A peer campaigning to become the first disabled president of the Liberal Democrats has complained that the debating chamber of the House of Lords is so inaccessible that sometimes only three wheelchair-users can speak in the same debate.
There are believed to be at least six peers who usually or always use a wheelchair, but only three microphones that can be used by wheelchair-users, and space is so cramped in the chamber that there is often not enough room for them to make way for fresh speakers.
The Liberal Democrat peer Baroness [Sal] Brinton called this week for parliament to be moved permanently to a more accessible building.
She told Disability News Service at her party’s annual conference in Glasgow that access in the Palace of Westminster was “dreadful” and that the building was “not fit for purpose”.
Even if all of the vital improvement work was carried out at once – and parliament moved temporarily to a new venue, while fire safety, heating, drainage, ventilation, electrical, asbestos clearance and other work was carried out – it would still take an estimated 10 years to complete the upgrade, and up to 10 years longer if parliamentary authorities closed it bit by bit while the work was carried out.
Baroness Brinton even described how some peers refuse to move their feet to allow her to enter or leave the chamber. On one occasion, she had to appeal to the chief whip when one female peer refused to let her through.
She said: “I have had problems in getting out of the Lords chamber when it is full. It is extremely difficult and some of the elderly peers will not move.
“If all [the wheelchair-users in the Lords]wanted to speak [in a debate]we would be in trouble.
“Even when you are in there you have to run the gauntlet of peers who will not move, either to stand up and move aside or swing their feet round.
“It is not fit for purpose. People on the benches can squeeze up or sit on the steps. That’s not possible in a wheelchair.”
On one occasion, she and her fellow disabled peer Baroness Masham were left stranded after a late meeting when a lift broke down and a member of security staff – until eventually put straight by a police officer – told them there was nothing that could be done because it was “not an emergency”.
Because of the way they are paid – they are not treated as employed or self-employed, but instead are paid an allowance – disabled peers cannot claim Access to Work support, and nor can their staff.
This means Baroness Brinton has to rely on the Lords authorities to fund the taxis she needs to travel to and from Westminster, and any other adjustments she needs to do her work.
Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson, another peer who uses a wheelchair, was less critical of the access arrangements.
She said: “I think because I’ve been a wheelchair-user for many years I’ve a different take on the building.
“I love the history and the character and I’ve only known it in my chair. I can get to every part of the building and there has been a lot of thought to the disabled visitor experience.
“Having grown up knowing only one or two accessible toilets in London I’m pretty pleased with what we have in the Palace. It may not be perfect but it’s what we have.”
Baroness Grey-Thompson sits on the restoration and renewal committee, which she said was “considering many of these issues”.
She said she had found other peers “courteous” although she admitted that “perhaps they don’t always move very quickly at times”.
She also accepted that there would be a potential problem if all the wheelchair-users in the Lords wanted to speak in a debate, but she added: “If I just want to listen then I sit on the steps of the throne, where I quite like the view of the chamber.”
Her fellow disabled crossbench peer, Baroness [Jane] Campbell, said that although “not the best in terms of access”, there was the compensation of “being surrounded by beautiful and historic wonder”.
She said: “Personally, I would hate to move to a modern, albeit more accessible, building, but perhaps that’s the historian in me.”
She said patience was essential in dealing with some peers, “especially the very elderly members who are very disabled themselves – although often don’t admit it”, who “may not act as thoughtfully as one might in a mainstream job modern environment”.
She said the limited space could be frustrating, but that applied to every one of more than 800 peers, and not just those who were disabled.
Baroness Campbell added: “In many ways, the wheelchair-users generally get the opportunity to sit in the chamber and speak when others struggle.
“Those with mobility issues who find difficulty walking or standing at length are more disadvantaged than the wheelchair-users.
“I have now been in the Lords for over six years and have never lost an opportunity to speak because the three spaces for wheelchairs are being used.
“We are all very conscious of having to accommodate one another, so that we can all speak, and if we are not speaking imminently, we can move to the throne end of the chamber where everyone gets a better view.”
But she agreed with Baroness Brinton that fellow peers sometimes do not move out of the way when wheelchair-users want to enter or leave the chamber.
She said: “It is especially tricky when you have a large wheelchair. I think this could be made easier if an announcement was made by the leader of the House, rather than our individual appeals.”
Baroness Campbell added: “Perhaps I’m just getting soft in my old age, but I think the culture of self-regulation and respect for one another does make it a lot easier to rub along and include one another.”
And she said the situation at Westminster was “definitely an improvement” on some of her previous employers.
She said the House of Lords authorities had installed a toilet that all disabled people can use, which includes a changing table and hoist, provided her with an office on the main floor of the building where she can lie down and rest on busy days, and allowed her to take a personal assistant into the chamber to help her speak in debates.
She said: “Now, one might say, of course, that’s the least you could expect. But I did not get such accommodations from my previous employers.
“It’s not perfect, but in the scheme of things and compared to my previous places of work, it’s pretty good and will improve over time, I am sure.”
A House of Lords spokesman said there were positions in the Lords chamber for up to six wheelchairs and that door-keepers “assist with the co-ordination of using the microphones available, enabling those peers in wheelchairs who wish to speak to be in the right place at the right time”.
He said that a Restoration and Renewal Programme for the Palace of Westminster had been established “to tackle the significant work that is required”, with an independent appraisal of options for the work underway.
He added: “All lifts on the estate have continued to age and so an estate-wide lift refurbishment programme has recently begun, designed to eliminate the risk of lift failure, especially those located on business critical routes.
“It is anticipated that the Restoration and Renewal Programme will bring significant benefits, among them a more open, inclusive and accessible parliament, including numerous improvements to disabled access.”
And he said that equality consultations with internal and external individuals and groups “will be held at different stages of the programme to ensure full consideration is given to the equality impact of any future renovation work”.
10 October 2014