Many of you may have seen me at Party Conference with my guide dog Barney. Most people remember Barney, but not my name. Six months after getting him, I'm getting used to this. I do have some useful vision, but not much. It's a bit like a Lib Dem MP, it's there but it's not very useful.
Many of you will probably wonder how on earth we get around and survive in big cities like London and Manchester. The short answer is - with great difficulty. This isn't because Barney isn't a good worker (he is brilliant), but people think they are somehow above the law. Going out to eat and travelling in taxis should be relatively straightforward activities, but in my life they are some of the hardest.
In the six months I have had Barney, I have been refused entry in four different cases and have been challenged about having him with me at least twice a week. The Equality Act states that all service providers have to make 'reasonable adjustments' to allow a disabled person to access a service - keeping your guide dog is accepted as such an adjustment. However, 75% of all guide dog owners have been turned away from somewhere in the last year and 49% in the last six months alone. Guide dog owners can take such offenders to court and have them fined, but that requires the owner to have the willpower (and the money) to take on big companies. The prosecutions last year you could count with your fingers, yet 3,500 incidents occurred. Something's not quite right here.
Further, if you have a visual impairment and the first question a lawyer asks is 'what was the number plate?' you're off to a bad start. I have had numerous taxis speed off on me, restaurants kick me out because of health and safety, and an untold number of business owners suggest I either give Barney up or 'bring a carer with you'.
Here's my view, whilst the law is well intended, it doesn't fix the problem. One colleague of mine recently labelled the law 'weak' - he's right. Evidence from France and the Republic of Ireland show that a firmer law which involves the police with on the spot fines solves the issue with fines starting at £1,000. I started a Government Petition on this very subject last year and aquired an impressive 2,984 signatures in 6 months, so there is a desire for change. Awareness training is always useful, but guide dog charities simply can't afford to train everyone. Besides, you don't train people not to discriminate based on ethnicity or gender, why is disability any different? Imagine what this does to the confidence of blind people when we are still made to feel less than wanted or fully protected by law.
We are the Party that brought in Disability Living Allowance and the Disability Discrimination Act. It's time for us to take the lead once more and give guide dog owners the protection that they so richly deserve.