The minister for disabled people has been accused of hypocrisy, after announcing the winners of his Accessible Britain awards, despite his own access failings.
A leading disabled people’s organisation, Equal Lives, said that Mark Harper should “put his own house in order before preaching to others”.
The awards were launched last September, three months after the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) promised to close St Mary’s House, an inaccessible disability assessment centre in Norwich.
Nine months after the pledge to move assessments to a more accessible location, disabled people are still being forced to make long journeys to alternative centres, three years after the problems were first drawn to the government’s attention.
But Equal Lives also pointed to the revelation by Disability News Service that Harper’s own constituency office in Cinderford, in Gloucestershire, was not accessible to many disabled people.
Harper is one of four coalition ministers – including the prime minister, David Cameron – who have been exposed for running inaccessible constituency offices.
One of the aims of the Accessible Britain Challenge is to “motivate local communities to do more to be inclusive and accessible for disabled people”, but Harper has refused to answer questions about the access in his own constituency office (pictured).
Mark Harrison, chief executive of Equal Lives, said the continuing use of St Mary’s House and Harper’s own inaccessible office showed that the Accessible Britain Challenge was “just a publicity stunt”.
Equal Lives has been campaigning for three years outside St Mary’s House, and says that Harper has ignored its concerns and refused to answer its letters.
Harrison said: “They are even presenting awards in conjunction with the British Institute of Facilities Management and one of the categories is ‘innovative use of buildings, spaces and places’.
“I am sure the irony of this is not lost on the thousands of disabled people who have been forced to travel hundreds of miles for their assessments because the DWP won’t lease a suitable premises.”
He added: “It also demonstrates the contempt this government has for disabled people.
“There is one rule for disabled people and another for the private sector, bankers and ministers who see themselves as being unaccountable and above the law.”
The awards ceremony at the House of Commons today (12 March) saw the YMCA Community Gym in Peterborough, the live music accessibility charity Attitude is Everything, the Safe Place project in Poole and Bournemouth, and the Corporate Disability Access Forum in west Cheshire, all recognised for their “life-changing” work on improving access.
A DWP spokesman said the suggestion that Harper was a hypocrite was not “fair”.
He said: “As the minister has made clear previously, his constituency office does have disabled access and complies with all equality legislation.
“We are working to secure a new location for the assessment centre in Norwich and hope to be able to make an announcement soon.
“In the meantime, people who are unable to access the second floor will continue to be offered an assessment elsewhere or, if necessary, a home visit.”
He added: “The minister believes it is right to recognise the work of organisations which have helped transform the lives of disabled people and which share the government’s commitment to making Britain more accessible.”
Picture by Tim Oakes