Four disabled peers have called on the hotel industry to do far more to improve access for their customers.
The debate in the House of Lords heard from the disabled peers Baroness [Celia] Thomas, Baroness [Jane] Campbell, Baroness [Sue] Masham and Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson.
Baroness Thomas, a Liberal Democrat peer, who tabled the question that led to the debate, said there was “no doubt” that thousands of hotels around the country were not meeting “basic” access requirements laid out in Part M of the building regulations.
But she said the problems were mostly with smaller, independent hotels, rather than large hotel chains.
She said she had become “thoroughly frustrated in booking various hotels away from London over the past year that did not have adequate facilities for a disabled person such as me”.
She said: “Last year I was solemnly told by one hotel that yes, they had a disabled bedroom, but it was on the first floor. Had they got a lift? No.”
And she said she was shocked to be told that some hotel managers “do not want any of their rooms to look ‘medicalised’ because it puts non-disabled people off”.
One peer who has heard that excuse himself has agreed to sponsor a competition – anonymously – to improve the “non-medicalised design of hotel rooms for disabled visitors”, she added.
Baroness Campbell, a crossbench peer, said that some hotel chains – such as Premier Inn and Holiday Inn – do take access seriously.
But she said that legal reforms and cuts to legal aid, as well as the limited funds of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, meant that “disabled people now rarely assert their rights through the judicial system” when faced with a lack of provision.
She said: “The cost and complexity of taking a case to court and the low level of damages available are serious deterrents. Hence, little changes.”
And she said that government research published last year showed it was easier to arrange holidays for disabled people overseas than in Britain.
She said: “Thousands of customers were being turned away from hotels and self-catering accommodation because there were not enough accessible rooms to meet demand.”
She added: “Last week, I tried to find wheelchair accessible accommodation [a self-catering cottage]in north Devon, on the coast, to go away with my friend who dared to also be in a wheelchair. There was only one option in the entire county and none by the sea.”
She asked the government what action it was taking to remedy the situation, and whether it had asked the hospitality industry to identify the reasons for its failure to comply with the “clear provisions of the Equality Act”.
Baroness Campbell said: “Disabled people have been repeatedly told by this government that they must work harder to become part of the British workforce.
“However, to do so, many of us need to use hotels for meetings and overnight stays, and in order to work hard we also need to rest and play.”
Her fellow crossbench peer Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson said that one of the problems was defining the “reasonable adjustments” that hotels must make under the Equality Act, and the inconsistency in standards.
She said: “Many building projects simply slip through the net because there is not enough time to monitor or people do not know what they are looking for.”
She added: “I have simply lost count of how many times cost has been given as a reason for not doing anything.
“The data show that the cost is not prohibitive and that, in virtually every case, it can be recouped by the new business that is found.”
Another crossbench peer, Baroness Masham, said that some hotels and chains made “helpful efforts… to provide disabled guests with what they need, while others do very little to improve access”.
The Liberal Democrat Baroness Jolly, speaking for the government, said the law “recognises the need to strike a balance between the needs of disabled people and the interests of service providers”, and that “being accessible should not mean that hotels need to look medicalised”.
She said: “I acknowledge concerns raised this evening that the duty to make reasonable adjustments may not be working.
“However, we are not aware of any evidence to suggest that that is the case, as some disabled people have successfully won court cases against service-providers who have not made reasonable adjustments for them.
“Where it is brought to the attention of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, it has legislative powers to investigate and, if necessary, take enforcement action against service providers who refuse and/or fail to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people.”
And she said that VisitEngland – the country’s national tourist board – “does much to raise awareness of the legal obligations of accommodation providers”.
But she admitted that only 427 accommodation businesses – out of more than 66,000 – had joined VisitEngland’s national accessible scheme to “develop and promote their accessibility for disabled travellers”, and that VisitEngland was “exploring options” to expand membership.
She said that VisitEngland would hold its first “access for all” tourism conference on 18 March, as part of English Tourism Week, in a bid to “upskill tourism operators”.