracts thousands of visitors every year. Making access easier for people who need wheelchairs or have other disabilities will be a major step forward. The Rail Minister, Paul Maynard, is not present, but I thank him for taking the time and trouble to look at that issue so we can bring the date of the project forward.
I look forward to the response of the Minister present today. In particular, I am interested in hearing his views on whether to put such matters on a statutory footing.
I thank my hon. Friend Dr Cameron for securing this important debate. I am delighted that we are having it at a crucial time for disabled people.
Disability policy should be based on the social model of disability—that disability is caused by the way society is organised, rather than by the person’s impairment or difference—and it is hugely important to look at ways of removing barriers that restrict life choices for disabled people. When barriers are removed, disabled people can be independent and equal in society, with choice and control over their own lives. It is therefore not the impairment or condition that disables, but society’s inability to adapt and to accommodate different needs. Our duty as parliamentarians is to ensure that disabled people are not left at a disadvantage when using facilities and services, that they are not disadvantaged in accessing employment or education and that we seek to remove the barriers that many people face in their everyday lives.
Much work has been done on the issue, and we have come a long way in recent years. The Equality Act 2010 provided some statutory protections, but we cannot sit back and suggest that means we are now all equal—we are not. The Act does not spell out what “reasonable adjustments” are in all cases, and it does not place a duty on all service providers to make specific disability adaptations. We have seen great improvements in accessible toilets, but wheelchair and ambulant-accessible toilets do not meet the needs of many people with profound learning disabilities, for example, or of those who need the help of at least one carer to lift or change them, such as people with muscular or neurological conditions, a stoma or limb loss, so I understand why people continue to campaign for facilities with additional space, hoists or an adult-sized changing bench.
I have spoken in this place before on behalf of the many people in my constituency with inflammatory bowel disease. Almost 2,000 public toilets have closed throughout the UK in the past decade, which has had a direct impact on people with IBD. A survey by Crohn’s and Colitis UK found that a quarter of young people with IBD believed that their condition made socialising almost impossible, and many cited the need to know the proximity of a toilet as a key factor. Members will be familiar with the “Breastfeeding Welcome” signs displayed in many shops, cafés and public buildings. I want to see a similar initiative for people with the “Can’t Wait” card, issued to those with Crohn’s disease, colitis and IBD. I am aware of a pilot scheme for the card, and we would welcome a national roll-out, because it could give people with IBD more confidence to take part in the kind of everyday activities that the rest of us take for granted.
A substantial number of buildings in the UK receive public funding, from libraries and museums to council buildings and town halls, and they could all be open to people with conditions such as IBD. The impact on those people’s lives would be significant. The issues faced by people with IBD are indicative of many of the barriers faced by people with hidden disabilities. I have heard repeated reports of people being berated for using accessible toilets or parking bays when they “do not look disabled”. The issue of hidden disabilities is very close to my heart, and I was delighted to hear of the moves made by Asda, which will hopefully be adopted by other major supermarket chains, to adapt its signage to reflect the reality that many conditions are not immediately apparent. That kind of action helps to combat stigma for many people, and it should be applauded.
Disabled people can live the life they choose, participating equally alongside other citizens, their families, communities and workplaces—but only if they are given the support to do so. There are many examples of good practice across the country, where voluntary groups have identified barriers to participation and come up with innovative solutions to enable access to services and amenities.
I take this opportunity to highlight the sterling work of the Girvan Youth Trust in my constituency to make the beach at Girvan accessible to wheelchair users. Its Family Sandcastles initiative will allow wheelchair users the opportunity to feel the sand between their toes and to spend time at the beach with their friends and family, rather than having to sit on the prom watching from a distance. The only other barrier to their enjoyment of this part of our fantastic Ayrshire coastline will be the one we all face—the Scottish weather. Another local group, the Carrick angling club, has installed wheelchair-accessible fishing platforms to ensure that mobility issues are not a barrier to participating in that popular activity. The club has been investigating further options to extend its accessible offerings.
