’Hypocrite’ Harper hides from questions over office access


newslatestThe minister for disabled people has refused to answer a string of potentially embarrassing questions about his inaccessible constituency office.

Last week, Disability News Service (DNS) revealed that Mark Harper had been accused of hypocrisy after he called for shops and restaurants across the country to improve their access, even though his own high street constituency office was inaccessible to wheelchair-users.

Harper is Conservative MP for the Forest of Dean, and his constituency office in Cinderford high street has a large step in front of the door, preventing wheelchair-users from entering.

News of Harper’s access failure emerged last week as he promoted a new high street access survey, which found that a fifth of shops were excluding wheelchair-users.

Harper told businesses that they were “missing a trick by not doing more to tap into this market” and that improving accessibility was “a no-brainer”.

And in September, he launched the Accessible Britain Challenge, where he told the audience that he was “challenging local communities, organisations, councils, and businesses to make their local communities more accessible and more inclusive for disabled people, and in doing so of course they will make them more inclusive and accessible for everybody”.

This week, Harper finally produced a short statement about access at his constituency office, in which he said: “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.”

But his constituency team has repeatedly refused to answer key questions from DNS about the access arrangements in the office.

Harper’s statement has now been criticised by one of the country’s leading disabled access consultants, Liam Proudlock, who said he was “not impressed” by what he had seen and heard from the minister.

He suggested that the access at the office would not be suitable for any MP, and that Harper was “not sending out a good message” to companies and businesses, and to people who might want to work or volunteer for him and get involved in politics.

He said: “All MPs should have inclusion on their minds. What he is offering is one service for those who can use it, and another, elsewhere, for disabled people.”

Proudlock said it could be possible to use a temporary ramp to allow access for some wheelchair-users, but because of the slope it would need to be “quite a specialist ramp that has a wedge at one end, and turning through the narrow doorway and over the threshold would in fact be very difficult”.

He said: “It would also be important that Harper’s staff were trained to put the ramp out correctly and to assist people to use it.”

Proudlock said that Harper was possibly “within the law” because he offers to meet constituents in different accessible locations.

But he added: “However, this is not inclusive and only acceptable today because the rest of the country is behind with wheelchair accessibility in general, as [the DisabledGo]survey has demonstrated.

“In fact, the Disability Discrimination Act required physical adaptations as long ago as 1999 and ‘reasonable’ adjustments including physical alterations to premises should have been complete by 2004.

“At the constituency office, there is no sign of any welcome for disabled people – no handrail, no signage to show there’s facilities for hearing-impaired people and no notice about ramps or a bell push to ring for assistance.

“The Accessible Britain Challenge is asking all companies and SMEs to think more about how they give an effective and warm welcome to disabled people. Has Mr Harper read and understood his own department’s advice, or simply ‘signed it off’?”

He added: “What advice has the minister taken to make his part of the world more accessible?

“Harper should be able to comment confidently from his own experience on what he is doing himself in his own constituency office.

“If he wants small businesses up and down the country to make sure disabled people can reach and are welcome to their services, he should be in a better position to talk about what he’s done.”

18 November 2014