The minister for disabled people has been heavily criticised for failing to ensure that his constituency office is accessible to disabled people, after Disability News Service (DNS) confirmed that a ramp used by his staff is potentially unsafe.
One leading disabled access consultant described Mark Harper’s failure to provide proper access to the office in Cinderford, Gloucestershire, as “totally unacceptable”.
And the president of the Liberal Democrats, Baroness [Sal] Brinton, also a wheelchair-user, called on Harper, Conservative MP for the Forest of Dean, to review the accessibility of his office.
This week, DNS confirmed that the doorway to Harper’s constituency office in Cinderford high street is just 32 inches wide, and has a large step in front of the door.
The entrance to the office is situated on a hill, which means that a standard temporary ramp would be unstable and potentially dangerous. The pavement outside the office is too narrow for any wheelchair-user or scooter-user to enter the office safely.
Despite this, Harper’s staff use a standard ramp to provide access to the office for wheelchair-users and others who cannot manage the step.
There are also no parking spaces available outside the office.
Phil Friend, a leading disability consultant and former chair of Disability Rights UK, said: “For someone in Mark Harper’s position to be working out of offices which are not accessible is totally unacceptable. The minister should be a role model for others.”
He said it was clear from pictures shown to him by DNS that it would be “difficult” for a wheelchair-user to gain access to the building, because of the width of the pavement, the slope of the hill and the design of the ramp used by his staff.
Baroness Brinton said: “In the light of this information, I hope that Mark Harper will review accessibility to his office, not just for visitors but for prospective staff and volunteers as well.”
She added: “I want to see all MPs’ offices… accessible to all disabled people, whether they are working there or just visiting.”
Baroness Brinton has pledged to write to all of her own party’s MPs asking them about their access arrangements and what steps they were taking to improve them, particularly when leases on their offices were due to expire.
She also plans to recommend to all newly-elected Liberal Democrat MPs that they should rent accessible constituency offices.
Only last week, Harper announced the winners of his Accessible Britain Challenge at the House of Commons, and said afterwards: “I hope this will encourage more organisations to think about the needs of disabled people and help drive the UK forward to become a truly Disability Confident nation.”
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”.
Deborah King, co-founder of Disability Politics UK, said that Harper’s entrance was “not suitable for any MP”.
She said: “The message Mark Harper’s office entrance sends out to other business and companies is that disabled people are not important, that we are not valued and that we are second-class citizens.
“He needs to move to premises which will make is easy for disabled constituents, volunteers and paid staff to access his constituency office.
“The public purse, through the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, enables MPs to get accessible offices. There must be alternative premises available.
“We need a real sea change in commitment to disabled people from MPs.
“This is a one-off change which will show MPs are committed to enabling disabled people to get access to politics.”
Linda Burnip, a member of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “The feeble access measures made to try to make Mark Harper’s office accessible fail totally to provide a safe way for disabled constituents to gain entry to his office.
“As minster for disabled people, he should be ashamed at continuing to exclude them in this way from not only being able to consult him but to volunteer or even work in the office.
“Mark Harper’s Accessible Britain Challenge really was a sham exercise when all that he provides is an inadequate and unsafe ramp into his own office.
“The message this sends out to other businesses in the town is that disabled people don’t really matter, especially if making safe, adequate access provision might cost you money.”
Harper has refused to answer any questions about the access at his office, although he issued a brief statement late last year, in which he stated: “Any constituent who wants to contact me can use either the phone or e-mail to reach my office.
“If any wish to meet me to discuss an issue in person at a surgery, then I hold these on a regular basis in accessible venues around the constituency.
“A small proportion of constituents call at the office in Cinderford in person. If a wheelchair user was to do so, then we do have a ramp available.”
Both Harper and the Department for Work and Pensions have so far failed to comment on the latest evidence.
Harper is one of four coalition ministers – including the prime minister, David Cameron – who have been exposed for running inaccessible constituency offices.