Paula Sherriff: Why we need to talk about access to toilets

I REALISE that access to toilets might sound far from a glamorous political campaign. As a somewhat taboo subject '“ I am an MP who has often not been afraid to raise taboo subjects in Parliament '“ it is rarely mentioned in the media or, indeed, in political debate.

Paula Sherriff is the MP for Dewsbury.

Most of us take it for granted, and we rarely hear about it when basic human rights for our citizens are listed, so much is it taken as a given. When the subject is raised, it is usually with reference to the developing world where, quite rightly, campaigners seek to raise the 
importance of people’s access to basic sanitation and hygiene, yet too many people are denied that here in modern Britain as well.

Let me start by making it clear what my Bill means by fully accessible toilets, more commonly known as Changing Places toilets.

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Changing Places toilets should not be confused with standard disabled toilets. They are designed to meet the needs of people with complex needs, providing a height-adjustable, adult-sized changing bench; a tracking hoist system or mobile hoist; adequate space in the changing area for the disabled person and up to two carers; a centrally placed toilet with room either side; a screen or curtain for privacy; a wide tear-off paper roll to cover the bench; a large waste bin for disposable pads and a non-slip floor.

Many people need better access to toilets.

As the regulations stand, Changing Places toilets are recommended in larger buildings, such as large train stations, motorway services and museums, but are not mandatory.

As a minimum, my Bill seeks to strengthen regulations by making the provision of Changing Places toilets mandatory in large new-builds, complexes with public access or sites where visitors can reasonably be expected to spend long periods of time.

The number of people with complex disabilities is growing. Medical advances mean that more babies are, thankfully, saved when once they might not have been, but often they will require considerable assistance as children and as adults. We are all living longer, and older people make up an ever larger proportion of our population, so the need for extra provision will become only greater.

It would be a sad reflection on our society’s priorities if people’s basic freedoms, such as going out with their family or friends, were restricted by the absence of suitable toilet facilities. Yet every week, this is a reality for the thousands of people who are denied access to many of our country’s most popular attractions.

While drafting the Bill, I heard from too many people who suffer in this way. Adam George, who is 11 years old, requires a toilet with a ceiling hoist and an adult-sized changing table. He loves outdoor activities, and his favourite place to go for a day out is the nearby theme park, but as he got bigger, the family could not manage with the standard disabled toilet.

His mother, Rachel, says she made excuses for a year as to why they could not go. After consulting the park about installing equipment to meet Adam’s needs, the family have made the difficult decision to undertake legal action against Flambards. Rachel quite rightly asks: “Can you imagine not being able to access a toilet on a family day out? Especially one you have just paid a lot of money for? Do you just go to places expecting your toilet needs to be met? Why shouldn’t disabled people expect the same?”

Current data suggests that there are only 1,123 Changing Places toilets in the UK, with the highest concentrations in major cities. Some areas do not have a facility even within an hour’s drive, so people are either confined in their home, need to rush back if nature calls, or have to face the indignity of being changed on the dirty floors of public toilets. Needless to say, the result can be social isolation. In my area of Kirklees, the nearest Changing Places toilet was lost when the local children’s playground closed because of Government cuts.

For the sake of those who suffer in silence, I believe this issue must be tackled head on.

Paula Sherriff is MP for Dewsbury