HL Deb 03 July 1981 vol 422 cc409-18

11.21 a.m.

Report received.

Clause 1 [Needs of the disabled on highways]:

Baroness Darcy (de Knayth) moved Amendment No. 1: Page 2, line 24, at end insert ("and wherever practicable shall, whenever a new pedestrian crossing or crossing of similar purpose is being constructed or laid out, provide ramps constructed in accordance with the Code of Practice for Access for the Disabled to Buildings BS 5810:1979 or such other code as the Secretary of State may prescribe.")

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, at Committee stage I introduced a similar amendment placing a duty on the highway authorities to provide ramps only at new pedestrian crossings. Therefore, there would be no extra expense involved and it would be helpful to a great many other people who want to get around. The Minister explained that some pavements were so narrow that to devote the necessary amount to achieve an easy slope would create dangers, especially in icy weather, for those using the footpaths. I accept that one cannot specify the width of the pavement necessary before a ramp is feasible because it depends on the height of the kerb in relation to the width of the pavement and the required gradient of the ramp. So the words "wherever practicable" in this amendment literally mean where this is technically possible.

The Minister said that the question of ramping was exactly the kind of point to which she would expect to draw the attention of the local authorities in a circular. So as this is Report stage perhaps I may say a few words about the proposed circular. Can the Minister give an assurance that, as in the proposed circular to planning authorities in Scotland, the circular will cover the question of access around and between buildings and, for example, from a car park to a building, and that this will be a material consideration when considering planning applications? Will the Committee on Restrictions for Disabled People be consulted about the proposed circular? Can the circular also stress that a sign indicating facilities for the disabled will not depict a form of handicap for which the provision which has been made is unsuitable—for example, a wheelchair sign indicating that there is an accessible lavatory when it is in fact at the bottom of several steps? I should prefer to see this amendment in the Bill itself. As I have said previously, this only applies to new pedestrian crossings, and the additional words "where practicable" give leeway to local authorities, so I hope the Minister can accept this amendment. I beg to move.

Viscount Ingleby

My Lords, I should like to support this amendment. Kerbs are a great hindrance to people in wheelchairs and one day if I do not turn up in your Lordships' House it may be because I have met with an accident on one of these kerbs.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Baroness Young)

My Lords, we have of course discussed this matter very fully at an earlier stage of this Bill and I think I should make it plain to the House, as we are now on the Report stage, that this is the Bill of the noble Baroness, Lady Masham of Ilton. It is not for the Government but for her to determine what amendments she is or is not prepared to accept, and I hope that before the House makes up its mind on this point she will make her own position quite clear on what is recognised as a very important Private Member's Bill which the Government, as I think she and her noble friends will agree, have already improved in three important respects. The Government are gladly doing this because it is a Bill which makes a considerable contribution in the International Year of Disabled People. The Government have given it time, we support it and wish to see it improved, and that is why we have tabled these major amendments which I think are welcomed from all sides of the House.

As I have said, we debated this particular amendment at considerable length. I must tell the noble Baroness now what I have said to her privately: that I have taken advice on this matter and that advice is that it is not acceptable. But I do not think she needs to take that in quite the way it sounds. It is actually unnecessary because what she is asking for is the sort of thing that local authorities can do and in fact do in any event. She is asking that where a new pedestrian crossing is being constructed or laid out, ramps should be provided which are in accordance with a code of practice. These are the sort of matters which a local authority will consider. Therefore, I hope very much that she will accept that her amendment is unnecessary, because what she is asking for can in fact be done now. I think it is very important for the House to recognise that point. The Government are indeed quite prepared to encourage highway authorities to provide ramps wherever they can at new crossings, and we believe that in fact this would meet the objective of this amendment and therefore it becomes unnecessary.

The noble Baroness raised a quite separate point about the circular which will accompany the Bill and I should like to repeat an assurance, which I have already given, that of course the Government wish this Bill to be implemented, not only in law but in spirit. Therefore, the circular will indicate the sort of points which have been discussed. I cannot say that every single point raised by the noble Baroness will be put in precisely those words, but I can assure your Lordships that we want the Bill to work, we want the points that have been raised to be taken into account by local authorities, and we shall of course look carefully at what has been said in the House. We have given an assurance that we shall consult, as always, on circulars, not only the local authorities, which would be quite proper, but also other organisations, which would be very unusual. In the light of these assurances, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Darcy (de Knayth)

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, may I, by leave, ask her whether she can at least indicate whether the circular, as in the Scottish Bill, might make the question of access around buildings a material consideration for granting planning consent, because access outside the building as well as inside the building is equally important?

