The parliamentary group set up to campaign on disability rights nearly 50 years ago is to be chaired for the first time by a non-disabled politician.
The all-party parliamentary disability group (APPDG) was set up by Jack (later Lord) Ashley, the UK’s first Deaf MP, in 1969, and until this year had always had a disabled MP or peer as a chair or co-chair.
But the new chair of the all-party group is the SNP MP and clinical psychologist, Dr Lisa Cameron.
New rules introduced by MPs in May mean that only an MP can now chair an all-party group, but the rules do allow a peer to join them as co-chair.
The group’s previous co-chairs were both disabled people, Baroness [Jane] Campbell and Labour’s Anne McGuire, who retired as an MP in May.
Baroness Campbell (pictured), who chaired and co-chaired the group for six years after Lord Ashley stepped down, said she had not been involved in choosing the group’s new chair.
She said: “I’m sure disabled MPs (of which there are not many) were approached but probably declined for what may have been a host of reasons – including workload – so these officers were therefore appointed.
“As you know, peers can no longer chair APPGs, which is a shame as there are far more passionate disabled members of the House of Lords [than are]found in the Commons. I guess we are where we are.”
Philip Connolly, policy and development manager for Disability Rights UK, which runs the secretariat for the all-party group, said: “It is a fact that many of the decisions about disabled people are made by non-disabled people.
“Many non-disabled people have made many helpful decisions about the welfare and opportunities available to disabled people.
“I am pleased that the chair and vice-chair wish to offer their experience and influence to the work of the [APPDG], especially at a time when there are so few MPs who have disabilities or long-term health conditions themselves.”
He said all parliamentarians had been invited to the meeting at which the chair and vice-chair had been elected.
The new vice-chair of the committee, according to the parliamentary website, is the Tory MP and armed forces veteran Johnny Mercer, who is also not a disabled person.
But DR UK said that Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson and Baroness [Celia] Thomas had been appointed as additional vice-chairs of the group.
Baroness Grey-Thompson, one of several active disabled peers in the House of Lords, said she believed the rule change had affected many all-party groups.
The crossbench peer, and retired Paralympian, said: “There are less disabled MPs than peers.
“I think it is imperative that we ensure that the topics that are raised at the APPDG inform and influence both Houses.”
She added: “I don’t know either MP very well, so need to rectify this.”
Baroness Thomas, a Liberal Democrat peer, said she did “not feel strongly” about the APPDG having a non-disabled chair.
She said: “I think it is fine to have people who are not disabled, because in a way what we want is for the message about disability needs to be mainstream. We don’t just want disabled people to talk to disabled people.”
She said that Mercer already had a high profile, which “could be very good for us”.
She added: “What is sad is that there aren’t a lot of disabled MPs. That is the thing that is a great shame.”
By the end of today (22 October), neither Cameron nor Mercer had returned calls from Disability News Service.