HL Deb 14 October 1997 vol 582 cc387-90

3.4 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

asked the Chairman of Committees:

Whether he is satisfied with the arrangements, both inside and outside the Chamber, for Lords who use wheelchairs.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Boston of Faversham)

My Lords, in recent years considerable efforts have been made to improve arrangements for disabled persons in the House of Lords. In excess of £1 million has been spent since 1995 in implementing the conclusions of the Administration and Works Sub-Committee's review into access for people with disabilities. I have also received representations from Peers on the seating in the Chamber concerning among other things the arrangements for disabled Peers. I shall be consulting the Administration and Works Sub-Committee on this matter next month. In view of my present predicament—I have a broken collar-bone—perhaps I should have tabled this Question to myself.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord forgot to declare an interest on this Question. I wish him a very speedy recovery. Is the noble Lord aware that I appreciate what has been done and I hope that he will soon hear about the problems of access outside the Chamber? But inside the Chamber the provision and allocation of space for wheelchairs is very inadequate. Does the noble Lord agree that the best solution is to accommodate the Hansard reporters in the Gallery and that the House should overrule any unfounded objections? That system works perfectly well in the other place and there is no reason why it should not do so here.

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his kind words. I apologise to your Lordships for failing to declare an interest, which he has very properly and rightly mentioned. The possibility of moving your Lordships' Hansard reporters to another part of the Chamber has been considered before. It will form part of the consideration that I shall be inviting the Administration and Works Sub-Committee to give to these matters next month. The noble Lord would not wish me to anticipate the outcome of those discussions. However, I feel sure that this particular matter will be considered. Perhaps I should draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that while on the whole the provision of space for wheelchairs in the Chamber has worked reasonably well, one of the great difficulties is access to the Chamber through the wicket gate behind the noble Baronesses, Lady Masham and Lady Macleod of Borve. One is required to negotiate a rather tortuous passage. It is difficult to do something about that; it is a considerable problem.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that those in wheelchairs are among the most articulate and important Members of your Lordships' House? Does he agree that when more than three of them are interested in, or wish to speak in, a debate, it is absurd that they should be confined to their present space which allows only three to be present?

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I wholly endorse the words of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, about the participation of noble Lords and noble Baronesses in our debates. They bring not only an added dimension of quality to our debates but they are able to speak on particular matters from their own experiences. As to the substantive point raised by the noble Lord, I shall ensure that it is borne in mind when further consideration is given to these matters.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, can the noble Lord give an assurance that the accommodation arrangements for your Lordships in this place are subject to periodic inspection by representatives of the Health and Safety Executive, as happens in other public places outside this House?

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, is right. That is something that has always to be borne in mind. On occasions in the past when your Lordships have agreed to certain improvements in your Lordships' House, the Health and Safety Executive has been consulted.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, I seem to have to be heaved up and down a considerable number of steps when I go to Abbey Gardens and the rooms off Westminster Hall. As a health and safety measure would it be possible to have some portable ramps? Many firms now produce lightweight portable ramps.

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right. Abbey Gardens are one particular problem. As I have previously reported to your Lordships, many improvements have been made within the immediate precincts of the Palace of Westminster. Abbey Gardens remain an area where provision is admitted to be inadequate. We shall continue to see whether anything further can be done. I shall ensure that the noble Baroness's points are taken into consideration. Westminster Hall, too, is a bit of a problem, particularly as regards access to the Grand Committee Room. It is hoped that when improvements are made in that part of Westminster Hall the stairlift will be replaced by a much more suitable arrangement. That has not been lost sight of. I must warn your Lordships that that can be done only when the cafeteria improvements in that area as a whole are made.

Baroness Darcy de Knayth

My Lords, does the noble Lord know how delighted I am to hear that arrangements inside the Chamber will be considered. I am appreciative of what has been done today because normally there are just two places for a possible nine wheelchair users, five of whom are regular attenders. I feel that the access is unkind to the knees of those on the Privy Council Bench. Outside the Chamber, is the noble Lord aware that although the parking spaces for disabled people are welcome, they do not conform to the recognised standards because they do not leave extra space so that one can get in and out in one's wheelchair?

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I shall of course ensure that the first point is taken into consideration. I am not sure about the answer to the second point. I should like to look into it to see whether further provision may be made.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that this matter came before the Offices Committee six years ago and that nothing has happened since? To revert to the original Question, as is obvious today, if the tables were removed and the shorthand writers went upstairs, there would be space behind the Clerks' Table. Is it not worthy of consideration that were that to be done the Cross-Benches would be moved one Bench forward, and the disabled would be able to sit on the back row and therefore not have to negotiate the legs and ankles of the Privy Counsellors on the Privy Council row?

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, on the first point, I have already referred to the fact that considerable improvements have been made over the past few years, not least the provision of the railings at both ends and on both sides of your Lordships' Chamber. Provision for Cross-Bench Peers is, as the noble Lord said, a problem to which consideration will be given when the Administration and Works Sub-Committee comes further to consider this matter next month. However I should warn your Lordships that if moving the Hansard reporters from their present position to another part of the Chamber were to be one of the options recommended by the Administration and Works Sub-Committee, it would not in fact result in a sizeable increase in the accommodation for Cross-Bench Peers. In fact, bearing in mind, as the noble Lord rightly said, the need to protect the provision for those Members of your Lordships' House who occupy wheelchairs, that removal, if it took place, would provide only three additional places for Members of the Cross-Benches.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, perhaps I may thank the noble Lord, Lord Renton, for what he said about the interventions, which are few and far between, from those of us who, unfortunately, have to occupy wheelchairs. We cannot ask a Question; we cannot ask a supplementary Question. And it is rare for us to have one place from which to make a speech. Further, it is now difficult to get down to the Cholmondeley Room, the new refreshment room, or the new Attlee Room, because no lifts are provided which will take wheelchairs. I wonder whether, in his capacity as Chairman, the noble Lord can raise those matters at the next meeting of the sub-committee of which he is chairman.

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, the noble Baroness draws attention to the problems in the South East Return. I can assure her that some provision has been made. Access from Royal Court, for example, has been made, and new ramps have been provided as part of the improvements in the South East Return. However, I shall look further into the matter and draw the sub-committee's attention to it to see whether anything else can be done. I conclude by endorsing what the noble Baroness said about the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Renton. Noble Lords and noble Baronesses who occupy wheelchairs provide, not least this very day, supplementary questions to be answered, and participate in your Lordships' debates. I hope that that will continue.