The Speaker of the House of Commons has pledged to be the “disabled person’s champion” in the battle to improve access to democracy.
John Bercow MP, who has a track record of campaigning on disability issues, was speaking to a joint meeting on accessible democracy, held by several all party parliamentary groups, including those on disability, autism and learning disability.
He was speaking two months after the historic speaker’s conference on parliamentary representation – which he chaired – reported on ways to increase the number of disabled, female and minority ethnic MPs.
He told the meeting, which was packed with campaigners with learning difficulties, that he wanted the next parliament to “hit the ground running from day one” in improving access, through the induction packs given to new MPs, in the development of accessible facilities in the Houses of Parliament and in the way the House of Commons operates.
He added: “For as long as I am Speaker, I will try to be the disabled person’s champion.
“I hope you will take me at face value and judge me on my record.”
Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP who was vice-chair of the speaker’s conference, said political parties had started to “get their house in order” but not all of them yet recorded whether their parliamentary candidates were disabled.
Jenny Watson, chair of the Electoral Commission, told the meeting that providing equal access to polling stations for disabled voters was “fundamental to democracy”, but added: “I know we are not there yet.”
She said the commission’s research had found dissatisfaction with the voting process was higher among disabled people.
And she said the commission would use its guidance on the accessibility of voting materials to push for change, and would produce a report on access to polling stations at this year’s general election.
She said: “For large parts of our community, voting is anything but accessible. Things are getting better but I want to reassure you that we will keep this under review.”
Eve Rank, a consultant and campaigner with a learning difficulty and a former commissioner with the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), said the DRC had found four years ago that people with learning difficulties living in residential homes were having their voting cards thrown away by staff. She said she couldn’t understand why this was still happening.
Watson said the EC wanted to know if and where this was happening, and if local authorities were not putting people with learning difficulties in residential care on the voting register.
10 March 2010