Baroness Young

My Lords, by leave of the House, because we are on Report stage, of course we want the circular which accompanies this Bill for England and Wales and for Northern Ireland to be similar to the provisions in the Scottish circular, and I hope that will be done.

Baroness Darcy (De Knayth)

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness very much and I have pleasure in asking leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 [Duty to draw attention to provisions as to access—Planning]:

11.30 a.m.

Baroness Young moved Amendments Nos. 2 and 3:

Page 6, line 3, after ("the") insert ("Physically") Clause 4, page 6, line 24, leave out ("subsections (13) and (14)") and insert ("subsection (13)")

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg leave to move Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 en bloc and, at the same time, to speak to Amendment No. 5. These are all technical points to correct a drafting error. I beg to move.

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 6 [Further provision as to duty to provide for needs of the disabled]:

Viscount Ingleby moved Amendment No. 4: Page 7, line 29, at end insert ("providing always that the bodies shall be independent of the persons undertaking the provision of the said buildings or premises and shall in no way be connected by pecuniary or any other interest in either the provision or the use of the said buildings or premises".")

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, in moving this amendment, I should like to draw your attention to the fact that we do not know who the prescribed bodies are going to be, who is going to adjudicate on the question of access. I feel it is important that it should be independent. The case one has in mind is that it is possible that the Education Committee might be called upon to adjudicate as to how far access provisions in a new school are suitable. I feel that the prescribed body, whatever it is, ought to be independent. This point would be covered if the Secretary of State, when he decides who the prescribed body is going to be, chose a combination, which I hope it might be, of the planning committee and the building regulations committee. There would be an appeal to the Secretary of State. So this point would be covered. I beg to move.

Baroness Darcy (de Knayth)

My Lords, may I briefly support this amendment. It does seem eminently reasonable as it allows time to decide who the bodies will be and merely ensures that there will be independent judges.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I, of course, appreciate the motives and the reasons which have led the noble Viscount to put down this amendment. The body which is to adjudicate in cases where the developer does not propose to follow the BSI code of practice needs to have the confidence of the public. If it is not independent of the developer, that confidence may be harder to gain. I hope the noble Viscount will recognise that there are a number of criteria which have to be borne in mind when the Secretary of State comes to make regulations prescribing the bodies. Independence is clearly one of them. Expertise is another. Some of these criteria, of course, may in fact be in conflict and the Secretary of State will need to form a very clear judgment taking into account the views of all parties who will need to be consulted. I would think that to amend the Bill in this way would be very much to tie his hands.

What we have offered to do is to have wide consultation over the question of the prescribed bodies. We certainly could not write something into the Bill before we had discussed the matter with local authorities because clearly they are very much involved, and it would be a very unusual procedure, and one which I think would be most unwelcome to them, to introduce it into a Bill at this stage. We have also offered to consult with voluntary organisations over this matter. Just as we have offered full consultation in Scotland it would be appropriate and right that we should have full consultation in England and Wales. It would make it even more difficult if as a result of consultations in Scotland one issue was decided there which was rather different from any decision we might reach in this country.

So I believe it is better to leave the situation as it is and not to include this amendment in the Bill. I see what the noble Viscount wants to do. This, after all, is the kind of point that can be taken into account during the consultation period. I would hope the noble Viscount would recognise that he does not lose it by not writing it in. On the contrary, he will be able to make his points during the consultation period and these are all matters that can be considered before the prescribed body is decided. I hope in these circumstances the noble Viscount will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, I would like to thank the noble Baroness for what she has said. She has got vast experience concerning local authorities. I think it has been useful to have the debate on these amendments, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for what she has said on them. I hope my noble friend Lord Ingleby will withdraw his amendment.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, before the noble Viscount withdraws the amendment, as I think he is about to do, I know very well that this is a point upon which he feels strongly. I should like to put it on record that I and my noble friends on these Benches also feel strongly that this is a very important point. I listened most carefully to what the noble Baroness, Lady Young, said in reply. It did seem to me that what she said to your Lordships in effect meant that she and her colleagues do in fact accept the spirit underlying this particular amendment, and everything conceivable will be done to bring about this state of affairs. If my understanding of what the noble Baroness said is correct, I am sure the noble Viscount will be correct in withdrawing his amendment.

