Let disabled people speak for themselves

Disability Discrimination

Disabled people generally, and those in receipt of social security payments in particular, have been at the harsh end of this government’s policies and rhetoric. It is disgraceful that the most vulnerable are being asked to shoulder the lion’s share of the cuts.

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Labour MPs rightly hold a mirror up to this government and its record – their cuts, their bedroom tax, their war of words – but too often those are stories not in the first person, they are stories of others. Disabled people need to speak for themselves and have a place in the cockpit of the nation. The situation is about to get worse as David Blunkett stands down in 2015. And although Anne Begg is a huge asset to Parliament, which disabled people will be joining her and replacing Blunkett?

Tuesday’s National Executive Committee (NEC) equalities committee, and later the ‘org sub’, will be debating what Labour can do to better support disabled people seeking public office, especially those who want to stand for Parliament. The growing acceptance that our processes are not only expensive and timely, but exclusionary for some of the very voices that we should have on Labour’s benches, has led to a debate at the top of the party on the issue.

For those disabled people who want to go for selection, they face great challenges. Mark Cooper, disability campaigner, shed light this:

“I often am asked why aren’t there more disabled people in political office. The answer is a complicated one with factors such as the fact that not all selection meetings are in accessible venues or they think the campaign would be too exhausting for them. The underlying cause of it all, though, is that political parties are not accessible to disabled people and others. By access I do not mean physical access but I mean access to understanding what a party stands for. This is important because if a person does not relate to a party’s views then they will not join it and then possibly put themselves forward for selection to be a candidate.”

In the last year of the Labour government, Harriet Harman, as Minister for Women and Equality commissioned the Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation to look at many of these issues. In her submission she wrote:

“Disabled people are also held back from participating in civic life by time pressures. A study by the Office of Disability Issues showed that ten per cent of disabled people mentioned at least one attitudinal barrier to them getting more involved in clubs, groups and the local community. In addition, nine per cent of disabled people said that issues related to access prevented them from getting more involved, including transport or travel problems.”

Following the speaker’s conference in 2009-10, the Access to Elected Office for Disabled People Fund was created. They give bursaries to aspiring candidates of between £250 and £40,000 to help with the ‘additional disability-related costs’ of party selection processes.

While it is a huge step forward there are considerable problems with the fund. First, as it refers to on the front page of its website,  the ‘fund is a limited pot’. The public good of Parliament reflecting the very people it says it represents makes it worth extra money for this important cause, even when money is as tight as it is now. The Labour Party should commit to doing this when elected next May.

Second, the disabled person granted support has to meet the agreed costs upfront and claim back the money from the fund at a future date. This can be a considerable barrier for many disabled people seeking selection. Expecting disabled people, whether dependent on benefits or not, to have the accumulated funds and cash flow to not only cover the costs of selection, let alone the additional costs, is in too many cases just unacceptable.

There is a really easy solution to this. The Labour Party should act on behalf of the disabled applicant and step in the help their cash flow. The party can claim back these costs –  as a third party provider – from the Access to Elected Office for Disabled People Fund itself. This would cost the Labour party nothing but do a huge service to our disabled members afforded the opportunity to get additional funds but unable to make the initial outlay. Regional offices would be well places to provide these services.

In addition, the Labour Party should lobby the Speaker of the House of Commons and those who administer the Access to Elected Office for Disabled People Fund for further changes to the working of the fund.

Finally, the fund should develop a direct relationship with each of the political parties and their respective disability groups like the Labour Party Disabled Members’ Group. The fund’s advisory committee is made up from those with an ‘expertise in a range of disability and electoral issues. The members of the panel are independent and do not represent the views of any political party or organisation.’ A direct dialogue, if not a reference group made up of the political parties themselves, could improve the service and nature of the fund considerably.

There are also problems closer to home. Direct discrimination from our own members is much too common. It is a hard truth but we have to face up to it. The comments, coded or otherwise, have no place in the party of equality. Dealing with these issues is not easy – if they were it would have already been sorted. With real urgency, the Labour Party should work with the Labour Women’s Network, BAME Labour, LGBT Labour and the Labour Party Disabled Members’ Group to develop complaints procedures that deals swiftly and appropriately with allegations of sexism, racism, homophobia or discrimination against people with disabilities.

For too long action has been promised but results have been lacking. This week is the chance for this NEC to start to correct that. The next NEC has an obligation to follow this through and take it further.