The parliamentary authorities should do far more to make the House of Commons accessible, according to a disabled MP who has faced a series of major barriers in his first weeks since being elected.
Jared O’Mara, who has cerebral palsy, has had to rely on support from other Sheffield MPs to secure some of the adjustments he needs to do his job.
But nearly a month into his new role, he is still having to miss some debates in the House of Commons chamber because he cannot stand for longer than five or 10 minutes and there have been no seats free.
He told Disability News Service (DNS): “There has been a couple of times where I have not been able to get a seat and so I have not been able to attend.
“The thing is with the Commons chamber, it is 650 MPs but there’s not 650 seats, so for busy events… there’s not enough seats for everybody. It’s ridiculous in this day and age.”
He is full of praise for the speaker, John Bercow, who has given him permission to wear a tee shirt, and no tie, because he cannot do up buttons.
That decision came as the speaker made a separate decision to allow all male MPs to remove their ties in the Commons chamber, a ruling which led transport minister John Hayes to warn that he would refuse to take interventions when speaking from any male MPs who were not wearing ties.
A spokesman for Hayes assured DNS yesterday (Wednesday) that this warning did not apply to O’Mara.
Labour’s whips have allocated O’Mara an office in the House of Commons, when most new MPs are given space in nearby Portcullis House.
This is because – if he was in Portcullis House – he would not be able to reach the Commons division lobbies within the necessary eight minutes when a vote is called.
But because the front door requires the use of two hands to unlock it, he is having to use the back door to enter his new office, at least until the Commons authorities change the lock to one that is more accessible.
Another access issue – and one for which he has not been granted an adjustment – has arisen around his need to stay in an accessible hotel.
Because the hotel allowance for MPs is only £150 a night – set by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) – he has not been able to find an accessible hotel closer than Hammersmith, in west London, which means an hour-long journey to parliament every morning.
He is not likely to find permanent accommodation in London until the summer recess.
An IPSA spokesman said he could not “discuss an individual’s circumstances” but that the costs for “disability assistance” that can be claimed by disabled MPs can include “any necessary [additional] costs relating to accommodation”.
O’Mara is clearly annoyed that he is still facing obstacles that are making it harder for him to do his job than non-disabled MPs, weeks after he secured his election victory.
And he is mystified about why there is no form which new disabled MPs can fill in to tell the Commons authorities about any adjustments they might need, which he says could easily be included in the information pack they are handed immediately after their election victory.
He also points to the Equality Act, which says parliament has an “anticipatory” duty as a public organisation to think in advance about the adjustments it should make for disabled people, such as improving the signs and information around the Houses of Parliament.
He said: “They should really have clear, proper signage, of where everything is and what all the rooms are and the purposes, and they don’t.
“The amount of times I keep walking past the lift to get up to my office because there isn’t a sign saying ‘lifts’. That’s something they need to really think about.”
He said: “I have had to pursue these adjustments with the help of colleagues, some of the other Sheffield MPs, and with the help of the whips office, and I am finding there are more coming up.
“All of this should have been in place. I shouldn’t have had my friends and the whips office chasing all this for me. It should all have been in place for day one. That’s the law.
“Maybe I have to be in the vanguard for this and I have got to grin and bear the fact that it’s not perfect for me, and try and make it perfect for future disabled MPs.
“I want to get more of us here. I’ve got to make it a better place for them.”
But he says his experience would have been “a lot worse” if he had not been able to rely on advice from Lord [David] Blunkett, another disabled politician who represented Sheffield as an MP.
He said: “He’s a lovely, lovely man. Some of the stuff he went through [as an MP]… He’s a fighter as well, like I am.
“My ambition during my time here is to make it perfect for future disabled MPs, where it’s proper equal from the day they land here.”
A House of Commons spokesman said he could not comment on the dress code arrangements because “we cannot comment on the contents of private conversations”.
He has so far refused to comment on the issue of seating in the Commons chamber, the lack of signage across the parliamentary estate, the access problems with O’Mara’s office front door, and the lack of a form for new MPs to request reasonable adjustments before they attend parliament for the first time.
But he said that step-free routes and accessible toilets and lifts in the Palace of Westminster and Portcullis House are marked on maps in a handbook given to MPs, while “the Parliamentary Health and Wellbeing Service can also advise on accessibility issues”.
He said: “The House of Commons aims to provide a positive, inclusive working environment where people are valued for the skills and experience they bring to work, whilst being representative of the society they serve.
“This means making parliament more accessible, diverse and free from discrimination and meeting the requirements of the Equality Act 2010.
“We are committed to this target and have implemented a number of initiatives to ensure we are compliant with the terms of the act.”