Call to act on ‘dangerous’ conditions around Westminster for disabled people

Peers told the report that metal barricades put up during protests were difficult to navigate for disabled people ( Sean Dempsey/PA Archive)
Peers told the report that metal barricades put up during protests were difficult to navigate for disabled people ( Sean Dempsey/PA Archive)

Disabled peers have spoken about being “harangued” on their way to Parliament as a report said not enough was being done to safeguard access to Westminster for the less abled.

A report by the Policy Exchange said protests had often blocked the passageway of disabled people as it called on the Metropolitan Police to do more to protect pedestrian walkways for those in wheelchairs and with other disabilities.

Lord Blencathra, in a testimony shared with the report writers, said he had missed hospital appointments due to his access being blocked.

The Conservative peer, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, said the rights of protesters should “not impede on the rights of others going about their daily lives”.

“In recent years we have seen parliamentarians harangued, accosted, surrounded and intimidated in the area around Parliament,” Lord Blencathra told the report, titled A Culture Of Impunity: The Ongoing Erosion Of Disabled People’s Access To Parliament And Westminster.

He added: “As a result of the actions of protesters and the police’s failure to ensure a safe route of passage for people going about their lawful business, I am one of many who have been prevented from attending hospital appointments.

“The way that the parliamentary authorities and the police are choosing to approach protests in Westminster has an impact on everyone, but the impact on those who are disabled is particularly egregious.

“It would not be considered acceptable in any other location.”

Peers told the report that metal barricades put up during protests were difficult to navigate for disabled people and they often had to wait for a police officer to open a cordon for them to pass.

The report, published on Thursday, said that during April’s so-called The Big One protest organised by climate groups, stalls and gazebos blocked the pedestrian pavements on Parliament Square and Abingdon Street.

Extinction Rebellion on their website claimed the occasion would be ‘accessible and welcoming’, but for many disabled people who sought to safely use the pavements in the immediate area this was far from the case,” the report said.

“Parliamentarians and others using wheelchairs were forced to ask nearby police officers to clear a route through the crowds, so that they could pass through the demonstration safely in order to access the parliamentary estate.”

Extinction Rebellion defended the handling of the protest, with a spokesman insisting that “access to the Parliamentary Estate was assured at all times”.

The 27-page report recommends that the Metropolitan Police, in considering whether “serious disruption” is taking place during demonstrations, take into account “the burdens, including denial of access to pavements because of obstructions, which protest may place on disabled people (and other vulnerable groups)”.

The study also recommended action on tackling the discarding of public hire e-bikes and e-scooters on pavements in Westminster.

It said Westminster City Council had been “notably passive” on the issue.

David Spencer, author of the Policy Exchange report and a former detective chief inspector at the Met, recommended e-bike and e-scooter hire companies, as a condition of operating, be required to pay for the full cost of installation and rental of e-bike bays across the City of Westminster to keep walkways clear.

The retired police officer said: “The culture of impunity which exists in the area around Parliament, Whitehall and Westminster has led to an intolerable and dangerous situation for disabled people which cannot be permitted to continue.”

A UK parliamentary spokesman said: “It is vital that Parliament is accessible to all. We understand that there is more to be done to ensure that disabled people do not face unnecessary difficulties when working in or visiting Parliament. We are committed to making further essential adjustments and ensuring that all our staff are trained in disability awareness.

“Parliament works with a number of organisations – including the Metropolitan Police Service, Westminster City Council and TFL – to ensure access to Parliament is maintained for everyone during periods of change and/or disruption. The safety and security of all those who visit or work in Parliament remains our top priority.”

Extinction Rebellion spokesman Richard Ecclestone, a former police officer, said that no complaints were received about The Big One demonstration.

“Politicians of all stripes have repeatedly stated over recent weeks that peaceful protest is a fundamental right and a cornerstone of our democracy,” he said.

“Extinction Rebellion and the over 200 supporting organisations who attended The Big One in April to protest at the seat of power worked tirelessly to ensure the activities were inclusive and accessible. They were.”

Mr Ecclestone, also an ex-Army officer, said: “Numerous liaison meetings were held with the Metropolitan Police in advance, and a 24/7 line of communication maintained throughout the four days of protest.

“Access to the Parliamentary Estate was assured at all times with hundreds of stewards on hand to provide assistance to anyone that needed help. No complaints were received from the community or the Parliamentary Estate by the Metropolitan Police about the protest.

“If any individuals felt that they were impeded from accessing the Parliamentary Estate, or were seriously disrupted by the speeches or music, we invite them to contact us so that we can discuss their experience and learn any lessons for future protests.”