Viscount Ingleby

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, for what he has said and also to the noble Baroness, Lady Young. With the leave of the House, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Young moved Amendment No. 5: Page 8, line 14, after ("the") insert ("Physically").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Then, Standing Order No. 43, having been dispensed with (pursuant to Resolution):

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time. I should like to thank all noble Lords for the help they have given in improving this Bill during its passage through your Lordships' House. Time is getting short and there is a good deal of pressure on your Lordships' House. Therefore, it is important that this Bill gets back to another place. This is the reason why we are taking the two stages together.

There is, I know, much more that many of your Lordships, including myself, would like to have seen in this Bill. We know in a time of recession that the Government have been put in an embarrassing position, but there were a few points that would have improved this Bill and not cost extra money, which the Government have not been able to accept for some unknown reason. I hope that by the time the Government have taken advice from interested bodies outside your Lordships' House they may be able to put them into the circular.

We do not want to see the wrong thing done through lack of advice and guidance. Your Lordships have heard during the passage of this Bill of a specially adapted lavatory for diabled people being built down 19 steps, and lavatories signed with the wheelchair sign but blocked off on each side with fixed rails thus stopping anyone in a wheelchair from using it. I have heard of a ramped kerb on one side of a road at a crossing and not the other, with the person in a wheelchair stuck in the road unable to jump up the high kerb.

I am sorry that the Government have not been able to accept that it would be more desirable to include the Code of Practice for Access for the Disabled to Buildings, BS 5810:1979 as well as the Design Note 18 relating to educational buildings. I should have thought that to have both written in and to have the choice of flexibility would have been wiser.

I hope very much indeed that this Bill will provide better access for disabled people to buildings of all sorts. I should have felt happier at this stage if there had been sanctions written in. It is no good having more legislation which is meant to help disabled people but with no method of seeing that this is carried out. I realise, however, that time is needed to get this right. The Government have shown that this is necessary by increasing the fine to £200 for abuse of the orange badge scheme. This seems sensible and I welcome it. I hope also that a satisfactory and workable solution will be found to the matter of which the prescribed bodies will be.

I welcome the tightening up of the abuse of parking places for disabled people. I only wish we could have had something in this Bill giving disabled people some hope of being able to park in central London. I am pleased that the blind have been included in this Bill and I should like to thank your Lordships—especially the Chairman of Committees, the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare—for help in changing the rule of your Lordships' House which did not allow guide dogs into the Gallery to accompany blind persons. At the Committee stage of this Bill a blind lady who represented one of the associations wanted to listen to the proceedings but she could not do so because she was not allowed to have her guide dog with her. The lady should be in your Lordships' House today with her dog. I only hope that the attitude towards disabled people outside your Lordships' House is as good as it is inside your Lordships' House.

I must thank Mr. Daffyd Wigley, the Member of Parliament for Caernarvon, and all the other Members of Parliament who have supported this Bill, As I said before, there is need for legislation in this Year of the Disabled. I cannot say that this Bill is really what we would have liked to send back to the other place, but I do not blame the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I think I can say that if the noble Baroness had been able to, I am sure she would have given us more. If the country improves I hope that in time this Bill can be built upon and this legislation strengthened. The time has come for this Bill to go back to the other place and I hope that your Lordships will send it on its way. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(Baroness Masham of Ilton.)

Lord Wallace of Coslany

My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, on her piloting of this Bill on behalf of, shall I say, the "wheelchair commandos"—because they are a very aggressive bunch of people and I do not blame them in their attempts to get something done. There is something unique about this Bill; it went through the other place and all the other stages without any comment, but your Lordships have not only had to debate the Bill but have also had to insert major amendments with Government assistance. It is now going back to the other place. There is a degree of risk, which is worrying me. I have given my views to the noble Baroness because I know what the Commons can be like so far as time is concerned. The noble Baroness and her friends have one great asset on their side and that is the Government's willingness—so obviously displayed—to see this Bill through.

