Political parties ‘must act’ on accessible offices


newslatestEvery political party should ensure that its MPs only rent constituency offices that are fully accessible to disabled people, campaigners have demanded.

They spoke out after a series of Disability News Service reports that revealed three ministers with equalities responsibilities – Mark Harper, Jo Swinson and Iain Duncan Smith – have inaccessible constituency offices.

Deborah King, co-founder of Disability Politics UK, which campaigns to address the under-representation of disabled people in public and political life, said: “Physical access to MPs’ constituency offices is vital if we are to get more disabled people into politics.

“It is not good enough to say, ‘We hold surgeries at accessible locations.’

“Disabled people have the right to participate as volunteers as part of a progression towards paid work in politics. Disabled people have a right of access to politics.

“All party leaders need to make a commitment to getting their MPs’ constituency offices accessible as soon as possible.”

Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “MPs not having accessible constituency offices not only prevents disabled people exercising their access to democratic processes but excludes them from the opportunity of gaining the skills from employment that are needed to lead onto a political career.

“It is therefore essential, if politicians are serious about more disabled people becoming engaged in politics, that MPs must not only have an accessible constituency office but one where disabled people could also work as well.

“If necessary, the extra expenses MPs need to cover any extra costs for this should be provided and MPs who do not have accessible offices should be financially penalised until they move to accessible premises.”

Meanwhile, Labour MEP Richard Howitt, co-president of the European Parliament’s all-party disability rights group, added his voice to calls for parties to take action to ensure their MPs’ constituency offices were accessible.

He said: “People in public office have a duty to lead by example and ministers with responsibilities for disabled people are clearly failing in their duty in even the most rudimentary terms to ensure full access.

“They should be providing moral leadership and doing what is right, and to put up barriers to disabled people is absolutely wrong.

“I would appeal to all new MPs elected in May when they first decide where to establish their constituency offices, to first choose accessible offices.”

Although he said access in his own constituency office was not perfect, he said he had made “painstaking arrangements” to improve it, which has meant he has been able to employ a blind person and someone with a physical impairment.

He said: “If I can do it, I hope others can do it as well.”

But he admitted that his office was not fully accessible. Although there is a ground-floor area where staff can come downstairs to see wheelchair-users or others with mobility impairments, most of the office space was up a flight of stairs.

He added: “Am I frustrated and impatient about lack of progress and change? Yes.

“That is why I am campaigning vociferously for access laws to speed up the change.”

Howitt and the all-party group are pushing the European Commission to publish a long-awaited draft European accessibility act.

Such an act would complement Britain’s Equality Act by making existing voluntary European access standards mandatory across the European Union.

Howitt said: “Although I am proud of the progress we have made in forging European access rules in relation to the installation of lifts, for some public transport and on the internet, the bitter truth is that the large swathe of the built environment remains a ‘no go’ area to disabled people.”

22 January 2015