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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I support my noble friend's amendment most warmly. The problems that he outlines have been experienced by many local authorities, in particular where one has a two-tier system. The district council may be responsible for conservation issues as a local planning authority and may well have the disability access officer. Together they come up with an acceptable proposal. But the highways authority involves another tierthe county council. The county council is responsible for ruling whether a proposal is acceptable. As a result, the district council may urge that providing access is a reasonable activity. The pavement may be 10 feet wide or 12 feet wide. The conservation officer and the local disability officer, both employed by the district council, have come to a reasonable and sensible way forward on the issue. But the traffic authority involves the county councilanother local authority. It may veto the matter, unreasonably we may believe.
Baroness Masham of Ilton: I thank the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for bringing the amendment to our notice. I, too, would like to probe the Minister on the issue. I received a letter only yesterday about Oxford city centre. It is from the vice-chairman of the Oxford City Access Committee. It asks me to bring the matter up and to press for more powers to be given to the local authorities when they shortly take over responsibility for access for disabled people in city centres.
Is this a new provision? I should like an answer from the Government so that we know whether a new regulation is being handed over to the local authorities. Access to city centres is absolutely vital for people living in those towns, otherwise they will not be able to go shopping or to take up employment and will be discriminated against.
When the city centres are closed to cars, there needs to be positive discrimination for severely disabled people so that they may park their cars near the closed areas, otherwise there will be completely no-go areas. As people live longer, there will be more elderly people and it is becoming a great issue. I should like an answer from the Minister about that. I wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, for his helpfulness over the other matter.
Lord Rix: I too would appreciate clarification. Access to places of entertainment and particularly theatres in city centres is involved. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, put the amendment down as a probing amendment for clarification, which I too should like if the Minister can give it.
Lord Addington: The noble Lord, Lord Carter, has put his finger on an important point. Once again, the amendment calls for clarification, as we have been doing all day. If the Minister can give a little guidance, it would probably save many people a lot of money and avoid the damage to pension funds with the use of solicitors.
Lord Swinfen: I wish to support the principle behind the amendment. I am thinking of a theoretical case of a listed building which will require a new use. The building will perhaps be used as a hotel or offices but the approach to it is in fairly poor condition, for example, with potholed asphalt. In order to make the place look more authentic and in keeping with its listing, the local authority wants the developer to cobble the front as opposed to the nice smooth surface. Something similar was done recently outside one of our most famous cathedrals, where asphalt was replaced with cobbles. I gather from those who use wheelchairs that to be pushed over it is absolute hell. Sometimes local authorities suggest or insist on various things being done in planning applications but the example I gave is the kind of thing that should be avoided.
Lord Inglewood: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for moving the amendment and for describing the background to it and also to other Members of the Committee who spoke. The problem is obviously causing considerable concern. We are trying here to tease out the interaction between the provisions in this legislation and that contained within other government legislation, particularly as it refers to providing access for disabled people.
As an aside, I believe that the problem we are discussing goes much wider than simply disablement issues. I suspect that most planning inquiries and appeals going on in the country at present would in one way or another focus on the problem.
When considering the matter, it is important for us to distinguish between two cases: those where the law gives the person whoif I may put it this wayis getting in the way of the desirable disablement aspiration absolutely no discretion about what he can do; and those circumstances where a public body is involved and has a discretion. I shall go through the matter in detail and I hope I shall demonstrate why I believe that the amendment is unnecessary.
We have already debated the right of access to goods, services and facilities in the Bill where it is made clear that it applies equally to public authorities as to any other provider of services. I am, however, happy to take the opportunity to restate the position, which is that any public authority will be subject to the requirement under the right of access, as a provider of services or facilities to the public, to make adjustments to any policies, practices and procedures which would otherwise prevent a disabled person from making use of a particular service or facility and to take steps to remove any physical features which make it unreasonably difficult for a disabled person to use a service or facility.
I must also make it clear that, as with other legislation of this nature, nothing in the Bill makes unlawful anything done under any other Act. I refer here to Clause 32. In other words, the legislation does not require service providers to breach other legal obligations. The important word there is "require". That is the same approach as taken in the sex and race legislation, an approach which the Government believe is right.
I know from what the noble Lord said that he has in mind a particular case. Obviously I cannot comment on it from the Dispatch Box. However, I can say with certainty that I cannot imagine a situation where a highway authority would unreasonably refuse permission to provide wheelchair access in the public highway. After all, as we know, that is the kind of aspiration that the Committee would like to see provided for where possible and appropriate. Howeverand this is the crux of the issuethe ultimate responsibility for the safe upkeep of the highway lies with the local highway authority. No alteration to the highway would be permitted if, in the authority's view, such alteration would pose a danger to other highway users. The prime factor in granting such permission is therefore one of safety and avoiding obstruction to the public highway. In areas where there is a discretion, one should remember that that discretion must be exercised reasonably. I am sorry that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, is not here. He has plenty of views about that.
The public authority cannot simply act capriciously. We referred to that when we debated listed buildings some days ago. However, in cases where a refusal has occurred, it may not necessarily be the end of the matter. For example, there may be a more acceptable way of providing wheelchair access which meets the concerns of the highway and planning authorities. Or, for that matter, on the facts of the case and the circumstances, there may be a mechanism for appeal which will be open to those people who are disappointed. That is the case in all kinds of other areas where people may be disappointed in respect of quite different matters.
We have heard examples from the noble Lord, Lord Carter, and the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, asked some questions to which I wish to respond later. I cannot give her an exact reply. My noble friend Lord Swinfen mentioned examples about which he was concerned. It might be helpful if the noble Lords wrote to me about particular cases so that the matter may be investigated and a fuller response given if there is a problem. In a wider sense, there may be useful lessons to be learnt from the cases that people have in mind.
Lord Carter: I am extremely grateful to the Minister and to other Members of the Committee who took part in the short debate. When I moved the amendment I forgot to mention a point raised by my noble friend Lady Hollis which reminded me that it was a disability access officer who suggested where the ramp should go.
I was partly encouraged by what the Minister started to saythat the Bill would apply to public authorities, with the right of access and that they will be required to adjust policy and so on. However, the local authority is not the provider of the service in this case, it is just the provider of the highway. Whether that is caught, I am not sure. The authority is required not to act unreasonably, but suppose it does? That is the question. The disabled person, the employer or whoever it was would not be able to rely on the Bill to stop the authority acting unreasonably because it would be acting within the powers which it thinks reasonable within the existing legislation. At the end of the day, it seems to me that it will be left to the public authority. We shall not be able to rely on the Bill; someone will not be able to say: "You are acting unreasonably and we have the anti-discrimination Act which prevents you doing so".
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