A new disability policy thinktank has launched a report that calls for action to tackle the under-representation of disabled people in politics, but without revealing its own close links to the Conservative party.
The Disability Policy Centre (DPC) describes itself as an “independent” thinktank, without admitting that all three of its founding directors are closely linked to the party.
Both of the authors of the Breaking Down Barriers report – DPC directors Celia Hensman and Chloe Schendel-Wilson – currently have roles within the Conservative party, but neither of those positions are mentioned in the report.
Hensman fails to make any mention in the report of her current role as an executive of the Conservative Disability Group, or her past role as manager of Richmond Park and North Kingston Conservatives, or indeed any links to the party.
Schendel-Wilson mentions in the report that she was previously head of outreach for the Conservative party, but she does not say that her current role is as co-founder of the party’s Abilty2Win campaign, which is designed to help more disabled Conservatives into elected office.
DPC’s third director was Mustafa Tariq Mohammed, whose company Genix Healthcare runs a string of dental clinics, and who donated more than £400,000 to the Conservative party between 2013 and 2019, either personally or through companies he controls.
He resigned as a director in January, a few weeks after DPC’s links to the party emerged.
DPC refused this week to say which individuals or organisations fund its work, but Hensman said in a statement that DPC “value openness and transparency and will always continue to be so”.
Hensman said that neither she nor Schendel-Wilson were “hiding our membership of any political party, and like many others in the third sector who are involved in a political party, this does not preclude our ability to run a cross-party organisation”.
The DPC report includes a supportive comment from the disabled Labour peer Lord [David] Blunkett, who calls for investment in “practical and necessary measures, engaging and changing attitudes”.
But a spokesperson for Lord Blunkett told Disability News Service yesterday (Wednesday) that he had not previously been aware of DPC’s close links with the Conservative party, that he would “always encourage transparency” to “avoid suspicion of hidden agendas”, and that he was “concerned” about DPC’s lack of transparency.
She said that he would have supported the policy paper if DPC had been transparent about its connections with the Conservative party because “disability rights must, and should, transcend party political allegiances”.
But he declined to say if he regretted supporting the policy paper in the light of DPC’s failure to be transparent about its political connections.
Pauline Castres, a disabled activist and policy expert on disability, climate and global health, who has previously been critical of DPC’s lack of transparency, said: “A think tank that presents itself as independent must be able to fully disclose how it’s funded, especially when its founding members are so close to a political party.
“If the DPC really ‘values openness and transparency and will always continue to be so’ then they need to walk the walk, especially when they are so close to a political party whose record on disability rights is very poor to say the least.”
The report was launched this week with support from the minister for disabled people, Chloe Smith, who described it as “thought-provoking”.
The DPC report appears to mirror many of the findings of a government-funded report – Barriers to Elected Office for Disabled People – which was published last August and found that disabled people in England and Wales faced a “multitude” of barriers across the different stages of the political process, from activism and considering running for office, to the selection and election processes, and post-election.
Last year’s Barriers to Elected Office report conducted in-depth interviews with 45 disabled people who were MPs, former MPs, local councillors, prospective parliamentary candidates, local candidates, and those who had considered standing for election or had tried to get selected, for Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives, the Green Party, and as independents.
The long-awaited report was commissioned in December 2018 by the Government Equalities Office and published alongside the National Disability Strategy (NDS).
The new DPC report makes repeated positive references to the government’s NDS, without mentioning that it has been declared unlawful by the high court.
It also includes a lengthy section praising the government’s Disability Confident employment scheme, without highlighting that it has been widely criticised for its limited impact on increasing the number of disabled people in work.
DPC says it carried out a survey for its report, as well as interviews and group discussions.
Of those surveyed, 100 per cent agreed that political parties do not do enough to ensure that disabled people have the same opportunities as non-disabled people, while 100 per cent also agreed that the government was not doing enough to “plug the gap of the extra financial implications that are burdened onto disabled people” who wish to seek election at local or national level.
But Hensman had failed by noon today (Thursday) to say how many people took part in the survey, and how many of them were disabled people.
She said only that there had been an “overwhelming” response to the research, with “contributions from over 70 individuals”, and that there was participation from members of the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, SNP and Green parties, as well as independents.
Among the DPC report’s recommendation is for an “extensive review” of access in the Houses of Parliament, and a similarly “extensive review” of the accessibility of council buildings across the UK.
It also calls on the government to reinstate a funding scheme for disabled candidates for political office.
The government has already promised in its National Disability Strategy to introduce a new scheme from next month for disabled people seeking political office.
Successive Conservative-led governments have previously refused to set up a permanent fund.
The short-lived Access to Elected Office Fund (AEOF) was scrapped in 2015 and eventually replaced three years later with the temporary EnAble fund in response to a legal action taken by a trio of disabled politicians who warned that the failure to reopen AEOF breached the Equality Act.
AEOF had only been set up in 2012 following Liberal Democrat pressure on their Tory coalition partners; it funded disability-related costs for candidates in parliamentary and other elections, before it was closed by the Conservatives after the 2015 general election.
The EnAble fund ran from 3 December 2018 to 31 March 2020.
The DPC report also calls on political parties to report annually to the minister for disabled people on the measures they are taking to break down barriers to engagement for disabled people; carry out internal reviews on how to include and promote disabled members; and promote accessible campaigning methods.
Picture: Chloe Schendel-Wilson (left) and Celia Hensman
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…