”Just go for it – we need more disabled MPs”

10 July 2012
ORIGINALLY FOUND HERE: http://www.publicservice.co.uk/feature_story.asp?id=20295

The first full-time wheelchair user to be elected to parliament, Dame Anne Begg, welcomes the new ‘Access to Elected Office’ strategy introduced by the Home Office

The government has announced a £2.6m fund designed to help disabled people overcome barriers to becoming councillors, Police and Crime Commissioners or MPs. The money will help meet the extra costs that disabled candidates incur such as transport or sign-language interpreters.

As well as the extra cash, the government announced a new online training and development package designed for disabled people who are interested in a political career.

The fund and online training are part of an ‘Access to Elected Office’ strategy which also includes paid internships for disabled candidates on the Speaker’s parliamentary placement scheme.

The strategy was developed following a consultation in May last year, which sought views on a range of measures designed to help disabled people overcome the barriers to getting elected. In developing the package, the government is said to have worked closely with political parties, disability organisations and wider equality groups.

Dame Anne Begg is a Labour Party politician for Aberdeen South who was born with the rare genetic condition Gauchers Disease which has resulted in her bones breaking regularly. She has been in parliament since 1997 and has always believed that disabled people should not be excluded from society.

The first full-time wheelchair user to be elected to parliament, had this advice for other disabled people thinking of standing in elections: “Just go for it! Be active in your local community or political party. Do not doubt your abilities and worry about people’s perceptions. If you can show that you have the right qualities to be a good MP, people will support and encourage you.”

Tory MP Charles Walker – who suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder – was elected to the House of Commons in May 2005 and campaigns on mental health issues.

He said: “Political parties need to ensure that they open to all people with talent, insight and understanding. Disability should not be a barrier to entering parliament because what counts is the quality of the person and their ability to make a thoughtful contribution to public life and the good governance of our country.”

And Baroness Brinton, a Liberal Democrat peer who has rheumatoid arthritis, advised prospective MPs: “Find an adviser who really understands both your disability and the electoral process. You are likely to have to overcome subtle as well as obvious challenges: identify them up front, and tackle them.”

But she added: “I hid my disability as much as possible, because I felt it would be used against me by difficult opponents in a hotly contested seat. This meant that I did too much. If I was doing it again, I would find someone to be my disability mentor, and help me respond to the specific challenges I face.”

Maria Miller, the minister for disabled people said: “Sadly some people still hold outdated views that disability – whether it’s physical or mental – isn’t compatible with elected office. If this misguided idea is left unchallenged, it means a huge amount of talent remains untapped and a huge amount of potential goes unfulfilled.

“That is why Access to Elected Office is so important. Disabled people have a wealth of first-hand experience of what works and what doesn’t work in the delivery of services. They have experience of what support disabled people really need and experience of how best to give disabled people a voice.

“And it is just this kind of first-hand experience which is invaluable in elected office, whether it’s at a local level in local authorities, on policing boards, or at a national level in parliament.”

Announcing the extra funding, the equalities minister Lynne Featherstone said: “The 10m disabled people in the UK are under-represented in public life and today we are making an important step towards levelling the playing field.”

She added: “This is about breaking down the physical, financial and cultural barriers that prevent many talented people from playing their part in political life. Encouraging disabled people to make their voices heard will not only help individuals fulfil their potential but will enrich and improve our politics at local and national level.”

Featherstone said that she hoped the extra cash would enable more disabled candidates to come forward for the Police and Crime Commissioner elections in November.

Alice Maynard, chair of the disability charity Scope commented: “Disabled people face huge extra costs in everyday life as a result of their impairment and these extra costs can be amplified for those who want to run for elected office meaning they are woefully under-represented.

“We are therefore delighted that the Government has launched the Access to Elected Office fund which we believe marks an important step forward in increasing disabled people’s visibility and participation in society. The key challenge facing all candidate offices across local authorities and political parties is how we can use this fund to attract more disabled candidates and diversify the often ‘closed’ world of local and national politics.”