The Tory peer Lord Blencathra, a wheelchair-user, drew up his private member’s bill after becoming frustrated by encountering steps that prevented him entering shops, pubs and restaurants.
He found 42 examples in three streets within a few hundred yards of the House of Lords, in Victoria Street, Horseferry Road and Strutton Ground, and believes that his bill – if it became law – would open up tens of thousands of public buildings to wheelchair-users.
His proposed legislation, which he calls his “six-inch rule bill” but is officially known as the equality act (amendment) bill, would amend the Equality Act 2010, one of the last pieces of legislation introduced by the Labour government.
He told fellow peers that many of the shops could solve the access problem with less than £10-worth of concrete.
Lord Blencathra – former Home Office minister David Maclean – said the bill was needed because the existing Equality Act duty to make “reasonable adjustments” to enable access to public buildings was “simply not being implemented on the ground”.
He said: “There are tens of thousands of entrances to public buildings with a step of less than six inches and nothing is being done to grant wheelchair access to them.”
He added: “One restaurant, which is very close to the Home Office, suggested that if I came round the back, they could let me in through the kitchen.
“I thought that being asked to go round the back door last happened in Alabama in the 1960s.
“Would any other group covered by the Equality Act tolerate the suggestion of going round the back to be served?”
Baroness Brinton, a disabled Liberal Democrat peer, said: “People offering services of any kind or running a public building should make adaptations wherever possible, as their responsibilities under the act are clear. However, the policing of adaptations is often poor.”
She suggested that the bill should apply to entrances with steps of up to 12 inches.
She added: “Frankly, hotels, restaurants, shops and offices can make life an absolute misery.
“A few small, compulsory, not expensive adaptations will not only help those with disabilities, but increase business for the public buildings supplying them.
“Something that benefits the bottom line should always be encouraged. Making people independent is beyond price.”
Another disabled Liberal Democrat peer, Baroness [Celia] Thomas, also supported the bill and said it would be “very significant for those of us with mobility problems”.
Baroness Thornton, who speaks for Labour on equalities in the Lords, also backed the bill.
But the Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Jolly, for the government, said that many buildings would not have the space to install a ramp safely.
And she said: “Specifying the remedy to a particular problem in the act will inevitably result in proposals to have other specific remedies spelt out in it or in future technical guidance.
“In practice, this could risk the act becoming a series of technical specifications which might actually be easier for employers and service providers to circumvent than the ‘reasonable adjustment’ duty.”
She added: “Even if some noble Lords may not accept that the current arrangements are ideal, I hope that they recognise that the physical location of some buildings would make it impossible for businesses to build ramp access… As such, this bill would impose a duty that is impossible to comply with.”
She said: “The government believe that the current system is both fair and balanced, and works in the main satisfactorily for disabled people, businesses and employers.”
But Lord Blencathra said he was “disappointed” with the government’s response, and suggested that temporary ramps could be used by buildings where it was not safe to install a permanent ramp.
His bill will now move to the committee stage, although it is unlikely to become law because of the lack of government support and the short period of time before the election.
25 November 2014