The architect of the government’s sweeping welfare reforms is facing accusations of hypocrisy, after becoming the third minister with responsibilities for disability equality to be shamed over an inaccessible constituency office.
Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith has been the key figure behind the coalition’s attempts to force disabled people off out-of-work benefits, and has spoken of wanting to see a society that “uses all its talents”, with businesses sharing best practice on employing disabled people.
But to enter Duncan Smith’s constituency office in Station Road, Chingford, north-east London, visitors need to negotiate a double doorstep and then climb a flight of stairs.
A volunteer who answered the front door leading to the rented first-floor offices, the headquarters of Chingford and Woodford Green Conservative Association, told Disability News Service (DNS) that the association could not afford to rent accessible premises.
She said: “That was a decision we had to take when we had to rent premises in order to cut costs.
“We have never had premises that have not been upstairs. The costs of obtaining such premises on a ground-floor level – they are very difficult to find – isn’t open to us.”
She also suggested that there would be security considerations if they rented ground-floor premises on the high street.
The conservative association volunteer, who declined to give her name, said that being in Station Road, a busy high street, was a good choice because it was “accessible to most people”.
She said: “They can get here by bus and train. We have to think what is best for our constituents as a whole.
“I am not saying our disabled constituents are not important – we would always make alternative arrangements for them if needed.”
She said the association had moved to the offices five years ago, in 2009, before the last general election.
And she said there were handrails on the stairs that lead to the two offices, and added: “We are only on the first floor. We couldn’t take an office on the second floor because we realised that would make it absolutely impossible.”
Duncan Smith is the most senior of three coalition ministers to have been embarrassed so far over an inaccessible constituency office.
Last month, the Conservative minister for disabled people, Mark Harper, refused to answer a string of potentially embarrassing questions about his inaccessible constituency office in Gloucestershire.
Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat minister for women and equalities, is also facing similar questions over her constituency office in East Dunbartonshire.
Last year, at the Working Together conference in London – which launched the government’s Disability Confident campaign – Duncan Smith told delegates: “For too long, then, we have let individuals’ potential go to waste and allowed people to believe that their talents were simply not valued or even not valued enough.”
He added: “There’s never been a better time to be disability confident.”
Linda Burnip, a co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “Hypocrites like IDS and Mark Harper say disabled people should be in work and not reliant on benefits, yet at the same time they make absolutely no effort to have accessible constituency offices.
“Not only does this prevent disabled people from accessing any services they might provide to non-disabled constituents, but it also ensures that they never even have to consider employing a disabled person, or provide them with the opportunity to gain the kind of experience and skills that could lead to them achieving elected office themselves in the future.
“Clearly they prefer disabled people to be kept firmly out of sight, out of mind, and out of politics.”
Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP for Aberdeen South and chair of the Commons work and pensions committee that monitors the work of Duncan Smith’s department, said: “I don’t think it is good enough.
“I believe that MPs’ offices should be accessible, not just for public access but so they can be good employers and open up their offices to people with disabilities as well. That should be a basic requirement.
“It would be a good learning experience for them and perhaps they could have a bit more understanding of some of the difficulties disabled people have in trying to get into the workplace.”
Dame Anne, who is a wheelchair-user herself so has to have an accessible constituency office, said: “If we are serious about equality and open access then no MP should be even considering renting an office that is not wheelchair-accessible.”
But she said that renting an accessible office would probably mean an MP having to pay more rent.
Dame Anne said this would be difficult for some MPs because the new Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) “demands that you have to have the cheapest office you can get”.
She called for new IPSA guidance to state that “it is not acceptable for MPs to have an office that is not accessible”.
But an IPSA spokesman said: “We don’t force MPs to take the cheapest office. We do provide a budget for MPs, and of course that is not limitless.
“We are absolutely clear that if an MP rents an office and there is some work that needs to be done to make it accessible to wheelchairs or others, then we will support that.
“Do we issue guidance that says all offices should be on the ground floor? The answer to that is no.”
He said MPs had to use their own “discretion” when they rented their offices, and “apply a judgement” as to whether they rented more expensive offices in the centre of town or cheaper facilities further out, or whether they chose larger or smaller offices.
It is not the first time that Duncan Smith has been accused of hypocrisy after a clash between his public statements and private behaviour.
Three years ago, DNS reported how he was caught using an accessible toilet, just minutes after telling a live television audience that parents must teach their children “right from wrong”.
Rikki Williams, Duncan Smith’s agent, said: “Any constituent who wants to contact Iain can do so either via the telephone or email.
“If they want to meet with Iain he can meet anyone at a number of locations, at home, at a café or in the association office.”
Asked how a wheelchair-user could play a full part in the constituency association, work as a volunteer in the office, carry out paid work for Duncan Smith, or visit the office for any other reason, and whether Duncan Smith thought it was acceptable for an MP to have an inaccessible constituency office, he refused to comment further.
16 January 2015