We need to encourage those kinds of local initiatives to remove barriers to involvement and participation, and we need to emulate them when setting Government disability policy. It is extremely disappointing, therefore, to see UK Government policy so utterly condemned by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities inquiry. The findings of the UN report starkly illustrated that the Government are undermining the rights of disabled people by imposing their obsession with austerity and social security cuts on some of the most disadvantaged people in our society. In this job I have witnessed the real hardship and distress caused by the Government’s policies. The Government’s Green Paper on disability employment support alludes to reform, but the process is fundamentally flawed and needs a radical overhaul. The Green Paper was a critical opportunity to get the system right for sick and disabled people, but one cannot help but be sceptical when the Government continue to insist on pressing ahead with cuts to employment and support allowance.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one outcome of those cuts is a drastic reduction in people’s accessibility and mobility due to the removal of Motability cars, which they depend on and feel are a lifeline that has helped them to get into employment and achieve full lives?
I completely agree.
In Scotland, we aim for a fairer, more equal and more inclusive society. To that end, the Scottish National party-led Government announced just before Christmas their plan to transform the lives of disabled people in Scotland. That plan was developed with disabled people, because we believe that the more than 1 million disabled people who contribute to our society should have control, dignity and freedom to live their lives as they choose and be supported to do so. That is in stark contrast to the cuts agenda that runs through every UK Government announcement about disability support, and we now face a further hurdle to equality for disabled people: a hard Brexit. That poses a real threat to disabled people’s rights. The Government must ensure that rights and protections for disabled people are not diluted as a result of us leaving the EU and stop paying lip service to equality issues.
I thank my hon. Friend Dr Cameron, who is a great champion for disabled people’s rights.
It is always a pleasure to speak in debates where there is, broadly speaking, so much consensus. We all want disabled people to be socially included to the fullest possible extent. We all want to live in a society that sees the person, not the disability. We all want to remove the barriers that fate has placed in the way of any individual so that they can play a full role in society.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the challenge that some councillors and individuals undertook in Inverness during the week? They took to wheelchairs in the streets to get a better idea of those barriers. Would she encourage other people to do that in cities around the UK?
I would indeed. That useful initiative gives those of us who are lucky enough not to have to live with a disability a unique insight into the kinds of challenges that disabled people have to face every single day of their lives, and I commend such practices.
We have heard poignant and human examples of such barriers and the effects that they can have on individuals who live with a disability, such as the constituent that my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow mentioned. She also outlined the distressing example of Ms Wafula Strike, which I am sure is not an isolated one. Like Chris White, I commend the work that Changing Places has done to promote fully accessible toilets. The problem is that work still needs to be done, which throws into stark relief how far we still have to go in catering for people who live with a disability and removing the barriers they face.
The Equality Act 2010 is important legislation. It contains the public sector equality duty and requires “reasonable adjustments” to be made to avoid a person with a disability being placed at a “substantial disadvantage” to a non-disabled person when accessing services and facilities. However, we have heard that there are loopholes in that Act. It does not prescribe what a reasonable adjustment is in particular circumstances or place a duty on all service providers to make specific disabled adaptations such as installing lifts or hearing loops, as my hon. Friend Corri Wilson so clearly set out.
There is no doubt that we have an absolute duty as a society to ensure equality of access to facilities. That ought to apply equally in the private sector and the public sector. It was absolutely correctly pointed out that equality of access should not be an afterthought. We must always guard against the marginalisation of disabled members of our communities. The disability employment gap shows that that is a real and present danger, and we cannot afford to be complacent, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow so eloquently pointed out.
This issue is not just about access to work, important though that is. It is about all elements of life: work, social life and leisure. Justice and fairness demands that. I commend the No More Floor campaign in the constituency of the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington, but the fact that such a campaign is needed should be cause for shame. It is a reminder of how little progress we have made in reality. A shortage of basic facilities consigns some people with a disability to being trapped in their homes, which can have a hugely negative impact on their lives, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock pointed out. It is surely bad enough that people living with a disability often face negative attitudes without finding themselves excluded in and from public spaces—although perhaps those negative attitudes lead to exclusion.
It is worth repeating that there is an economic dimension as well as social and moral elements. Some 7 million working age people have a disability. That adds up to an awful lot of spending power. The so-called purple pound is apparently worth £249 billion to the economy. Is it not madness for 7 million people to be excluded from the ordinary, mainstream life that so many of us do and should take for granted? As has been mentioned, many people with a disability rely on Motability vehicles to access amenities in our communities, and Motability must continue to be supported.
