HC Deb 17 June 1997 vol 296 cc113-4
33. Mr. Corbyn

To ask the right hon. Member representing the House of Commons Commission what proposals the Commission has for improving public access to the Palace of Westminster. [2318]

Mrs. Ann Taylor

The Commission remains committed to making the Palace of Westminster accessible to people with disabilities. Since 1995, in excess of £1 million has been spent in implementing the conclusions of the Administration Committee's review of access for disabled people. I will arrange for a list of the recent improvements that have been undertaken to be published in the Official Report.

Mr. Corbyn

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for making that list available to hon. Members and the public. Does she accept, however, that throughout the previous Parliament, and several before that, constant concern was expressed about the difficulties of access by the public to this building, particularly through St. Stephen's entrance, because the large number of steps there mean that wheelchair users have to come into the House through a back route? Will she make it a priority to ensure that all visitors to the building are able to enter it in exactly the same way so that they do not feel a sense of discrimination and exclusion? If we are able to provide proper access facilities when the House is lobbied by disability organisations, we should be able to provide them every day.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend will be aware that there are particular difficulties associated with the St. Stephen's entrance and that several feasibility studies have been undertaken to see what could be done, but those difficulties are quite severe. Progress has been made in a number of areas and I know that the Serjeant at Arms is having further consultations with those involved and is now conducting trials to see what improvements could be made for people with disabilities and others who wish to enter the House of Commons.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

The progressive steps that have been taken, which have certainly made life much easier for those with disabilities, are welcome. Further efforts would be supported to overcome some of the remaining challenges, which are great. Could the Commission consider another unsatisfactory situation—the queues of people outside the Palace who wait for hours, often in the rain, with the uncertain prospect of coming into the House? They have no opportunity either to watch the proceedings in the House on television or to listen to them. I am aware that there may not be a short-term answer, but could the right hon. Lady give some consideration to that problem?

Mrs. Taylor

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks about the progress that has been made so far to improve access for people with disabilities. As for the queues we see outside, there is a problem because those people often do not know how long they may have to wait. They are sometimes of the opinion that the queue ends as soon as they get inside the door at St. Stephen's, but we know that that is not the case. I will consider the point that the hon. Gentleman has made, but I cannot instantly see any easy solution.

Following is the information: Of particular importance have been the provision of ramps in Star Chamber Court, at the Medals Corridor and at Speaker's House, as well as the installation of platform lifts giving access to the Grand Committee Room and to the disabled lavatory off the Upper Committee Corridor. It is intended to install a lift to the Grand Committee Room as part of the planned redevelopment of the Westminster Hall Cafeteria area, to include a visitor centre, after the new Portcullis House is occupied. This redevelopment will also allow ramped access to the interview rooms off Westminster Hall which are the only public areas not currently accessible to wheelchair users. Recent improvements to the arrangements for access by the public to the Line of Route have been the provision of a tactile model of the Palace of Westminster in the Robing Room so that people with visual impairments can gain an understanding of the building. A change in the queuing arrangements at Sovereign's Entrance means that it is now possible for a large number of people to wait in shelter until their tour starts.