People with Disabilities: Access to Services - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 12:50 pm ar 16 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Grey-Thompson Baroness Grey-Thompson Crossbench 12:50, 16 Mai 2024

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes of Stretford, for tabling this debate and for giving your Lordships’ Chamber the opportunity to discuss a wide range of interconnected issues. The barriers that disabled people face do not sit easily within one government department.

I draw noble Lords’ attention to my register of interests. I am president of the LGA, chair of the Wheelchair Alliance and I receive a PIP.

I thank the huge number of disabled people who contacted me. Bearing in mind what the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, said about the wide range of issues, I am going to give it a go and cover as many as possible. I will take a deep breath and see how many I can get through. Everything included in this speech is from my personal experience or is what disabled people have told me directly.

I am treated in one of three ways: as a Paralympian, very nice; as a politician, quite mixed; but as a disabled woman I experience most discrimination. I have been told that people like me should not be allowed to get married, have a job or have children, but one of the biggest barriers that many disabled people face is that non-disabled people often do not understand those barriers and make wild assumptions. They think that, because they once sat in a wheelchair or pushed their grandmother somewhere in a wheelchair, they know everything about it. I am horrified to see companies still offering these experiences as a way to help non-disabled people understand the barriers we face. It is appalling and outdated; it is what we in the disability community call “cripping up”.

It is a long time since the DDA was implemented and I sat on the National Disability Council with the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, but what has really changed? The Paralympics in 2012 were great, but the people who tell me that they changed the world are non-disabled people. We are portrayed as Paralympians or as benefit scroungers, with a healthy dose of inspiration porn thrown in. The reality is that the least privileged disabled people are mostly invisible in society. Representation in the media is far from equal.

I accept that we work in an old building, and it is not the most accessible. It is much easier if you are a pass-holder. I am very grateful to the team who have been talking about accessibility, but using the new carpet that has been put around the Chamber is like pushing through sludge. I very much enjoy sitting next to the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, but the fact that we are both wheelchair users means that we cannot actually sit with our groups.

I was contacted by a teacher, who told me that children sitting GCSE English who need a scribe will not be able to access the 20 marks available for spelling, punctuation and grammar, so they have already been put at a disadvantage.

Employers do not really understand the Equality Act or the legal obligation for a reasonable adjustment. It is a get-out clause. Disability Confident is simply a reimagining of a previous scheme; I question how many people’s lives it has actually changed. We are far from sorting out working from home for disabled people, and mandatory requirements for companies to provide it for a certain percentage of jobs are not helping disabled people to get into work. Access to Work is out of date and has a huge backlog. It is awful for the creative industries or contract work.

Expanding the definition of disability may be helpful for some people, but just lets companies get away with not employing more disabled people. One company told me that, as only 50% of disabled people who can work are in work, its target for employing disabled people needed to be only 10%—I think not. There are good practices out there, but not nearly enough.

I will mention PIPs briefly, because many other noble Lords will mention them, but we need a wholescale reform of the system. I know from when I filled in the forms that I was pages in before they asked who the best medical professionals are to explain my impairment. There are none, because I am not sick.

Disabled facilities grants for housing are out of date. The National Planning Policy Framework does not mention equality or duties for local authorities or homebuilders to consider the Equality Act. It is notable that recent consultations on proposed changes to the NPPF have not been accompanied by a government equalities impact assessment. Why not?

On the built environment, disabled people are rarely consulted at the point when changes are being made. A-boards, pavement parking, abandoned rental bikes and countryside paths that have barriers to prevent cycles all stop wheelchair users. A Sustrans report into the cycling network identified 16,000 barriers. There was a removal programme but funding for it has been cut.

There are inaccessible restaurants and toilets, and a lack of changing places—not least in this building. Floating bus stops are not always near zebra crossings, or the island may be too narrow for wheelchair users.

In hotels, there is a lack of definition of what their accessibility actually is. It should not be just putting in a grab rail. Their walk-in showers may not have a seat.

If you want to go out to the cinema or a restaurant, you can have only one friend, because that is the way they are set up. When I took my daughter to see “Winnie the Pooh” when she was three, I was told that, because she was not my carer, she was not allowed to sit with me and had to sit 20 rows away.

There are issues with access to sport, and to buses. There is only one wheelchair space per bus. On flying, I am only going to mention Frank Gardner.

I will briefly mention trains, which were meant to be step-free by 1 January 2020. By the Government’s own data, it will take 100 years to make that change. Transport for the North launched an accessibility survey and found that only 48% of its stations had step-free access. Greater Anglia trains are fantastic for level boarding but, when I asked about accessibility, I was told not to worry because I would be in sight of the café-bar. All my dreams for inclusion became as one when I realised that I could see the café-bar, but could not actually buy anything from it.

London Bridge has no contingency plan for a single lift failure, yet billions were spent on its refurbishment. Crossrail has level boarding only at its core. The lifts have been out at St Pancras for months. I can access only one-third of Tube stations. The Network Rail map has inaccurate information: it tells me that the lifts are working at my local station—fantastic—but my local station has no lifts.

Our legal right to turn up and go is being eroded, because we are being forced to book through an app that has no in-app contacts. You cannot buy tickets and it does not show lift status. Every trip is a magical mystery tour. It goes on. Shockingly, John Pring from the Disability News Service reported that market-testing companies are using non-disabled people to pretend to be disabled to test the access app. I am very interested in understanding what the noble Viscount thinks of that. I have deep admiration for Doug Paulley, who continues to fight for change through legal means.

Lack of ATP enforcement means that luggage is put in wheelchair spaces. There are no primary or secondary timescales in the draft rail reform Bill. Accessibility is seen as an add-on or a nice-to-have. Disabled people cannot buy concessionary tickets through ticket vending machines, except for on Northern. You have to buy them through ticket offices—and we saw what happened with them last year. ScotRail has not changed its ATP, so mobility scooter users are not allowed to travel on Scottish trains. They can get there by Avanti or LNER, but they might not be able to get home.

Today, Southeastern announced that it is moving towards level boarding and Steve White, the CEO, said that anyone bidding for contracts has to show level boarding, but there is no guarantee that it will ever happen.

Tony Jennings wrote to me saying that he cannot turn up and go at his nearest station outside staffed hours, because there is a barrow crossing.

I could go on: lack of EV charging; inaccessible dental chairs; not buying the right wheelchairs for the right people at the right time; disability hate crime; Covid; elective office—I have run out of time.

I understand that the noble Viscount is not able to answer these questions, but I would welcome any of the departments writing to me to continue this conversation.