Disabled activist could become first MP to use Independent Living Fund


newslatestA Labour campaigner and disability rights activist could be set to become the first MP who uses the Independent Living Fund (ILF).

Pam Duncan is seeking to be selected by her local Labour party to fight the Falkirk seat at the next general election in 2015. It is believed that if she is successful and is elected, she would also be only the second full-time wheelchair-user to become an MP.

A report in one Scottish national newspaper suggested that Duncan was the front-runner in the race to represent Labour in Falkirk, which was formerly a safe seat before the controversial MP Eric Joyce resigned from the party last year and became an independent after pleading guilty to assault in a Commons bar.

Candidates to fight the seat for Labour in 2015 will be interviewed and shortlisted by the local party on Tuesday (26 November), with the selection meeting on 8 December.

Duncan’s selection to fight the seat, if successful, could help push ILF even higher up the political agenda, as she has been campaigning against its closure in Scotland.

It comes at a vital time for the fund’s future, in the wake of three court of appeal judges upholding an appeal challenging the government’s decision to close the fund in 2015.

The Conservative minister for disabled people, Mike Penning, is currently rethinking the closure decision, made by his predecessor, Esther McVey.

Duncan has been a user of ILF for 13 years and says the support from personal assistants (PAs) that it provides has been “absolutely pivotal” in her life.

She said: “If I hadn’t had support from ILF, I wouldn’t have PAs with me and so I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed, and I wouldn’t have been able to campaign, get a job, go to the shops…”

ILF acts as a top-up to social care provided by local authorities, and ensures that more than 18,000 disabled people with the highest support needs can live independently in the community.

Duncan said she was strongly in favour of keeping ILF open, but also – like many disabled activists – would like to see social care dealt with in the same way as healthcare: free at the point of need, and funded from general taxation.

Duncan, a policy officer with Inclusion Scotland, has already experienced Westminster working life, having enjoyed a spell as an intern with Baroness [Jane] Campbell at a time when the disabled peer was working on the joint committee on human rights inquiry into the implementation of disabled people’s right to independent living.

Duncan said she wanted to fight for disabled people in the face of the government’s “pernicious” policies, and “ensure that Labour party policy is focused on the rights of disabled people”.

She said it was important to have more disabled MPs, and added: “I think it is essential that we get a politics that looks more like the people it represents.”

Asked how – if she was elected – she would balance her commitment to disability rights with the needs of her constituents, she said: “I am a disabled woman. I am proud to be a disabled woman, and I have campaigned for the human rights of disabled people and will continue to do that.

“I am not standing because I am a disabled person, I am standing because I think I am the best person for the job.

“I would want to see disabled people’s rights championed at that level and would do everything in my power to do that.”

But she also said that everything she had achieved so far was “because of peer support from disabled people, so I absolutely will not forget that”.

She added: “I want to change the world for disabled people but I also want to stand for the hard-working people who have suffered at the hands of a Tory government.”

As well as campaigning to save ILF, Duncan has been prominent in fighting the government’s “bedroom tax”.

She told Labour’s Scottish conference earlier this year: “Has there ever been such an unintelligent, nasty, heartless solution to overcrowding?”

She also told the conference that the coalition was attacking the Equality Act “with a glee unseen since Thatcher’s assault on gay people in the 1980s”.

The Falkirk selection race is mired in controversy after allegations that the Unite union tried to fix the selection of their favoured candidate, Karie Murphy.

Murphy has now withdrawn from the race, despite being cleared by an internal inquiry, and Duncan is viewed by many as an attractive “unity” candidate, with her slogan: “A new voice for Labour. A fresh start for Falkirk.”

In a campaign video, Duncan says: “If we are to turn the page in Falkirk, we need a candidate who has overcome all odds. That’s why I’m standing. I’ve battled for everything I have in my  life, and this election will be no different.”

She adds on her website: “At the age of 18 months my family discovered that I had juvenile arthritis and by the age of five I was using a wheelchair.

“My mother and father never allowed me to feel downhearted – they taught me that a disabled child can reach the same heights as any other.”

She said she had “fought hard” throughout her life “first to stay in a mainstream school with my friends, then to get the support I needed to go on to university, graduate with a degree in psychology and a masters in health, then to enter the voluntary sector advocating for those disabled people who felt they had no voice”.

21 November 2013