I am proud that the SNP Scottish Government have devised a new disabled delivery plan—a policy commitment to disabled people—based on the need to remove any further barriers and ensure full access to buildings, including disability-inclusive housing, transport and communication. Some 93 actions will be achieved by 2021. We aim to secure transformational change in support for disabled people in Scotland. I urge the Minister to look at the Scottish Government’s plans to see what can be learned from that policy commitment.
It would be remiss of me, while we are debating publicly accessible amenities for disabled people, not to mention that, with their new powers, the SNP Scottish Government are committed to establishing a social security system based on dignity and respect that will allow people with a disability to live as full and independent a life as possible, which I am sure we all agree with. Unfortunately, the UK Government have made cruel and punitive cuts to support for people living with a disability, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock set out.
I hope the Minister will pledge that any laws regarding disability rights and equality will be fully repatriated to Scotland in the wake of Brexit. It is essential that the SNP Scottish Government’s good work continues and develops. [Interruption.] The Minister really should pay attention. There is a very real concern among disabled people that their rights in law will no longer be protected by European Court of Justice judgments post-Brexit. That could lead to equality rights being more narrowly interpreted, as well as the loss of vital research funding and pooling of expertise that EU membership provides. Through European research, important treatments have been developed for diseases so rare that no one country could have developed them alone. As we agree that people living with a disability must have access to amenities, so we should agree that the rights of disabled people should be protected in the widest sense. I hope we do.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I thank Dr Cameron for securing this important debate.
Disabled people were not necessarily born disabled. In fact, 90% of disability is acquired. I am one of the 90%. As some Members may know, I have a disability. For the last 20 years, I have worn a bone anchored hearing aid, without which I cannot hear a sound. I understand the difficulty facing many disabled people and the trauma that they go through.
Since the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, it has been illegal to discriminate against a disabled person. The Equality Act 2010 places a duty on providers of goods, services and facilities to make “reasonable adjustments” in order to avoid a disabled person being placed at a “substantial disadvantage” compared with non-disabled people when accessing services and facilities. Service providers’ failure to comply is a form of disability discrimination.
How many times have we seen disabled people denied basic access to vital services such as public transport? As recently as mid-January, the Supreme Court ruled, on a case bought by disability campaigner Doug Paulley, that bus drivers must ensure that there is sufficient space for wheelchair users to ride the bus safely. Outside the big cities and in many rural communities, the local bus service is often the only lifeline for disabled people to get out and about. Without access to that vital service, many disabled people may be left alone and housebound.
Many hon. Members here will have heard the frankly appalling story—the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow outlined it—of Anne Wafula Strike. How disgusting that she was forced to urinate on herself. That is humiliating, inhumane and totally unacceptable; unfortunately, it is not uncommon. Last week in Bristol, I came across a disabled lady in a wheelchair who told me how she was pushed to the sidings and left sat in her wheelchair while she waited for assistance to get on a train that she had booked some days previously. For too long, transport providers have failed to provide adequate basic facilities for disabled passengers. When will the Minister liaise with rail providers to ensure that they make the correct adjustments, so disabled passengers can travel in dignity and comfort?
I will quickly discuss the term “reasonable adjustments”. It seems to mean one thing to disabled people and a completely different thing to many employers. To some employers, it means doing the bare minimum to meet the legal requirements. Will the Government legislate for all employers to provide disability awareness training for their staff, and provide the right support for small to medium employers to achieve that? A Government review found that the number of cases taken to employment tribunals has fallen by 70% since court fees were introduced. It has therefore become very difficult for disabled employees to bring their employers to task for failing to make reasonable adjustments. Will the Minister urge the Government to scrap the extortionate fees that make it harder for disabled people to challenge bad practice in the workplace?
Disabled people who believe that they have experienced discrimination as a result of not being able to access a good, a service or a facility are typically responsible for taking action themselves, via the courts, against their employer. That is often a difficult, daunting and arduous process—more so for a person with a disability. Reasonable adjustments do not only mean adjustments to accommodate physical disabilities. Many people have learning disabilities or a mental health condition. Those so-called hidden disabilities are often forgotten. They require a different set of reasonable adjustments to someone who has a physical impairment.
