Government policy on supporting disabled candidates to stand for elected office is in chaos after the Cabinet Office suggested it could offer funding to those standing to be police and crime commissioners (PCC), but not potential local councillors.
One Deaf Labour candidate who stood in last month’s general election said she was “speechless and angry” at the government’s suggestion.
The Government Equalities Office has already been accused of breaching the Equality Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities after refusing to ensure a level playing-field for disabled candidates in last month’s general election.
It insisted instead that it was the responsibility of political parties to meet the disability-related costs of their candidates.
Because of this insistence, many general election candidates were forced to pay for these extra costs themselves, even if they had high support needs.
The government has now suggested that it could offer retrospective payments to disabled candidates who stood in the general election, after initially refusing to pay those costs.
It is also considering providing funding for PCC candidates standing in elections in May to 40 posts across England and Wales.
But it is refusing to offer the same consideration to disabled people seeking to stand in May’s local elections, even though they will be taking place on the same day in more than 100 local authorities in England.
Deborah King, co-founder of Disability Politics UK, said: “Disability Politics UK is concerned about the confusion in the government’s proposals.
“Local elections are a vital part of the democratic structure in the UK and disabled people may need support for their additional costs in order to stand as candidates.”
She added: “Putting responsibility for funding disabled candidates’ extra costs onto political parties won’t work.
“A permanent government fund which pays the disability-related expenditure that some disabled candidates have will ensure a level playing-field.
“It ought to be a fund which covers all paid elected offices.”
King also called for a change in the law to allow job-sharing in elected office, including for MPs.
Kerena Marchant, who stood against Maria Miller, the Tory former minister for disabled people, in Basingstoke at the general election, said she was “speechless and angry” after being told the government’s new position by Disability News Service (DNS).
Marchant, who is Deaf, spent thousands of pounds paying British Sign Language interpreters during the campaign.
She said the Cabinet Office appeared to assume that disabled candidates could spend thousands of pounds on their own support during election campaigns “without any guarantee that it will be paid back”.
She said: “Tory candidates may have assets and money or big donors but not all candidates do.
“I’m a widowed single parent with a disabled child to support and I’ve really struggled to pay for support.
“Thankfully the Labour party gave me a candidate bursary and people fundraised and volunteered.”
She added: “My campaign was compromised as I didn’t have enough support from selection to election.
“There has to be a system that is accessible, transparent and not reliant on privilege that can support a disabled candidate from selection to election.”
Last month, David Buxton (pictured), a Deaf Liberal Democrat candidate in the general election, had to raise thousands of pounds to cover the cost of sign language interpreters during the campaign. He has since threatened legal action against the government.
Buxton and two other disabled politicians achieved a “partial victory” over the government in 2018 after taking a legal case against the decision to close the Access to Elected Office Fund (AEOF) in 2015.
They forced the government to set up the temporary EnAble fund after their lawyers warned that its failure to reopen AEOF breached the Equality Act.
AEOF was set up in 2012, following Liberal Democrat pressure on their Tory coalition partners, and it funded disability-related costs for candidates in parliamentary and other elections, before it was closed by the Conservatives after the 2015 general election.
But the EnAble fund, which runs out in March, was not open to candidates standing in the general election.
Buxton said the government’s latest announcement was “shocking but unsurprising”.
He said: “The PCC elections are on the same day as local council elections so it’s incongruous that disabled candidates may have their disability-related costs covered for one set of elections but not the either.
“We have to keep pressuring them until they understand the inequitable and discriminatory position they are putting people in.”
He said the government’s actions were “clearly discriminatory – contravening both the Equality Act and the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
“Are we to be further marginalised and excluded from the political scene?”
Kamran Mallick, chief executive of Disability Rights UK (DR UK), which administers the EnAble fund, said: “Disability Rights UK is adamant that it is right that people are able to stand for election without incurring costs related to their disabilities and impairments where reasonable adjustments can be made.
“DR UK believes it is right that such costs are covered by the EnAble fund.
“DR UK has campaigned for a considerable time, and continues to campaign, for the EnAble fund to cover the costs of local council, PCC and general elections.
“DR UK understands that the current restrictions on the fund are frustrating to potential candidates.
“DR UK has shared in this frustration and is actively pushing for such candidates to receive ongoing parity of funding.
“The Government Equalities Office had, and now the Cabinet Office has, our detailed request for resources, and we are actively engaging with the Cabinet Office to support candidates.”
Last week, the Cabinet Office bragged about changing the rules to allow disabled candidates for police and crime commissioner elections to exclude their disability-related expenditure from campaign spending limits. The exemption had already been applied to other elections.
But there was no mention in the announcement of the EnAble fund.
When DNS asked the Cabinet Office if the end of the EnAble fund would expose disabled people standing in PCC and local and general elections to further discrimination, a spokesperson said it was considering if the fund could be used to provide funding for PCC candidates after 31 March.
She said the government was also “looking at options to provide retrospective payments” to eligible disabled candidates at last month’s general election.
But when asked why it was considering funding for candidates in PCC elections but not local or future general elections, the Cabinet Office refused to comment further.
It has previously insisted that the interim EnAble fund was “intended to give political parties room to establish their own processes” and that the parties were “fully informed that the fund was for a limited period, and strongly encouraged to put support for their candidates in place”.
A note from the editor:
Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.
Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…