HC Deb 08 February 1995 vol 254 cc243-5W
Mr. Cox

To ask the Chairman of the Accommodation and Works Committee what measures(a) have recently been taken and (b) will be taken to assist people with disabilities to gain better access to the Palace of Westminster.

Mr. Ray Powell

The Committee has given detailed and careful consideration to the consultant's report on access by disabled people commissioned by the Parliamentary Works Directorate and submitted to the Committee on 30 June 1993. The report is a very comprehensive study dealing with the Palace and 1, The Abbey garden. The cost of implementing all the recommendations proposed by the consultant was estimated by the Director of Works to be £1,272,700.

In addition to receiving written evidence, the Committee also took oral evidence on four occasions including sessions with the all-party disablement group, English Heritage, the consultant and Officers of the House. Oral and written evidence received by the Committee during the inquiry will be published in due course: the consultants report will be deposited in the Library and in the Record Office, House of Lords. The relevant minutes of proceedings of the Committee are being published today.

Many of the consultant's proposals were considered uncontroversial by the Committee and have already been implemented by the Parliamentary Works Directorate. Other schemes needing greater expenditure have been endorsed and will be included in the programme of works. A full list of the items undertaken or planned has been placed in the Library. The consultant's report also recommended several projects which, in the committee's view, would be highly controversial, if implemented. The committee has therefore considered these proposals in greater detail. As with other recommendations, it has been necessary, in seeking to make possible dignified access to the various parts of the building for people with disabilities, to take into account the need to preserve the historic fabric of the Palace, which is a grade 1 listed building of national and international importance. The committee was concerned that the provision of access to certain areas should not subject disabled people, particularly those in wheelchairs, to increased risk if an emergency evacuation of the premises became necessary, and has asked the Serjeant at Arms and the Director of Parliamentary Works to conduct a further study into this aspect.

One of the areas where access for disabled people is most difficult is the Grand Committee Room and Jubilee Room. The consultant's proposal was for a lift from Westminster Hall to the Grand Committee Room level,. involving a cavity being opened up in the 12th century walls of Westminster Hall, at a total cost of £230,000. The Committee was aware, in considering this proposal, that the adjacent Westminster Hall cafeteria is due to be converted to a visitor centre following approval by the House on 12 July 1994 of a report by the Catering Committee on Refreshment Provision for Line of Rowe visitors, HC, 1993–94, 307. The Committee therefore considered that the design work for the conversion should contain a requirement for the architect to consider how a lift could be incorporated in this area. This would have less impact on Westminster Hall and the Grand Committee Room. As the conversion to a visitor centre cannot take place until a suitable alternative for the present lunchtime users of the cafeteria is provided, the Committee also proposes that a replacement for the current chairlift which would allow disabled people to remain in their wheelchairs should be sought as a matter of urgency. The Committee also agreed to support the provision of a disabled person's toilet outside the Grand Committee Room.

Another area which presents considerable difficulty for anyone using a wheelchair is the Crypt Chapel. Public access is via entrances in Old Palace Yard and Westminster Hall. The Committee has asked the Serjeant at Arms to examine whether alternative access arrangements via the Cloisters are practicable. The Committee does not, however, favour the solution proposed by the consultant, of a chair lift.

Access by disabled people to the Ground, Principal, Committee and Upper Committee floors by disabled people is also vital. The Committee supports the proposal of the Parliamentary Works Directorate to upgrade lift No.15 to ensure that these floors are easily accessible.

The consultant proposed that a central handrail should be provided on the stairs leading to St. Stephens Hall. As there are already handrails at the side of this staircase, the entrance is narrow, and as a separate route is available for people in wheelchairs, the Committee did not support this proposal. Other proposals supported by the Committee included the provision of a tactile model of the building and consideration of a sound guide on the line-of-route to assist visually impaired visitors; and further improvements to the existing induction loop provision to include all Committee Rooms.

As part of the review, and in the light of the anticipated beneficial effects of the provision of the New Parliamentary Building (Phase 2), the design for which includes improved facilities for people with disabilities, the Committee has invited the Serjeant at Arms to give further consideration to what organisational or administrative changes might be made to assist disabled people.

I understand that similar arrangements are being made in another place to implement the consultant's proposals.

The measures and recommendations outlined above are the result of careful and sympathetic consideration by the Accommodation and Works Committee and, when complete, will enable people with disabilities to reach all but the most difficult parts of this historic building in a

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1. The courses were evaluated by scrutinising the participants' course reaction questionnaires and tutors' reports.