HC Deb 19 July 1961 vol 644 cc1256-62

4.1 p.m.

Mrs. Barbara Castle (Blackburn)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit the restriction by any local authority of access to a public lavatory or sanitary convenience by means of a turnstile; and to provide for the removal of such turnstiles. This is not a subject which I would normally choose to raise by way of a Private Member's Bill, but the Minister has left me no alternative. During the past few years there has been a growing practice among local authorities of erecting steel barriers across the entrance to public lavatories complete with a turnstile which can be operated only by the insertion of 1d. The justification for this tendency given by the local authorities is that they can at one and the same time dispense with the services of an attendant and raise more revenue.

The erection of a turnstile means that there is no chance of any woman, however urgent her need, evading payment of this impost, and this is, therefore, an extension of an injustice and inconvenience already experienced by women in having to pay for this facility, because a turnstile means that there is not even one free convenience available in any public lavatory for use in an emergency. My Bill would not raise the question directly of the payment or non-payment by women for the use of conveniences, but it is a relevant point that the practice of installing turnstiles means that payment in every case is unavoidable.

The distress caused by these turnstiles to many women, to elderly persons and to handicapped persons has been totally ignored by the local authorities, and, as a result, the protests of a large number of organistions have been mounting during the past few years. Resolutions demanding the abolition of these turnstiles have been passed by a number of bodies, including old-age pensioners' associations, the National Federation of Women's Institutes, the Congress of Co-operative Women's Guilds, the National Association of Women's Clubs, the National Union of Townswomen's Guilds, and, not least, the National Council of Women.

The National Council of Women is an all-embracing body of organisations representing women of all parties, all religious beliefs and a large number of important professions. In 1959, at its annual conference, it passed a resolution urging Her Majesty's Government to prohibit the use of all turnstiles in public lavatories in view of the distress caused to elderly women, expectant mothers, mothers with young children, the physically handicapped and people taken ill, especially in view of the liability to mechanical faults which is admitted by the manufacturers. In May of this year the National Council of Women asked the Minister of Housing and Local Government to receive a deputation to hear the widespread view of women on this matter, and the Minister refused.

The Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs (Mr. Henry Brooke)

I regret to interrupt the hon. Lady, but she is misinformed. I have told the National Council of Women—

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is not our practice to allow interruption during an application to bring in a Bill under the Ten Minutes Rule.

Mrs. Castle

I am sorry, but I am really only stating the facts, Mr. Speaker. The Minister refused on the ground that turnstiles are part of the internal design of public lavatories and that this is a matter for local authorities in which he has no power to intervene, and he suggested that the National Council of Women should first write to the local authority associations to find out what their reaction would be.

But the National Council of Women had already written to the local authority associations, and the replies which it had received had been totally negative. The Association of Municipal Corporations informed it that it was quite impossible for the Association to communicate with all its members on a general complaint of this nature. The Urban District Councils' Association said that it did not feel that this was a matter upon which the Association could make any representations or issue advice to its members. The Rural District Councils' Association said that it thought it could "add little" to the weight of the representations already being made directly by the National Council of Women.

That is why the National Council of Women is now of the view that the central authority must accept responsibility for imposing this policy upon local authorities. My Bill would give the Minister power to do what he says he has now not got the power to do, and, therefore, I hope and believe that he will welcome the Bill.

The case for the Bill is not a frivolous one. Since tabling my original Question to the Minister, I have had letters from more than 140 people. In addition to those, I have had letters from the secretaries of various organisations. Not one of these letters has expressed any disagreement. On the contrary, I have been astonished at the intensity of feeling expressed on this matter from all parts of the country and from women of all shades of political views.

I would not go quite so far as the lady from Lindfield, in Sussex, who wrote to say that she thanked heaven that someone was ready to take up a really important matter designed to make life on this earth a little better instead of dealing with all the sputniks and atomic bombs. None the less, I have been shaken by the evidence that has been pouring in to me, through my postbag, of the anger that women feel at the inconvenience and indignity they are suffering every day of the week because of these turnstiles. A woman wrote to me: It seems disgusting that women have to pay at all, but these implements of torture are the crowning insult to our womanhood. The various degrees of inconvenience suffered are, I hope, now better known to hon. Members as a result of the correspondence which I hope they have had, but it takes various forms. We can all imagine the difficulties of women coming along laden with heavy shopping baskets and having to cope with a cumbersome turnstile. There was one lady from Grantham who wrote to me that she was badly bruised when a turnstile hit back at her as she was trying to struggle through.

There is the question of queueing. I was told about one lady who had to queue for ten minutes at the turnstile in Hammersmith while carrying a heavy suitcase in her hand. The delays caused by these wretched turnstiles can be most inconvenient when large parties of women who may be taking part in a coach trip have to try to make use in a hurry of the appropriate convenience.

What is more, the local authorities, when arguing that this dispenses with the need for an attendant, overlook the fact that very often these turnstiles are out of order and women may be faced by such embarrassing notices as that on the convenience in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, which carried an official notice, "If unable to operate the turnstile, please contact butcher at adjoining premises."

