MP in a wheelchair gets a lift at the House

Scarlett MccGwire on Anne Begg's Commons welcome
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The Independent Online
The new Labour MP for Aberdeen South is gobsmacked. Not simply because the Houses of Parliament seem a long way from Arbroath Academy, where she was head of English, nor even the daunting experience of being one of the new girls. It's mostly because of the welcome given to her and her wheelchair.

Anne Begg had been told stories of stairs and narrow arches which would not allow a wheelchair through when she first decided to stand for parliament. "I had decided it was not my problem, it was their problem. How were they going to make it work? After all, Nancy Astor wasn't expected to build her own toilets when she became the first woman MP."

She was amazed at how easy it was. "They have pulled out all the stops. They have done everything in their power to make it work. When I turned up I was met by the Assistant Serjeant at Arms. He took me through to the members' lobby and central lobby. It was a well-worn route used by Julian Critchley."

However, Sir Julian, the former Conservative MP for Aldershot, who has used a wheelchair in recent years, has no such fond memories. "Any idea that the place is wheelchair-friendly is as false a claim as either political party made during the general election. It's bloody awful."

Ms Begg had Gauchers Disease, an enzyme deficiency in the blood making her bones brittle and easily broken. She has been in a wheelchair for 13 years, since she last broke both her legs and could no longer stand up.

A meeting at the Commons with the 41-year-old MP showed that she looks on the bright side. She beamed at having immediately been given her own office, while colleagues are having to make do with lockers in the corridor. The electric reclining chair put in her office so that she can change position while working was proudly demonstrated. She was slightly embarrassed that the light switches and TV would have to be lowered so that she could reach them. They are being moved.

In the restaurant Ms Begg had to crane her neck to read the menu, which was not angled for a person in a chair. It was impossible to hold a tray on her lap and wheel her chair along at the same time and she could not reach the cold drinks in the self-service selection. Yet she was still bubbling with surprise at how helpful and friendly everyone had been. And everywhere were the heavy double doors that have etched themselves in Sir Julian's memory: "I always had to wait for someone to come and open them for me!"

James Robertson, the Assistant Serjeant at Arms, who showed Ms Begg round on her first day, readily admits that these doors cause difficulties. "There are big, heavy doors; some of them are fire doors. They are a continuing problem. Even members who just have books or papers in their arms complain about not being able to get through them."

The ease with which Ms Begg is able to get about is a testimony to the work done since a decision, some three years ago, to take access for the disabled seriously. At that time it was specifically for peers and visitors. A consultant assessed the Palace of Westminster and more than pounds 1m has been spent carrying out his recommendations. Most of the money has gone on providing suitable lavatories and making it easier to get about by building ramps or putting in lifts.

Mr Robertson said: "I wouldn't say that Anne Begg could go everywhere. Frankly, some places are difficult; some of the members' accommodation in the Palace is inaccessible because of half-landings or steps and to make it all accessible would be a horrendous cost. However, the places where she needs to carry out her business are all served by lifts or ramps."

Ms Begg, though, is still running on adrenalin. "If you're disabled and all you did was limited by other people's imagination, you would do nothing."

Yet she knows that there will not always be people to push her along the carpets or open the doors for her. She wants a facilitator who will do all that for her: a human equivalent of David Blunkett's guide dog, who will be allowed to take her everywhere so that she can concentrate her strengths on working for government.

The next challenge is not just to make it possible for her, but to make it easy.