Election 2017: Elected office access fund closure was ‘undemocratic tragedy’

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Disabled politicians seeking to become MPs say the government’s decision to stop providing funding to help with their extra campaigning costs has made it harder for them to be successful in next month’s general election.

They have told Disability News Service (DNS) that the closure of the Access to Elected Office Fund (AEOF) was a “tragedy” and “undemocratic” and will have prevented many other disabled people from standing for election to parliament next month.

And they say there is no way to create a “level playing field” for disabled people seeking to enter parliament without such a fund.

AEOF offered grants to disabled people to pay for their additional impairment-related costs in standing for election as a councillor or MP, but has been lying dormant since the general election in May 2015 while the government claimed it was reviewing its effectiveness.

Two years ago, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), in its submission to a UN inquiry into the rights of disabled people to participate in political and public life, called for the fund to be reopened.

Now some of the disabled candidates standing for election next month have described how the government’s failure to reopen the fund has damaged their chances of election.

Mary Griffiths Clarke, standing for Labour in Arfon, north Wales, said she had had to rely on “incredible volunteer support” to plug the gap left by the AEOF closure.

She said: “To create a level playing field there needs to be a fund for disabled candidates.

“This will empower candidates to employ the support they need as professional services, and not be beholden to the goodwill of others, which may not be available, meet all their needs and may be removed on a whim.”

Griffiths Clarke has been pushing her party to provide financial support for its disabled candidates, and says Labour’s national executive committee has now agreed to make this available after the election.

She has also been lobbying Labour for disability equality training across the party, and says this will also happen.

Kelly-Marie Blundell, standing for the Liberal Democrats in Lewes, Sussex, said she believed the removal of AEOF will have prevented many disabled people from standing.

She said: “Personally I didn’t claim, but I know people with sight, hearing and mobility issues who have decided it is too difficult to stand in the snap general election without that additional support.

“It’s also worth noting, with one in 10 people in the UK with a disability, we need greater representation in politics and more must be done to level the playing field.”

Kirstein Rummery (pictured), a professor of social policy at the University of Stirling, who is standing for the Women’s Equality Party in Stirling, in central Scotland, said she needed help with transport and personal assistance, and attending hustings, meetings and canvassing had been “a bit of a nightmare” without the AEOF.

She said: “I am standing for a small party – [the]Women’s Equality Party – and I simply can’t physically get around to canvass as much as the other candidates because of this.”

She said she had “plenty of support” from the Access to Work scheme for her “day job”, and would be eligible for that support if she became an MP.

But she said: “It’s this in between bit, the campaign, where I am feeling the gap.”

And she added: “I am doing my best, obviously, and in a sense being a visibly disabled candidate sends a powerful message itself, but it would be a lot more powerful if I had the support to do the job properly.”

Mags Lewis, standing for the Green party in Leicester South, and the party’s disability spokeswoman, said she believed some disabled people might have decided not to seek election because of the extra costs they would face.

She said: “I think the lack of a fund is a tragedy, as we know there are already too few disabled people in politics as it is, so cutting funds has a negative impact practically and symbolically.

“The symbolism of having a fund is massive, as it shows disabled people they are valued, that government want to encourage us, that they realise we have something to offer.”

And she said the closure was “undemocratic” because it favoured those larger parties with the financial resources to pay for support. 

Another disabled Green party candidate, Philippa Fleming, who is standing in north-east Bedfordshire, said that if it was not for the party being willing to pay for some of her disability-related costs she would not have been able to stand, which she said was “grossly discriminatory”.

Liberal Democrat candidate Greg Judge, who is standing in Coventry South, said he did not apply to the fund when he stood at the last election, because “the application process was rather cumbersome and didn’t accommodate the transport support I was needing”.

But he added: “I do know of candidates with other impairments who did successfully apply and received the support they needed.”

He said: “For this snap general election, my wheelchair accessible van happens to be currently suffering a few lift issues.

“Had I been able to successfully apply to a new fund, emergency transport funding for local taxis would have been particularly helpful in attending election events.”

Deborah King, co-founder of Disability Politics UK, said: “We are becoming a society where the survival of the fittest is the organising principle.

“The failure of the UK political parties to get the Access to Elected Office Fund back before the general election is lamentable.

“Disabled people across the country see a House of Commons which takes profound decisions about disabled people’s lives, but which doesn’t enable us to be part of the process.”

Two disabled Tory ministers and election candidates, Robert Halfon and Paul Maynard, declined to respond to questions about the fund.

Another disabled candidate, Marie Rimmer, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, also declined to comment.