I have had case after case brought to my attention of bad coins sometimes being used and of how that can easily render a turnstile inoperable. I am told that it is possible for thin women to be able to skip over the top, but callous councils, not to be outdone, have erected a new type of turnstile which some of my women correspondents describe as "gorilla cages", which go from ceiling to floor so that no helpless woman should be able to climb over the top however great the emergency. One of the women described this type of turnstile as like a prison. "Is it a crime in this country to spend 1d.?", the woman asked.

Of course, the difficulty of the stouter women can easily be visualised when they genuinely find that they cannot pass through the turnstile. One lady from Norwich mentions that her dimensions are 52–47–52 and that she has had some "very very alarming experiences" but apart from these what might be considered lighter aspects of this problem, the truth, of course, is that these turnstiles are not only gravely inconvenient, but downright dangerous.

I have received letters from elderly ladies stating that they have been trapped in these turnstiles because they are too weak to operate them. I received one letter from a woman in Southall, Middlesex, who writes: Only last Thursday we took two coach loads from the Ealing Sisterhood to Folkestone for their annual outing. Some were aged 80 to 90 and one poor cripple got caught between the turnstile and we had difficulty in releasing her and she was in great pain. Even more serious is the evidence coming to me of the danger of these turnstiles to the handicapped. There are stories coming to me of outings of handicapped people in wheelchairs who are in a grave dilemma when they find that the only public convenience available is barred to them by a turnstile.

I have had letters about the difficulties of spastics in this connection and one from a member of the Invalid Tricycle Association stressing their difficulties. I also have a letter from the divisional superintendent of the St. John's Ambulance Brigade, Nottingham City area, who has given me permission to quote from it. He writes: For some years now I have been escorting coachloads of disabled people on day trips to various parts of the country from the Nottingham district … on many occasions I have experienced considerable difficulty in getting disabled people through the high turnstiles … That is why I have today received a letter of support from the Infantile Paralysis Fellowship pointing out that among their membership there are 10,000 disabled persons many of whom are caused a severe problem and difficulty as a result of turnstiles.

The British Rheumatism and Arthritis Association has written to the Minister with the request that a deputation on this matter should be received, and pointing out that there are a large number of cripples among their membership and adding: Turnstiles are like a brick wall to these people. There are 3 million people in this country suffering from some form of arthritic disability. Many of them cannot grip or push, so that, even if they are not actually crippled, turnstiles are an absolute outrage to them and an interference with the satisfaction of their urgent needs.

This problem is common to both sexes, but one aspect of it is special to women; that which faces pregnant women and women with young children when they are faced with this type of barrier. I draw this example to the attention of the House in order to stress the importance of this aspect. My correspondent, writing about her problem on a visit to Weymouth, when negotiating a turnstile, comments: Not only are women with children required to negotiate steep steps, they are faced at the foot of them with a floor to ceiling iron grid turnstile. Imagine negotiating that with a three-year-old, too frightened to go first, not tall enough to put in the penny to go second, and a toddler or baby that cannot be carried through. If you are having another baby as well, it is completely impossible. Yet these are the women who should have priority in this matter, and that is why I have been informed that the Royal College of Midwives is giving its full support to my proposed Bill.

It is hopeless to argue that we can leave this matter to the good sense of local authorities. I will quote an example of the difficulties that the women's organisations are up against when they try to bring these matters to the attention of their local authorities. The secretary of the Upton Magna and District Women's Social Service Club has sent me correspondence which she has had with the clerk of the Urban District Council of Whitchurch.

Mr. Speaker

There is a difficulty about this. We cannot allow hon. Members asking leave to bring in a Bill to make the kind of speeches that they would make on Second Reading if they got that leave. I am only allowed to permit short statements in explanation.

Mrs. Castle

If I could crave your indulgence for a few more minutes, Mr. Speaker, I was coming to the close of my remarks. The letter I had mentioned contains the crux of the case for this House having these powers.

The reply which this lady received from the clerk stated that he would draw the complaint to the attention of the council and added: I consider, however, that it is highly improbable that any local authority will decide to discontinue the use of turnstiles as they are a source of appreciable revenue and you may be interested to know that a sum of £297 3s. 4d. was derived from this particular turnstile in the financial year 1959–60. I agree, of course, that a turnstile is a means of annoyance to many people but it is generally accepted that the revenue received is vastly greater and warrants the installation of this equipment which, as you so well know, ensures that each and every member of the public pays the sum of 1d. for the privilege of using the conveniences. The clerk goes on to express the hope that some day a local authority will be courageous enough to put turnstiles in gentlemen's conveniences as well. I say, therefore, that this is a case for the central authority taking powers to intervene in this matter because this scandal has gone on for too long. The women of Britain will no longer tolerate this injustice and indignity.

Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

On a point of order. May I ask for your guidance, Mr. Speaker? Can you tell me whether there is any procedure by which I could point out that the Minister has agreed to receive a deputation while, at the same time, supporting the hon. Lady's Bill?

Mr. Speaker

That is certainly not on a point of order.

Dame Irene Ward

I was just asking for guidance, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I have occasionally to say that I am not here to give guidance, but to rule on points of order.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Castle, Mrs. Braddock, Mr. Brockway, Mrs. Butler, Mr. Chetwynd, Mr. Cronin, Dr. Dickson Mabon, Mrs. McLoughlin, Dr. Stross, Mrs. Thatcher, and Mr. Thornton.