I should like to congratulate the noble Baroness on the efforts she has made to improve the Bill, and I should like to congratulate the Government for giving great facilities. So far as the change of rule affecting guide dogs is concerned, this is very welcome. I can assure your Lordships that I have met this animal; he is extremely well behaved and will no doubt be an asset to your Lordships' Chamber so far as his conduct is concerned. I am very pleased indeed that this Bill has reached its final stages and I hope that my colleagues in the Commons will do everything possible to speed its progress.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, I shall not detain your Lordships for more than a moment, but I should like to say from these Benches that we all of us are very pleased indeed that this Bill is making further progress. We regard it as another very welcome step along a road—although the end of that road is still a long way away. There is a great deal more to be done on behalf of the disabled before we arrive at the kind of conditions which I believe we all hope to achieve ultimately. While thanking all those noble Lords and Baronesses who have played such an indefatigable and admirable role in assisting the progress of this Bill through your Lordships' House, I should like to place on record my personal appreciation of the sympathetic hearing which the Government have given to this Bill. I should perhaps like to qualify that by saying I rather regret, although I understand, the Government's reluctance to do anything which would circumscribe the freedom of local authorities. The Government have said that they must not do anything which would interfere with the autonomy of local government, although it seems to me that other Government departments have sometimes been ready to interfere in local government so far as certain financial matters are concerned.

Over and over again, in debating this Bill, we have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and others that this is something that should be done and which local government could do—and we hope it is something local government will do. All I would add is that I hope that those words, spoken by the noble Baroness and others on behalf of the Government, will be brought to the attention of local authorities over and over again during the coming years. I am quite sure that voluntary bodies—many of whom do wonderful and indefatigable work on behalf of the disabled—will make absolutely sure that no local authority in this country is unaware of the obligations which the Government have clearly stated local authorities now have towards the disabled. To those words I can only add that I am delighted that this Bill is to make further progress.

Lord Noel-Baker

My Lords, I should like to join my noble friend on the Opposition Front Bench in congratulating the noble Baroness in charge of the Bill and thanking the Government for what they have done. I rise to draw attention to a consideration which I hope the Government will keep in mind when preparing circulars in consultation with those responsible for the administration of the Bill. It concerns a danger affecting disabled people who are not so disabled that they require a wheelchair but who are not entirely mobile. The danger is that they may suffer a fall. At an earlier stage I drew attention to the danger posed by stairs and steps which have no handrails. Since then I have been taking note of the numerous places in this building and elsewhere where there are steps without handrails. This is a point of major importance. I myself should be relatively mobile, instead of being in the advanced state of physical disintegration and decay in which your Lordships now see me, if I had not suffered any falls. I suffered a considerable number of those falls because there were no handrails. Other things can be done to guard against the danger of falls and I hope that the Government will bear the point in mind.

11.47 a.m.

Viscount Ingleby

My Lords, I should just like to say a word about access officers. This point arose in the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Bill, but has not actually arisen here. As your Lordships may know, in Scotland all but two local authorities have designated access officers. I feel it is very important that there should be a person on every local authority with responsibility for access problems. I should like to quote from what was said by the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, when he addressed your Lordships' House on 9th June (Official Report Col 128): I have been able to establish that all but two of the local authorities which exercise planning and building control functions have responded to the recommendation from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities either by designating access officers or identifying a point of contact on access questions. In general those designated are staff of building control departments who are versed in the skills of reading plans and drawings and well qualified to take a view on questions relating to access for disabled people. The main value of this arrangement, it seems to me, lies in the fact that there is now in each of the local authorities in question a single readily available source of advice on access problems. I hope very much that when the English local authorities are consulted by the noble Baroness, they will be able to follow the very good example which has been set by Scotland.

I should also like to thank the noble Baroness for the information which she gave in a letter to the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, confirming that in due course the fine on an able-bodied person for parking on a space reserved for disabled drivers will be increased to £200 when the general scale of fines is increased. I should like to thank the noble Baroness for that assurance and also for urging this Bill through your Lordships' House.

Lord Hunt of Fawley

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Baroness for her efforts on behalf of the blind. I have recently been registered as a blind person and I know how much has already been done to help us. Before that I was doctor for St. Dunstan's for many years and I was on their governing body for 20 years or more. I knew Lord Fraser very well.

