Westminster is the heart of British democracy. Every day tourists numbering in their thousands flock to see the spectacle of the Palace of Westminster. Yet it has become a feature of this part of central London that those who work in and visit this area are expected to tolerate unlawful behaviour which would never be permitted elsewhere.
Every day the pavements of Westminster are blocked by the new scourge of e-bikes and e-scooters, pedestrians are put at risk from dangerous cyclists and protestors cause disruption to those going about their lawful business.
Not enough consideration has been given to how disabled people are seriously affected by the failure to clamp down on unlawful behaviour in Westminster. In today’s report from Policy Exchange’s Liveable London Unit, three Parliamentarians who use wheelchairs have written of the unnecessary challenges they are forced to confront.
What may be a mere inconvenience for a non-disabled person has the potential to be an insuperable barrier or even a life-threatening risk to a person with a disability. Stalls erected by protestors and e-bikes abandoned on the pavement make it harder for those with mobility difficulties to navigate pavements. Inobservant or dangerous e-bike users speed through red lights risking a collision with pedestrians who may be visually or hearing impaired. Illegal gamblers on Westminster Bridge cause crowds to block the pavements forcing wheelchair users into a busy and narrow cycle path.
As part of Policy Exchange’s research we have heard from disabled people working in Westminster who were prevented from attending hospital appointments because the streets were blocked by protestors. One wheelchair user described needing a police escort to get through the crowds of protestors who were blocking pavement access to the Palace of Westminster.
Meanwhile Westminster City Council, the Mayor of London and the Metropolitan Police look on. We are repeatedly told, when protestors yet again seek to take over our streets for example, that it is necessary for a ‘balancing of rights’ exercise to be conducted. Yet the evidence would suggest that every time such an exercise is conducted the rights of disabled people are overlooked.
In the words of Lord Blencathra, “I am one of many wheelchair users who have been prevented from going about my daily life, including attending hospital appointments, by the reckless actions of Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion. The police must do everything in their power to prevent the law-breaking and serious disruption protestors are causing. Those found guilty of breaking the law need to be sentenced by the courts in a way which deters others who might be tempted to cause havoc to the lives of the law-abiding majority.”
This culture of impunity cannot be permitted to continue.
Parliament should approve the Government’s proposed regulation which would make it easier for police to deal with protestors who cause more than a minor hindrance to people’s day to day activities. Similarly, Parliament should overturn the ‘Ziegler’ Supreme Court judgement which has allowed protestors to claim they have a lawful excuse to disrupt out streets on a whim.
The companies which hire out e-bikes to the public should use the technology they have to fine those who inconsiderately and dangerously abandon their bicycles on the street. Those fines should be similar in scale to those who park their cars unlawfully. The hire companies should, as a condition of operating, be forced to immediately remove those e-bikes and e-scooters which are abandoned and obstruct pavements.
The police must continue to rigorously enforce the law on Westminster Bridge. As well as blocking the pavements, it has been reported that the illegal gambling rings operating there are linked to organised criminality. There must be a zero-tolerance approach to breaking the law at this iconic site.
The various authorities responsible for Westminster must ensure that the unlawful behaviour of others does not continue to restrict disabled people from being able to work in and visit this vitally important area. It is shamefully unfair that in the 21st century disabled people have effectively been relegated to second class status in Westminster – the heart of our democratic institutions. The culture of impunity which has been allowed to take over Westminster must be overcome.