Minister hides truth over office access


newslatestThe disability minister has refused to say whether he has taken any measures to remove access barriers that could prevent disabled people visiting his constituency office.

Disability News Service (DNS) revealed earlier this month 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 office in Gloucestershire was inaccessible to many wheelchair-users.

Harper is minister for disabled people and Conservative MP for the Forest of Dean, and his constituency office in Cinderford high street has a large step in front of a narrow entrance.

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 earlier this month, 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”.

When challenged about the poor access in his own constituency office, he said only that his constituents “can use either the phone or e-mail to reach my office”, that his constituency surgeries were held at accessible venues, and that there was a temporary ramp available at the office.

But following concerns raised by leading disabled access consultant Liam Proudlock, DNS has submitted a series of questions to Harper, which he is refusing to answer.

DNS has asked whether his ramp is suitable for the “very difficult” access at the office entrance; whether his staff have been trained properly in how to use the ramp; and what steps he has taken to improve access at the constituency office.

DNS has also asked whether Harper has read and followed the advice set out by his own department as part of its Accessible Britain Challenge.

Among the aims of the Accessible Britain Challenge is to “motivate local communities to do more to be inclusive and accessible for disabled people”.

Harper has also refused to say how a wheelchair-user who wanted to work or volunteer for him would be able to do so; whether the entrance to his office was too narrow for many wheelchairs to fit through; if the office has a hearing loop; and what expert advice he has taken to improve access.

Finally, Harper is refusing to explain how he can expect local organisations and small business to improve their access if he doesn’t do so himself; and whether he believes other MPs should do more to improve access to their constituency offices.

When asked to answer the questions, a spokesman for Harper said: “Please be advised that no further statement will be provided on this matter.”

Proudlock suggested last week that 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, or 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.”

23 December 2014