Lib Dem peer to demand access support for councillors


A disabled Liberal Democrat peer is to ask parliament to extend the access to work (ATW) scheme – which helps fund access adjustments in the workplace – to disabled councillors.

The move would make it easier for disabled people who face access barriers when they are elected to local authorities.

Baroness [Celia] Thomas, the Lib Dem work and pensions spokeswoman in the Lords, said she would seek an amendment to secure the change in the welfare reform bill, which is due to begin its report stage in the Lords in October.

She made the pledge after disabled Lib Dem activists spoke out about the access problems faced by councillors, during a consultation session on disability issues at the party’s annual conference in Bournemouth.

David Simpson, the disabled Hampshire county councillor who first suggested that Baroness Thomas seek the amendment, was refused an ATW grant after he was elected, forcing the council to pay for the adjustments he needed.

He said it was “clearly wrong” that councillors could not apply for ATW grants. “It is totally unfair. It is wrong in the 21st century. It is that simple.”

He said the ATW situation meant disabled councillors from a minority party could be prevented from doing their job if the ruling group refused to sanction the necessary adjustments.

Baroness Thomas said: “There are such variable standards of access around the country, not just physical access but also access for people with hearing impairments and loss of vision.

“Except for the fact that the government just do not want to do it because it is expensive, I do not see why it could not be introduced as an amendment to the welfare reform bill.”

Local authorities already have legal duties to promote equality for disabled people under the Disability Discrimination Act’s disability equality duty, but she said that was “not used nearly enough”.

She said extending ATW funding to councillors would fit with the government’s efforts to promote democracy.

The continuing problems with access were illustrated by her own difficulties in accessing three different fringe events at the conference, she said.

Simpson also faced problems, with a ramp leading to a hotel conference venue collapsing while he was using it. He was fortunate to escape unhurt, he said.

23 September 2009