The Equality Act 2010: the impact on disabled people Contents

Chapter 12: Participation in politics

508.Article 29 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities requires States Parties to “guarantee to persons with disabilities political rights and the opportunity to enjoy them on an equal basis with others”, and in particular to “ensure that persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in political and public life on an equal basis with others, directly or through freely chosen representatives, including the right and opportunity for persons with disabilities to vote and be elected.” In March 2012 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that disabled people continue to encounter legal, physical and communication barriers in exercising those rights.

509.As we mentioned in paragraph 76, the UN Disability Committee is expected to examine the United Kingdom’s compliance with the Convention later this year. In anticipation of this, in September 2015 the EHRC published a report Smoothing the Pathway to Politics for Disabled People.737 It is clear from this that where data are collected–and in too many cases they are not–generally speaking they show that in national, regional and local elected bodies, the proportion of disabled people is well below the proportion in the population. At the 2015 general election two disabled members of the House of Commons retired, and a further two were not re-elected. This left only two members who, at the date of the EHRC report, described themselves as disabled people. 16% of working age adults have a disability; the same proportion would require over 100 disabled members.

510.One of the principal obstacles in the way of disabled people standing for election is the extra cost which they may incur in campaigning, compared to non-disabled people. In 2012 the Government set up an Access to Elected Office for Disabled People Fund to support a range of activities that are essential to standing for selection as a candidate by a political party, and activities essential to standing for election, for example, canvassing and attending election hustings. Other activities, such as taking part in public meetings to discuss local issues, could be considered appropriate especially if other candidates in the election being contested were expected to attend. The amount of funding disbursed across the country and to different political parties varied, with those in London and the South East of England applying for and receiving the most, and Labour candidates applying for and receiving the most.

511.David Buxton told us: “The British Deaf Association very much welcomed the Coalition Government’s Access to Elected Office for Disabled People Fund, which was vitally positive for deaf people in getting involved in the political process and having access to the election process. It was very successful, so I wish to commend that process.”738 He stressed that there was a real challenge for any deaf person who wants to get involved in local or national politics. “Having an interpreter on a platform is useful, but it is not necessarily the answer. It does not give me the opportunity to discuss with delegates in the hall … that is where there is a gap in terms of bringing the deaf community in to engage with politics in this country.”739

512.The Fund closed for applications on 31 March 2015. The Administrator published figures showing that in the three years of the Fund 109 applicants were granted a total of £271,260. An evaluation of the Fund is being undertaken to consider the extent to which it removed barriers to disabled people’s participation in public life. David Buxton said: “It is a shame to provide something and take a step back so soon afterwards.”740 In reply to a written question from Caroline Lucas MP, on 22 December 2015 Caroline Dinenage MP said that the evaluation would be published “in due course”, and that an announcement regarding the future of the fund was anticipated “early in 2016”.741 At the date this report was agreed no announcement had yet been made. We hope it will be made soon, and will result in funding being made available for future elections.742

513.The second main obstacle to disabled people taking part in politics is that, especially in the case of MPs, this is a full time job, something which is not always feasible for disabled people. Disability Rights UK told us that “Requiring MPs to work full time is a barrier that can prevent a disabled person from standing for elected office as they may not be physically and/or mentally able to manage the demands of the role.”743 They supported the concept of changing the law to allow MPs to job share, suggesting that this would be a reasonable adjustment to the existing practice. This was particularly the argument of Disability Politics UK, who would like to see “working part time as an MP [becoming] one of the accepted routes into elected political office.”744 They drew our attention to the 10-minute rule Bill introduced in 2012 by John McDonnell MP, and to the explanatory memorandum giving responses to some of the most commonly raised difficulties.

514.It is certainly the case that the problems of disabled people will become better known, and solutions to them are more likely to be found, if more disabled people can participate in politics at national and local level. A change in the law to allow more than one member to represent a constituency might well be of assistance to disabled people, but could hardly be limited to them. The Electoral Commission, in their July 2015 report to Parliament on the May 2015 UK General Election, stated: “we received several queries before and during the nomination period about whether two or more people could jointly stand for election as MP for a constituency and share the role between them. The issue was raised with particular regard to disabled people and parents of young children …”745

515.We have felt it right to draw attention to the difficulties of including disabled people, and other would-be part-timers, as elected MPs. But this would be a far-reaching change going well beyond an adjustment for disabled people, and is outside our terms of reference.

516.We note that, where legislation is not needed, much can be and is done by Parliament adjusting its practices and procedures. In this House, members of this Committee have in the past benefited from such adjustments; and on 8 July 2015 the House agreed a motion allowing members of the Committee with restricted mobility to vote in the room in which the Committee was meeting. This House has a significant number of disabled members, and we are particularly grateful to those who gave us written and oral evidence.

517.The existing law has not prevented disabled people from being elected and re-elected as MPs, or being members of this House, but the number of disabled members of both Houses is woefully small. As is well known, Jack Ashley MP was profoundly deaf for much of his time as an MP, and of his time in this House,746 but developed methods of following parliamentary proceedings which have been of assistance to others. David Blunkett MP became the first blind Cabinet Minister.747 Dame Anne Begg MP, the first wheelchair user for over a century to be a member of the House of Commons, was Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee for five years.748 These are wholly exceptional people. Adjustments could and should be made to assist any disabled person who wishes to embark on a political career.

737 Equality and Human Rights Commission, Smoothing the Pathway to Politics for Disabled People (September 2015): [accessed 2 March 2016]

738 Q 68 (David Buxton)

739 Ibid.

740 Ibid.

741 Written Answer HC19860, Session 2014–15

742 On 20 January 2016 Caroline Lucas MP and 40 other members tabled an early day motion “That this House … notes the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s September 2015 recommendation that the Government reopens the Fund … and calls on the Government to act on that recommendation as a matter of urgency, so as to benefit disabled candidates planning to stand in local and regional elections in May 2016.”

743 Written evidence from Disability Rights UK (EQD0105)

744 Written evidence from Disability Politics UK (EQD0056)

745 Electoral Commission, The May 2015 UK elections: Report on the administration of the 7 May 2015 elections, including the UK Parliamentary general election (July 2015) p 57: [accessed 2 March 2016]

746 Rt Hon Jack Ashley MP, CH, later Rt Hon Lord Ashley of Stoke.

747 Rt Hon David Blunkett MP, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, subsequently Home Secretary and Secretary of State for Work and Pensions; now Rt Hon Lord Blunkett. We are grateful to Lord Lexden for pointing out to us that Henry Fawcett MP, the great Cambridge teacher turned Liberal MP, who was blind, was appointed Postmaster-General by Gladstone in 1880, but because of his blindness was not given a Cabinet post. On 28 April 1880 he wrote to his parents: “I shall be a Privy Councillor, but shall not have a seat in the Cabinet. I believe there was some difficulty raised about my having to confide Cabinet secrets; this objection, I think, time will remove.”

748 She was also a member of the Joint Committee which conducted pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill for the Disability Discrimination Act 2005.

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