The minister for disabled people has been accused of hypocrisy after he called for shops and restaurants across the country to improve their access, even though his own high street constituency office is inaccessible to wheelchair-users.
Mark Harper is Conservative MP for the Forest of Dean, and the party’s constituency office in Cinderford high street has a large step in front of the door, preventing wheelchair-users from entering.
Harper’s failure to ensure access for disabled constituents emerged just as his department’s press office promoted a new high street access survey which found that a fifth of shops exclude wheelchair-users, two-thirds of retail staff have no training in dealing with disabled customers, and two-fifths of restaurants have no accessible toilet.
But neither Harper nor his Westminster office have been answering calls for at least the last three days.
A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokesman declined to say whether he had seen the minister, and said the question was “a bit ridiculous”.
Harper said in a press release that the high street survey, by accessibility experts DisabledGo, showed that the retail and hospitality industry should “look at what more they can do to better cater for disabled people”.
He said: “This isn’t just about doing what’s right. Businesses are missing a trick by not doing more to tap into this market… Improving accessibility is a no-brainer.”
A member of staff in Harper’s constituency office admitted to Disability News Service (DNS) that the step prevented wheelchair-users from entering the high street premises.
But so far, no-one in Harper’s Westminster office has returned calls requesting a comment, while local media have also told DNS that Harper has been unavailable to discuss the claims.
Harper’s double-standards were first noticed by Steve Parry-Hearn, Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate in the MP’s Forest of Dean constituency.
Parry-Hearn has written an open letter to Harper, accusing him of “disgraceful hypocrisy”, and saying: “Surely, a Minister charged with disability affairs should support and champion the needs of disabled people instead of frustrating and cutting their beneﬁts and access to essential services, including access to their MP.”
He adds in the letter: “It is important that the retail and hospitality industry look at what more they can do to better cater for disabled people, but so must you.”
A picture he emailed to Disability News Service (DNS) shows a large step that would prevent any wheelchair-user from entering Harper’s constituency office.
Mark Harrison, chief executive of Equal Lives (formerly Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People), accused Harper of “the height of opportunism and hypocrisy”.
Harrison said: “It just sums up this government’s approach to disability. We are now on this government’s fourth ‘minister against disabled people’, and each one, rather than defending disabled people’s rights, has spent all their time justifying government policies that have discriminated against and disproportionately hit disabled people.”
The embarrassing claims come less than a year after Harper resigned from his previous post as immigration minister after it emerged that his own cleaner did not have permission to work in the UK.
His alleged hypocrisy also mirrors that of his boss, work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who was caught using an accessible toilet, just minutes after telling a live television audience that parents must teach their children “right from wrong”.
Harper has so far failed to say what action he thinks the government should take to improve high street access, other than “urging” businesses to do the right thing and meet their Equality Act obligations.
A DWP spokesman said: “I think he is bringing the issue to the attention of the general public and that is an important thing to do.”
DisabledGo assessed 30,000 shops and restaurants across England, Scotland and Northern Ireland for the survey.
But when it contacted leading chains directly to gather further information, only four per cent of 105 national retailers and five per cent of 58 UK restaurant chains bothered to respond.
Barry Stevenson, chair of DisabledGo and a former M&S and B&Q director, said: “We are pleased that many retailers have invested significantly in improved accessibility in the last 10 years, but the majority are still not doing enough.
“It’s entirely unacceptable for disabled people, their family, friends and carers not to be able to access all high street shops and facilities.”