I have experience of a case involving one of my constituents, who suffers from autism, learning difficulties and a severe form of tinnitus. He was called in for an assessment by the Department for Work and Pensions and was escorted by his 84-year-old mother. When she tried to explain that her son was not able to hear because of the noise around the room, she was told that the hearing would be terminated if she did not refrain from interfering. His assessment resulted in a major reduction of points, from 32 to six. He and his 84-year-old mother were left traumatised. It placed him in a difficult situation, and he was placed in what they call a support group. Anyone who meets this gentleman—he is a gentleman—will fully realise that he should not have been put in that group.
I took the case up. He had a reassessment in an appropriate place where there was no noise, his mother could accompany him, and there was someone who empathised with his difficulties. He wears ear muffs around his neck. He puts them on. Just one sound can set him off and make him severely ill. His reassessment resulted in the reinstatement of the original points. It was the most traumatic experience that that man has gone through. His mother still suffers from the after effects of being with him.
For too many disabled people, the legal requirements are nowhere near good enough. It is a shame that the Equality Act 2010, which replaced the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, failed to set out exactly what reasonable adjustments entail. That lack of clarity has a real impact on disabled people’s ability to live full and independent lives.
I thank the hon. Lady for the great case that she is making. I have spoken to a number of organisations based in my constituency that work with deaf people, which have also found it difficult to get around the phrase “reasonable adjustments”. They feel as though they do not get access to the interview stage, never mind getting past that and getting a job, because people think that they will unable to do it because of their disability.
I concur. I know of and have been involved in many cases like that. I urge the Minister to provide urgent clarity on exactly what constitutes reasonable adjustments to stop irresponsible employers from skirting around the law.
There are too few disabled people in public office, including in this place. The access to elected office fund, which enables disabled people to stand for elected office and meet additional access requirements, has been suspended, and the Government’s evaluation report has been kicked into the long grass. Will the Government publish that evaluation and ensure that disabled people seeking to represent any party have support to meet the additional costs they face in standing for election?
A recent report by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on the accessibility of sports stadiums highlighted the failure of some clubs to provide adequate facilities for disabled fans attending matches. Having a disability should not prevent someone from attending and enjoying a sports match. Provision for disabled fans should not be patchy depending on which club they support. Everyone has the right to see their favourite sports team win or lose. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that premier league clubs, with their huge revenues, prioritise improving access for disabled fans?
The majority of the daily problems faced by disabled people arise from confusion over the rules, poor or insufficient communication, inadequate training of service providers and/or a lack of enforcement by the relevant authorities. Will the Minister explain what mechanisms are in place to enforce the Equality Act to ensure that disability discrimination does not go unchallenged?
Organisations such as Euan’s Guide offer information on accessibility for disabled people by offering access reviews of a range of service providers. It aims to inspire disabled people to try out new places and
“remove the fear of the unknown.”
What are the Government doing to ensure that more organisations like Euan’s Guide are better supported to ensure that disabled people get the information that they need to access all facilities? That fear of the unknown prevents too many disabled people from being able to fully participate in society—and society suffers for that. The Government must do more to provide disabled people with the right information. By doing so, they would empower so many more disabled people to go out and lead full and independent lives.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Buck. I begin by thanking Dr Cameron—I got a nod there, which is a good sign—for bringing this important issue forward for debate. I know that as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability, she has a particular interest in issues that have an impact on disabled people.
We need public amenities in the right place. We want to be sure they are well managed, clean and open, and we need to find toilets with the right layout for our needs. I will focus my comments on the issues that the hon. Lady mentioned in relation to facilities for disabled people. I will also try to answer some of the wider questions that have been raised.
First, I will talk about building regulations, which play an extremely important role in ensuring that facilities are available for disabled people. The aim of building regulation requirements is to ensure that toilet layouts work for as many people as possible. The first building regulations on accessibility were introduced in 1984, and requirements have been updated regularly to ensure that new building work takes the needs of disabled people into account. Building regulations already set out minimum standards for accessible toilets in most public buildings. That includes standards for unisex accessible toilets even in small buildings and additional provision in larger buildings.
Because people’s needs and expectations evolve over time, my Department has commissioned a research project to look at the existing standards in part M of the building regulations. That research is looking at how well standards perform in meeting the needs of disabled people. The finalised report will help us to establish where a change to guidance is necessary and how guidance on accessible toilet provision might evolve to suite a range of needs. I understand that consistency of provision is important and that even small changes in layout, such as the position of wash basins or the omission of features such as shelves or coat hooks, can become awkward. Another area that may need to be considered is compliance with the requirements.