I have been amazed at how much help I have already received from the local authorities and the local blind associations in the way of talking books, talking clocks, apparatus in the bathroom, handles to hold on to. I should like to put in a plea for very close co-operation between all the people who are helping the blind people now, because there are a great many people doing it, but they are not all working together.

Baroness Darcy (de Knayth)

My Lords, I can be extremely brief. I think we have achieved a great deal in this Bill in relation to access. It is extremely welcome, and I should like to thank the Minister for her additions to the Bill. I am only disappointed that educational buildings have been treated differently. Others have spoken already about this, but I should like to underline what my noble friend Lady Masham said about the code of practice not relating to educational buildings, and just put on record the dismay of organisations concerned with the disabled at this omission. However, I feel that very much can be done if the proposed circular is a really strong one. I thank all noble Lords for their help too, and congratulate my noble friend on what has been achieved during the passage of the Bill through your Lordships' House.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I am very glad that the Bill has now reached its Third Reading in your Lordships' House and that it seems virtually certain to reach the statute book by the end of this parliamentary Session. When it was first brought to your Lordships' House it was a useful and worthwhile Bill, but there is no doubt that it has been strengthened during its passage through your Lordships' House, and I think it makes a real contribution to the International Year of Disabled People.

I personally have been very happy to be able to put down the Government amendments adding to the Bill in two major ways: one strengthening the requirements laid on building developers to provide access for the disabled, and the other tightening up on abuses of the orange badge scheme. Of course the provisions of the Bill have been extended to Northern Ireland. I have been very grateful for the support of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, throughout the proceedings, and also of the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley.

I hope very much that the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, feels that this is a real contribution. I might say to her that the reason why many of the amendments which the Government have not felt able to accept has not been lack of money; they have raised constitutional points: points about what one can achieve in a Private Member's Bill; points about consultation with local authorities; points about consultation with voluntary organisations. These are matters that one needs to consider very carefully, because she and her colleagues, I am sure, will recognise that anything that one can achieve with consent, co-operation, and with willingness will be achieved much more easily and readily than anything which requires a duty backed up by penalties to enforce it.

I hope that as a result of this Bill public interest again will be increased on providing access for buildings, not only in agreement with the terms of this Bill but by making quite sure that all the kinds of points that have been raised are taken into account. I will confirm yet again on the question of the circular that we promise to give advice in the circular on the extent to which local planning authorities may use their planning powers to ensure that access into a building is suitable for use by disabled people. Advice on that point has also been offered by the Scottish Office so far as Scotland is concerned, and representations have been received on the draft circular published by the Scottish Office, which was placed in the Library of the House. These representations will be taken into account.

The advice in the circular will also cover the question of circulation around and between buildings—for example, betweeen buildings and car parks. I also undertook during the Second Reading debate to consider how we might advise local authorities on their arrangements for staffing in connection with the access provisions of the 1970 Act, and their new obligation to draw the attention of developers to them. Such advice could conveniently be included in the circular explaining the Bill's provisions.

In conclusion, I should like to say that I congratulate those who have put a great deal of hard work and research into steering this Bill through your Lordships' House, and making sure that it is as useful and as practical as possible. I am sure we are all grateful for the work that has been put into it by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, the noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby, and the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy (de Knayth). I hope that they will feel at the end that this is a valuable contribution to helping the disabled.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, it falls on me once more to thank all noble Lords who have spoken, and to thank the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Young, in anticipation for a very good circular, which I am sure the Government will do their best to produce with the help of interested bodies outside your Lordships' House. I should just like especially to thank the noble Lord, Lord Noel-Baker, for bringing up one of the most important points perhaps about this whole Bill, that having the correct facilities prevents disability; and we who are severely disabled know only too well that if disability can be prevented so much the better for everybody.

I should like to say how very sorry I am to have heard that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Fawley, has been registered as a blind person. He has, as your Lordships will know, given great service to the community as a highly respected doctor. I am very pleased to hear that he is getting help from blind associations. I should like to say that voluntary associations throughout the country do a splendid job, and it is very important that they and the Government co-operate together, and this, I think and hope, will be the case in regard to this Bill. I therefore beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

On Question, Bill read 3a with the amendments, and passed, and returned to the Commons.