Disabled union activists have criticised their own national federation, the TUC, for its reluctance to improve access at its London headquarters, following years of complaints from delegates at the annual Disabled Workers’ Conference.
A motion calling on the TUC to make major improvements to the accessibility of Congress House in central London was passed unanimously at the conference on Thursday (18 May).
Disabled delegates said they also wanted their conference to be moved to a more accessible venue while improvements at Congress House were carried out.
They pointed to problems including a cramped and inaccessible lift, poor signage, no facilities for assistance dogs, and a lack of access information.
They also said that the ramp used by wheelchair-users to access the hall where the conference took place was dangerously steep.
Many disabled delegates turn down the chance to attend the conference because they know it is not accessible enough for them, Disability News Service (DNS) has been told.
Delegates voted overwhelmingly for the emergency motion on access at Congress House to be the one that will be sent to be debated at the annual TUC Congress in Brighton in September.
Dave Allan (pictured, at the conference), vice-chair of the TUC disabled workers’ committee, told the conference that meetings with senior TUC figures had been “not positive”, and that senior figures had pointed to the cost of improvements and the building’s listed status.
But he said an access audit of the building – which included two members of the disabled workers’ committee – had found a “plethora of issues” that needed addressing, some of which would need “major renovation”.
He said: “We have thought about this long and hard year after year. We have tried to feed these issues into TUC staff [but have been told], ‘Sorry, the cost is too much.’
“We have come to the view as one committee that there is no other course open to us than asking you to pass this motion.”
He told DNS afterwards that he had been disappointed with how senior TUC figures had responded to their concerns.
He said: “The committee has been disappointed. That is why we agreed to bring this emergency motion to the conference.”
But he said he accepted that there were difficulties with the “iconic” building, because even the lifts were listed.
Sean McGovern, co-chair of the disabled workers’ committee, said he had had a meeting several months ago with Frances O’Grady, the TUC’s general secretary, who he said had been “very open to our concerns”.
But he told DNS: “People have expressed unhappiness over a period of time.
“We have complained about it in the committee room but this is the first time we have gone beyond that.
“There has not been the sense of urgency there is now.”
Mik Scarlet, from the NUJ journalists’ union, told delegates how he had fallen between an accessible toilet and the wall after the “cheap” seat broke while he was transferring across to it from his wheelchair.
The next day, the same thing happened in the same toilet after it had been repaired and replaced with another cheap seat.
He said: “Loo seats that snap when you move sideways are not good for accessible toilets.”
He added: “I expect the unions of this country, the TUC, to be a shining light and to show the lead, so when I go to see other businesses as an access consultant I can tell them about a fantastic example of how an iconic and historic building has become accessible.
“We can’t make businesses and employers get it right if we can’t get it right ourselves.”
Wheelchair-user Emma-Jane Phillips, from UCU (the University and College Union), said she was “so happy” to see the motion brought to conference.
She said: “I came down this ramp [at the back of the conference hall] with great speed and no stopping.
“If you can’t have a disabled conference at TUC HQ, where the heck can you?”
Pat Duffy, a GMB delegate and member of the Scottish TUC’s disabled workers’ committee, said the lack of facilities for assistance dogs meant he had to walk 20 minutes to the nearest park and back four times a day with his dog Yoko while at the conference.
He told DNS afterwards: “It’s time we did say something. We have held off [for years] because it is the TUC, but we had to do something.”
Scarlet said after the debate that he had attended an event on the fifth floor of the building on the first day of the conference, where he had queued to access the lift, queued to access the accessible toilet, and then queued to access the lift down again.
He said: “We probably spent as much time queueing as we did in the event itself.”
He added: “You can’t say you’re fighting for the rights of disabled people to get into work if disabled people can’t get into the building that you’re fighting for their rights in.”
The complaints by the disabled workers’ committee appear to have forced the TUC to take some action to address their concerns.
A TUC spokesman said the audit had produce 29 recommendations for improvements.
Of those, six have been completed, 16 were “in progress”, including changes to lighting, toilets – where there will be a “complete refit” in the next few months – and induction loops.
But three recommendations cannot be carried out, partly because of the building’s listed status, including tactile step warnings at the bottom of the steps at the front of the building (also affected by its location in a council controlled area) and converting the lift to one that is larger and more accessible.
Another three – around the positioning of signage – are also not possible because of the building’s listed status, but the TUC says it has introduced “temporary workarounds for specific conferences”.
The installation of an accessible shower is “currently uncertain”, as the TUC does not yet know if there will be space available.
A TUC spokesman said concerns about the steep ramp had also been discussed and were being investigated, but changes would be “tricky due to the placement of two unmovable columns at the base of the ramp”.
He insisted that the cost of access improvements was “not a primary factor” in preventing some of the recommended improvements.
He said: “Congress House is Grade II* listed. Only 10 per cent of listed buildings are held to such strict criteria.”
He said the Grade II* listing “rules out many of the options we have looked at, such as widening the lifts.
“We have spoken with the council about adding external lifts and early indications have not been positive due to the architectural significance of the façade.”
But he said TUC was “always looking for ways to improve accessibility at the venue, and will continue to work with the disabled workers’ committee to improve our facilities”, and was “actively reviewing the location for future Disabled Workers’ Conferences”.