The number of people who need specialised toilet accommodation has increased in line with broader demographic and social change. We recognise that the availability of facilities such as Changing Places helps people to plan activities away from home. It is heartening to see that here in the UK, we have developed a new generation of accessible toilets, most commonly known as Changing Places. That model is now even being followed by other countries such as Australia and Germany.
Several hon. Members mentioned Changing Places, and I think we can all agree that having more Changing Places is a good thing. They provide an adult changing bench, a hoist, washing facilities and space for carers and users to use the facilities safely. Part M of the building regulations, entitled “Access to and use of buildings”, was amended in 2013 to refer to Changing Places toilets as desirable and to provide links to information on their installation and use developed by the Changing Places Consortium. However, building regulations are not retrospective, and building control relates primarily to new buildings or works that involve major refurbishment. They do not apply to all buildings, so railway stations, airports and ports fall outside building control. Important locations such as high streets may not see the major development that would trigger building regulation requirements.
In his evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee, my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning said that we need a mixed economy in increasing provision. He is determined to look at the evidence we are now gathering to see what more needs to be done to provide the facilities needed for people with disabilities.
I am pleased to say that my Department has worked for the past 10 years, and continues to work, to encourage more Changing Places. We are working closely with Mencap, the British Toilet Association, PAMIS and the Changing Places campaign. The Government have supported great progress, which at the moment has been mainly on a voluntary basis.
Since the Department for Communities and Local Government became involved with Changing Places toilets in 2007, the number of Changing Places in the UK has increased from around 140 to 926 today. In March 2016 the figure was 813, and it is now 926, so we can see that the take-up is quite considerable and that momentum is growing.
We have also funded the development of a website to help people find the nearest Changing Places toilet quickly and easily. Using the site, anyone can find a Changing Places toilet on their planned route or wherever they are. However, I take on board the comment of my hon. Friend Chris White; we certainly need more Changing Places, because they are not available in every place that people might want to visit or across the transport network.
It is great to see my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work on the Front Bench today, listening intently to this debate. I know that she raised the issue of access and accessible toilets for disabled people at a Premier League event last autumn. At the time, only three premier league clubs had Changing Places facilities. That has now risen to five clubs with registered facilities and two further clubs with similar unregistered facilities. I understand that 10 other clubs are now looking into the issue to see what further action they can take, following significant work from the Changing Places Consortium and others.
Of course, other legislation supports the provision of more publicly available disabled toilets. Section 20 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976, for example, gives local authorities the power to require toilets to be provided and maintained for public use in any place that provides entertainment, exhibitions or sporting events, and places serving food and drink for consumption on the premises. Environmental health officers review plans and premises’ licence applications, which includes advising on whether the sanitary facilities provided are sufficient in number, design and—most crucially in the context of our debate—layout. Once buildings are in use, there are duties on employers and service providers under the Equality Act 2010, which has helped to ensure that the needs of disabled people are anticipated and catered for.
Through the planning system, local authorities can also impose requirements or negotiate with developers to ensure that enhanced accessible toilets such as Changing Places are brought forward in new large-scale developments or in buildings with strategic importance. Furthermore, the Department for Work and Pensions has taken forward initiatives on the wider accessibility agenda, such as the accessibility hack, which explores ways to harness technology, people power and its work with sector champions to tackle the issues that disabled people face as customers.
Figures for the spending power of people with disabilities were mentioned on a number of occasions, which is a very important point. The figure I have is that people with disabilities and their families have £250 billion to spend. That reinforces the reason why people developing new shopping centres, motorway services and so on should really think about providing proper facilities, particularly Changing Places, that would be supported by customers with disabilities and their families.
I will answer as many of the specific questions asked by hon. Members as I can. The hon. Member for East Kilbride—I will not push it any further; I will call her constituency just “East Kilbride” from now on—asked whether anything was being done to improve access at DWP buildings where work capability assessments are undertaken. I can tell her that improvements are taking place to assessment centres and DWP offices. While I am on that subject, it is important to refer again to the Green Paper and the work on health, which has been consulted on. The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work is looking at a number of reforms, particularly changes to the work capability assessment, with the aim of ensuring that we have far better data so that we cut down on the number of assessments that are needed in the first place. As I understand it, that would also help with the assessments for personal independence payment.
