Government must act on disabled politicians, says equality watchdog


The equality watchdog has called on the government to do more to boost the number of disabled people involved in politics.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) made the call in its submission to a UN inquiry into the rights of disabled people to participate in political and public life, which is due to be presented to the Human Rights Council in March.

Five years on from the Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation, only a handful of its recommendations have been implemented, and the number of self-described disabled MPs has dropped from six to just two, the Tory MPs Paul Maynard and Robert Halfon.

This comes as the proportion of female, minority ethnic and openly lesbian, gay and bisexual MPs is increasing.

If representation in the Commons was proportionate to the population, there would be at least 65 disabled MPs, said EHRC.

But the commission said there was “an information black hole” about the number of disabled MPs because one of the committee’s recommendations – for the House of Commons to collect data on under-represented groups – had not been implemented.

Despite the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities including the right for disabled people to enjoy full and equal participation in political life – and 20 years on from the first Disability Discrimination Act – EHRC said there were concerns that “the number of disabled MPs in the UK has decreased rather than reach proportionate levels”.

Emily Brothers (pictured), a former senior manager with the EHRC and now a high-profile disabled Labour politician, welcomed the commission’s report and called for “decisive and renewed action”.

While at the EHRC, she led on its Pathways to Politics research, which informed the speaker’s conference.

One of EHRC’s recommendations in this week’s report to the UN is for the government to reopen the Access to Elected Office fund, which from 2012 to March 2015 offered grants to disabled people to pay for their additional impairment-related costs in standing for election as a councillor or MP.

The scheme is now lying dormant after its government funding ran out just before the general election, and it is now subject to an independent review.

Brothers was able to use the fund to pay for support workers to help her campaign as a Labour candidate at the general election, but because the fund is now closed she was unable to secure the support she needed in the battle to become Labour’s candidate for Croydon and Sutton at next year’s elections to the Greater London Assembly (GLA).

She said: “I had no funding for additional costs arising from disability, so I had to pay for help from my own purse.

“That meant I couldn’t pay for a leaflet, putting me at a disadvantage. Many people wouldn’t have been able to pay for support and that is likely to be the case for me in the future.

“Disabled people need a level playing-field. The access fund provided me with a fair opportunity to fight the general election, whereas it was an uphill struggle to secure a nomination for a GLA constituency without adequate support.”

Brothers said she was “very disappointed” that the number of disabled MPs had fallen.

She said: “What we need is a fairer and more proportionate electoral system that then leads to parties making selection decisions using a combination of factors, not least diversity.

“Disabled people seeking political office obviously need to deliver, but so do non-disabled people and this isn’t always the case.”

She will be speaking at a fringe event on increasing diversity in politics, at the Green party annual conference on 26 September.

Another of the key EHRC recommendations is for the UK government to implement section 106 of the Equality Act 2010, which requires political parties to publish diversity data about their election candidates.

EHRC also wants the UK, Scottish and Welsh governments to deliver “targeted campaigns to raise awareness among disabled people of opportunities to stand for elected office, build confidence and tackle barriers”.

There are also recommendations for other bodies.

The commission says the House of Commons, the House of Lords Appointments Commission, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament should all collect regular, confidential disability data from their members in order to “identify barriers and track progress towards proportionate representation”.

For the House of Lords, this information should be used to “inform” future appointments.

EHRC says that all elected bodies should “demonstrate best practice” in providing practical support for elected members, which should include providing “fully accessible buildings and meetings”.

Deborah King, co-founder of Disability Politics UK, welcomed EHRC’s proposals, but said she was disappointed that there was no mention of job-sharing for MPs.

She said: “We have been campaigning for the law to be changed to allow job-sharing for MPs.

“This would enable disabled people and others who are unable to work full-time to participate in the Commons.

“We would like the Speaker’s Conference to be re-opened to hear proper evidence about how job-sharing for MPs would work.

“John McDonnell MP proposed a bill to change the law to allow job-sharing for MPs in 2012.

“As he has now become a member of the shadow cabinet we will be asking for this to be discussed at shadow cabinet level, with a view to asking the government to re-open the Speaker’s Conference.”

Lord [Chris] Holmes, the EHRC disability commissioner and a Conservative peer, said: “Progress in increasing the numbers of disabled people in political life to date has been disappointingly slow. In fact, it’s likely that there has been a decrease.

“We all have a right to run for election. Failing to tackle the additional barriers that disabled people face in accessing political life is denying them this basic right.

“Fully including and engaging disabled people would strengthen politics. Without addressing these barriers, national and local politics will continue to miss out on valuable contributions from a significant part of the population.”

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