Accessibility Bill: will it make a big difference?

Invercargill National MP Penny Simmonds. PHOTO: PARLIAMENT
Invercargill National MP Penny Simmonds. PHOTO: PARLIAMENT
On Tuesday Parliament took an important step towards lowering barriers and guaranteeing equality for all ... or not, take your pick.

The Accessibility for New Zealanders Bill has a noble aim, to create a streamlined and consistent approach to removing barriers which prevent disabled people from playing a full part in all areas of life.

As things stand, a hodgepodge of laws and regulations cover such critical issues as access to buildings, ability to utilise public transport, and being able to fully participate in official communications and conversations.

This is not a minority issue — although there are a wide range of personal circumstances and degrees of impairment, on the present definition of disabled an estimated million or so New Zealanders fit the bill — if you are not yourself disabled, you will almost certainly know plenty of people who are.

The Government recognises that breadth of concern and earlier this year created Whaikaha the Ministry of Disabled People, and the proposed law change — which Labour committed itself to back in 2020 — is intended to support the ministry’s work and create an accessibility framework.

Among other things, the Bill will establish an accessibility committee, led by disabled people, to advise and advocate on accessibility issues, and makes the Government more accountable for making its own services accessible to all.

In the first reading debate Invercargill Labour list MP Liz Craig, a Parliamentary Private Secretary for Health, made the issues raised in the Bill instantly relatable, talking about the challenge her father faced to climb the three front steps of her house to come to dinner after suffering a stroke.

"What this Bill does is it takes us much further towards achieving a goal of having an accessible society where everybody can go and participate in the way that they want."

So, what’s not to like?

Plenty, as it turns out.

National Invercargill MP Penny Simmonds has a Down syndrome child and is well-qualified to be her party’s disability issues spokeswoman.

She was going to vote for the Bill on an it’s better than nothing basis, but not before acknowledging the Access Alliance — an umbrella group of advocacy organisations which has been championing this issue for more than five years.

"They will, however, be disappointed at how far this legislation goes, and that is one of the main reasons that we are supporting this Bill to select committee, because we believe that members of a variety of advocacy groups and individuals from the disabled community should have the opportunity to present at the select committee to tell their stories, to try and improve this legislation.

"They wanted the Act to set policy, to influence and effect the development and the implementation of public accessibility policy, they wanted the Act to champion access to all goods, services, and facilities, and they wanted the Act to champion accessible workplaces, employment and education.

Labour Invercargill list MP Liz Craig. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Labour Invercargill list MP Liz Craig. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
"They wanted the Act to charge the Government with the responsibility to lead, educate, train, inform and review, and, again, I believe that they will feel this Act falls far short of doing all those," Ms Simmonds said.

Green list MP and former Southlander Jan Logie went even further, summing up why her party had chosen to vote against the Bill.

"I am really struggling to see, if I’m really honest, how this legislation takes us much further than the Disability Action Plan.

"I also bring in the voice of (former Dunedin lawyer) Warren Forster, who has worked with communities right across the country, bringing in disabled people’s voices about how we could actively create legislation that would work to speed up the removal of those barriers.

"He sent me a message in response to this Bill, saying, ‘effectively, they’ve wasted four years to announce a committee that will be in place in two years’ time — six years to form a committee," she said

Summing up for Labour, Taieri MP Ingrid Leary acknowledged that the legislation was long overdue — and also that the design of the House of Representatives makes it a difficult place for many disabled people to get in to.

"For me, one of the biggest and most revealing things for us to note is that there is no positive duty on the Crown to include disabled people; that it is up to those people to complain when that, in fact, can be very, very difficult and inaccessible itself," she said.

"It’s people like Chris Ford in my Taieri electorate, from the Disabled Persons Assembly, who has tirelessly advocated for the last 22 years, who is making this progress.

"It is people like Dave King from People First in the southern region; he’s the vice-president, who revealed Covid self-isolation disparities — what it would mean, his concerns for disabled people around self-isolation, and what we could do as a society to help and make that situation better."

Ms Leary’s praise of Mr Ford might have been slightly more low-key had she known that two days later he was to pen a blistering opinion piece taking Labour to task for what he called an empty piece of legislation.

The Government has agreed to a longer than normal select committee process for the Bill — which on the one hand is good because there are a lot of voices to be heard, but on the other hand it is not, as it is obvious that reform is essential and should not be needlessly delayed.

Taieri Labour MP Ingrid Leary. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Taieri Labour MP Ingrid Leary. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
The select committee process is intended to improve Bills before they become law; it is to be hoped that this one achieves that outcome.

Double or quits

Regular readers may recall that National Dunedin list MP Michael Woodhouse lost a bet he made in the House last year with Labour’s Stuart Nash over whether or not New Zealand’s Covid-19 vaccination rate would reach 90% by year’s end — a bet he was probably quite pleased to lose.

He was challenged to another wine-based bet on Tuesday, as Labour Dunedin MP and Statistics Minister David Clark ushered the Data and Statistics Bill in to law.

Mr Woodhouse claimed, as he has consistently throughout what has been a surprisingly long and intricate debate for a Bill on which there is little actual disagreement, that the 2023 Census will be postponed.

"Here’s my prediction, Mr Speaker," he said.

"We won’t have a Census 2023, because I don’t think the Government is prepared to take that risk."

"Put a decent box of Peregrine on that," challenged Dr Clark .

"We’ll see," Mr Woodhouse replied.

"I’ve laid it out. I’m not on a ministerial salary, so it’s not going to be a big bet, but that’s my bet anyway."

mike.houlahan@odt.co.nz

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