The hon. Lady made several points about accessibility for disabled people on public transport. That is a very important issue. We have all seen the recent stories and been shocked at some of the things that have happened. Transport is clearly a very important issue. My counterparts at the Department for Transport have recently given evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee inquiry on disability and the built environment. We are looking closely at how transport services can be improved. I will write to the hon. Lady to set out the Government’s position in more detail, and I will also write to Marie Rimmer on that point.
The hon. Member for East Kilbride also mentioned what plans there were to increase access and asked about a UK accessibility delivery plan. This is quite a challenging area, because there are many issues that relate to the UK Government, but there are also many issues—for example, building regulations and transport policy—that directly relate to the UK Government only here in England and to the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The hon. Lady made a very good point. The Minister for Housing and Planning recently gave evidence for the Women and Equalities Committee inquiry on disability and the built environment. The Committee has expressed an interest in the possibility of a more strategic approach, as the hon. Lady advocated, and we will certainly look at those recommendations closely.
The hon. Lady asked what powers we can use to ensure compliance. Compliance with building regulations, for example, is a legal requirement. Non-compliance can result in fines, which can be unlimited. Compliance with the Equality Act 2010 is certainly also a legal duty—perhaps we need to remind service providers that that is a duty, not an option. That is a very important message that we can send from the House today. We consider the public sector equality duty carefully and expect every public body to consider it in undertaking its work. Again, that is not an option but a requirement.
My hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington made very important points. I was pleased to hear about the new lifts being installed at Warwick train station. I do not like to say that my own constituency of Nuneaton is in front of Warwick, but we have had lifts at our station for many years. It is really good to hear that, at Warwick, lifts are being installed to support people who have disabilities and need access to lifts because of things such as wheelchairs.
My hon. Friend also talked about putting Changing Places on a statutory footing and requiring Changing Places to be provided. I hear what he says. As I said before, we have commissioned research, and we will look carefully at its findings. The Minister for Housing and Planning will then look carefully at the point that my hon. Friend makes.
In relation to the comments by Patricia Gibson, we are working on improving the issues to do with Motability vehicles, particularly as regards appeals.
The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston asked a question about elected office. We are working across political parties on this matter. All political parties have signed up to the Disability Confident work, on which the DWP is leading. I am informed by the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work that we are also looking forward to introducing measures to ensure that we enable people with disabilities to hold elected office, which is extremely important. We do not have in this place enough people with disabilities, who have more depth of understanding of these issues when they are spoken about here. The same goes for people who represent their local areas on local authorities, and I will certainly be keen to work on that with my hon. Friend, who is here representing the DWP.
The Minister has given a thorough response so far. Given that a number of research and evaluation projects are under way, would he be able to come to the all-party parliamentary group for disability to update us on the progress being made in that regard and to inform us directly about the way forward?
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. It is always a bit risky to put a colleague in the frame to undertake a meeting, but I will certainly bring that point to the attention of the Minister for Housing and Planning, who is always keen to engage with organisations in relation to his area of responsibility.
This is an extremely important issue. We should always take into account the needs of disabled people, and particularly the accessibility of public buildings, public toilets and Changing Places. We look forward to continuing a collaborative approach not just with hon. Members from both sides of the House, but with a number of voluntary and charitable organisations that I have mentioned today. I thank the hon. Member for East Kilbride for bringing these important issues to the House.
I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in this debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for enabling it. It would be helpful if a Minister could attend the all-party parliamentary group for disability to update us on the research. I am keen to take that forward.
We did not have a chance to speak about building regulations, but I am keen to understand how the refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster will be undertaken in relation to accessibility. Perhaps we can also look at that issue. I have previously spoken to the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work on the Floor of the House about the possibility of allowing home visits where DWP offices are not accessible.
I thank everybody for taking part in this debate. We will certainly continue to look at this issue.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way—I had plenty of time to speak, but I just want to make two more points. First, my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work is looking at the refurbishment of the Palace, and I am sure she will have a discussion with the hon. Lady about it. Secondly, on building regulations and the work that that the all-party group is doing, my officials are engaged with officials in the Scottish Government on those matters.
To conclude, it is important that we take these issues forward across the nations and Governments of the United Kingdom to ensure that there is not a postcode lottery for people with disability. We must work together in a progressive way to ensure accessibility for all.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered publicly accessible amenities for disabled people.