Sal Brinton talks of being stuck in House of Lords as peer refused to move to let her past

The House of Lords debated the proposed works to the Palace of Westminster this week.

Sal Brinton took advantage of the opportunity to make a plea for the refurbished Parliament to be properly accessible. She highlighted some of the ways in which the current set-up fails disabled people. She also spoke of an experience where one peer wouldn’t actually let her past to leave a Lords debate, making her late for a meeting.

My Lords, in the wonderful elegance of parliamentary language, we have talked much already about “patch and mend”. The restoration and renewal of the buildings and the facilities in the Palace of Westminster are vital and urgent and I believe that we need to use much franker language given the neglect of the past. I support the Motion and oppose the amendment. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, that 20 years ago I was bursar of Selwyn College, Cambridge, when we needed to renew and restore our main court that had seen little—frankly, virtually no—maintenance and progress since it was built a century before. Student rooms still had gas and electric fires and the electric cabling was on its last legs, with much of the urgent work not visible or easily accessible. Does this sound familiar?

Since Selwyn was the poorest college and had very little resource to invest over the years in the buildings, the “patch and mend” approach was clearly failing us. We knew we had to do the work in one go, no matter how disruptive it was. We were also clear that we had to ensure it did not happen again, and that maintenance must be built into the future life of the buildings. This is also true for the Palace of Westminster after this major work. What steps are being taken to ensure that detailed maintenance costs of the building, and not just the ordinary life of the building, are being built into the baseline budget and then ring-fenced? The future of this historic and important building is just too important to get wrong.

When my noble friend Lady Thomas of Winchester, who cannot be in her place today but I hope will soon be able to rejoin us, gave evidence to the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster, she spoke for many of us who face accessibility issues in the Palace. I am grateful that the Joint Committee has taken the evidence on accessibility from a number of people, but I seek reassurance that there really will be a step change under the full decant option. It is not a “nice to have” option, and now is the best time to do the core work. So I am pleased to see in paragraph 7 of the Motion that there will be,

“full access for people with disabilities”.​
That is better than the phrases used in the Deloitte’s pictogram on page 6 of its report, in which two of the bubbles refer to, “works carried out to improve access for all” and “all new lifts to provide improved access to the majority of the Palace of Westminster”. There is a lot of scope for moving around in the middle of that.

The clerks to Parliament and the Director of Facilities, Mr Woodall, as well as ParliAble are unfailingly helpful whenever issues occur. However, most of the problems are about a failure of building and a wider, unconscious cultural attitude that can make the Palace of Westminster extremely unwelcoming to disabled parliamentarians, staff and visitors.

Core to the current problems is the way in which parliamentarians in wheelchairs do not have the same rights and experience as our able-bodied colleagues. A parliamentarian in a wheelchair cannot sit with their party or group in either the Commons or the Lords. Our Lords’ mobility Bench behind the clerks in front of the Cross Benches, has three spaces, so when five or six of us want to speak we cannot stay in our place for the rest of the debate. Worse, if the Chamber is full, we cannot even manoeuvre around after speaking to let another colleague move in. Even worse, the Commons does not even have a mobility Bench.

The design of the space in your Lordships’ House means that people sitting on the Front Bench have to get up and move aside for us to leave or come into the Chamber. Too often, they are reluctant to move. I am afraid that on one occasion, one Peer not only refused to move but insisted that I ask the Opposition Front Bench to move. I could not do so because two Peers were moving amendments from that Front Bench. As a result, I had to wait 20 minutes before I could leave the Chamber and was consequently late for my next meeting.

Wheelchair users often have to travel double the distance as most routes round the Palace have steps. To get to the River Restaurant from Peers’ Entrance one has to go along a corridor, up in a lift, travel back down, past Central Lobby to the Commons, go down in a lift and then all the way back to the Lords. No wonder our batteries do not last long. Wheelchair users have missed votes when travelling from far-flung places in the Palace, especially when both Houses are dividing at the same time because there are so few lifts accessible—that is, large enough—for wheelchair users. Members understandably follow the “take priority for a Division” rule, but they forget that we are Members too, and do not even have the option of the occasional staircase.

It is not possible to get to parts of the Commons ministerial corridors in a wheelchair. The lift behind the Speaker’s Chair in the Commons has a stone arch in front of it that is just too narrow for a standard-size wheelchair, so to access a meeting with a Minister on that corridor, one has to use the stairs. The same is true of the stone archway in Central Lobby leading to the Justice Ministers corridor. Can the Leader of the House confirm that every archway and lift will be fully accessible to those in wheelchairs? I know that some of this is rhetorical, but I am making the point that we say, “accessible to all”. There are no self-opening or ​closing doors, meaning that at the beginning of the day, disabled people have to face heavy, closed doors which are a real barrier.

The brilliant Changing Places toilet just off Central Lobby is, sadly, one of a kind. Other disabled toilets are too small, cluttered with bins, and the red alarm cords are often in the wrong place and tied up, which makes their use impossible. Will they be upgraded to meet current public building standards? There are a number of ramps in the building already, but they are too steep for wheelchairs—oh, the irony of seeing a ramp painted with a “No Wheelchair” sign. I hope that that will no longer be a problem.

Finally, there is only one space in the whole of the Commons Public Gallery for a wheelchair. There are no wheelchair spaces available for Peers and, unlike in the Lords, it is not permitted for a wheelchair Peer to sit below Bar in the Commons. The final irony is that of MPs standing below Bar in the Lords, preventing a wheelchair user seeing what is going on in her own Chamber. It does not help the feeling that disabled Members just are not welcome.

I therefore look forward to “more accessible for all”, but it is a dangerous starting point. If the newly-restored Palace is not truly accessible for people with disabilities and special needs, it will have failed.

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  • Richard Underhill 8th Feb '18 - 11:41am

    Hear! Hear!
    Regrettably there are some people whose hearing loss is intellectual, not physical.
    In respect of Brexit they are being told by constituents to ‘Get On With It!’
    This building is in a bad state of repair and should be evacuated immediately, failing which (all too likely) its occupants should check their insurance policies for life and accident.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 8th Feb '18 - 2:15pm

    Sal is very impressive and utterly correct.

    Many years ago my partner and I ,by way of effort and persuasion, managed to begin to make the most of getting interest from the new owners,to revive a theatre, that was disused . A terrific grade one or two listed building, it got us headlines in The Stage newspaper, “Succeeding where Redgraves failed!” This was because Vanessa and Corin Redgrave, to their real credit , had for years allerted locals and the theatre world to it’s possibilities.

    We had an arrangement with the owners who wanted it to be a nightclub , but were happy for it to have dual use, to be shared with our theatre company, different activities times of day , days of week.

    They would not put in disabled access. We said we could not and would not be able to proceed as , it would not attract funding or investment, and was wrong in principle and practice.

    The owners would not relent from their view.

    We pulled out.

    Years later these things are a disgrace !

  • Helen Dudden 9th Feb '18 - 6:38am

    There are no excuses to not listening, and not include disabled people. It is supposed to be law.

  • John Marriott 9th Feb '18 - 9:53am

    I’ve got news for Lady Brinton. She wants to take a look at Selwyn College today. New buildings, refurbished courts, you name it, they’ve got it. As an alumnus myself, who has made a relatively small financial contribution to the improvements myself, I would recommend that she takes a look, if she hasn’t already. I’m sure that other alumni she might know, such as Lord Simon Hughes, might well agree. Selwyn has come a long way since its foundation at the end of the 19th century and now is one of Cambridge’s top colleges academically. Disabled access is pretty good as well. As a blue badge holder I can vouch for that!

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