MPs have returned to the House of Commons this week. On Wednesday I led one of the first Parliamentary debates of the new session, on enforcement of equalities legislation relating to guide dogs.
That may sound rather dry and technical, but it gave me the chance to speak out about the difficulties our visually impaired community regularly face.
I called it because of the experience of a blind Cheltenham constituent who was refused entry to a well-known local restaurant because of his guide dog – a humiliating, dehumanising and unpleasant episode.
Such a refusal is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. But the more I drilled into this issue, the more I discovered that his was not an isolated example. Working with the Guide Dogs for the Blind and other charities, I discovered that roughly 75% of people with assistance dogs have been refused access to buildings, restaurants and taxis. When it comes to restaurants, 37% had been refused within the last year.
But not enough is being done by councils to enforce the law. In practice, people are left to seek their own remedy. The choices are not exactly appealing. Either launch personal legal proceedings in the local county court at significant expense, or call it out on social media and lose all control.
What we need instead is a proper process. Councils already have the power to bring proceedings where someone is selling fake merchandise or breaching food hygiene standards. Why shouldn’t they take action for alleged breach of the Equality Act? They also need to keep records so that repeat offenders can face the consequences when they apply to renew their licence.
Without better enforcement, these laws risk becoming a dead letter and the legislative process ends up viewed as a meaningless charade.
The support I’ve received from other MPs (of all parties) for my campaign for change has been fantastic and the debate was really well attended. It’s time to deliver justice for disabled people.