Rishi Sunak is the Member of Parliament for Richmond.
Every weekend, across the country, thousands of young children living with severe disabilities are deprived of the opportunity to enjoy a day out with their families.
Freedom often sounds abstract. But if you are excluded from trains, museums, or your favourite football ground because they don’t have the right changing facilities, the freedom you’re deprived of couldn’t be more real.
Until recently, I and my colleague Kevin Hollinrake – like most people – assumed that disabled toilets provided the facilities necessary to open up our public spaces and buildings to all. Being an MP, however, is about learning from your constituents.
After being deeply moved by parents of children with profound disabilities at the outstanding special educational needs Dales School in our area, we learned that disabled toilets simply aren’t enough.
For those who need the help of a carer to use the toilet, a standard disabled bathroom is too small and doesn’t have the right equipment. Without a hoist, changing bench, and privacy screen built into what are known as Changing Place toilets, users either have to suffer the indignity of being changed on the floor of a dirty public bathroom or, too often, just stay at home.
This can’t be right in today’s society.
Despite over 250,000 people in the UK needing Changing Places, there aren’t enough. Many of our country’s most popular attractions – from museums to theme parks – do not have a Changing Place installed.
While there are exceptions (Premier League stadiums have a good record providing Changing Places) the consistent story across Britain is one of under provision; a failure that robs far too many people of the chance to live more dignified and fulfilling lives.
The need is growing. Longer life expectancies mean an ever larger proportion of our ageing population requires Changing Places. Also, medical advances now ensure more babies facing difficult births can thankfully be saved, but often they will have complex disabilities and require considerable assistance thereafter.
Given this, the time has come for Government to do more. After all, Conservatives have a record to be proud of when it comes to disability. My own predecessor as MP for Richmond, William Hague, set the example. As Minister for Disabled People, he was instrumental in bringing the Disability Discrimination Act into law under John Major in 1995.
The legislation, which William often speaks of as his proudest achievement in Government, enshrined in law the principle that institutions had to make “reasonable adjustments” to improve the equality of opportunities open to the disabled. Twenty years on, we need to renew that spirit for today’s issue of Changing Places.
The key goal should be to amend our building regulations, requiring Changing Places to be installed at key buildings like shopping centres, train stations and tourist attractions. Although regulations were amended in 2013 to describe Changing Places as ‘desirable’, this language needs to be strengthened and made mandatory.
These changes will face opposition (as they did in 1995), but done proportionately, practically, and with reasonable time for institutions to implement, I believe this is an appropriate step to take. In addition to the stick of enforcement, Government should consider the carrot of tax relief on the work required, rewarding businesses that install Changing Places early.
However, adjusting building regulations will take time. Those who need Changing Places have already waited long enough, so in the meantime we should give serious consideration to the provision of more mobile Changing Places.
Social enterprises like Mobiloo, run by a former Paralympian, already provide self-contained Changing Places vans that can be hired by organisations and driven anywhere. These vans have enabled concert venues, theme parks and other attractions across the country to provide for profoundly disabled children.
The Government already gives local charities minibuses for Community Transport Schemes. This funding should be extended to include anybody acquiring a mobile Changing Place van. Furthermore, if the Government centrally contracted with one national supplier for a standard mobile Changing Place van, the cost would come down considerably.
Local Authorities could take the lead in ensuring they had such vans available for local attractions to rent. Sponsorship deals on the vans could also easily contribute to the running costs, making the schemes self-sufficient.
Spreading Changing Places across the nation will improve disabled people’s quality of life, helping them to live with dignity. But ultimately this is about more freedom, greater choice and equality of opportunity. These are all core principles of Conservatism and they should apply to those with severe disabilities just as they do to anybody else.