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Breaking down barriers

Source: Public Sector Executive July/Aug 2012

The Home Office has launched a £2.6m Access to Elected Office fund to give financial help to disabled people wanting to stand in elections. PSE discussed the initiative with equalities minister Lynne Featherstone MP.

The Government’s equalities strategy recognises that there are physical, financial and cultural barriers that can prevent talented disabled people from getting as involved in politics as they could.

Following a detailed consultation with disabilities organisations, equality groups and political parties in 2011, the Government has now launched its Access to Elected Office Strategy, which includes a fund to which disabled people can apply for financial aid in standing for office.

People wanting to stand in this November’s election for the first Police & Crime Commissioners will be the first eligible to apply for grants, ranging from £250 to £10,000, which could be used to cover transport, sign language interpreters, or extra transport or accommodation costs for a carer.

It will also be available to people standing in elections or by-elections to the House of Commons, to councils in England, including the GLA, and mayoral elections. Parish elections, European Parliament elections and elections to the devolved administrations and local authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are not covered.

‘That could be me’

PSE spoke about the strategy and the fund with equalities minister Lynne Featherstone, who told us: “Everyone should be able to participate, end of.”

She explained that there are a number of drivers behind the decision to offer financial support.

“One very important reason is role models,” she said. “If you don’t see it as being something you could do, whichever disability you have, then you may not relate it to yourself being able to do that. We’ve seen with other groups – with black and ethnic minorities, and women – if there’s a role model in place, then you think ‘that could be me’. If there’s no-one there like you, it’s not even necessarily in your mindframe.

“I’m a woman, and sometimes when I raise issues about women, I find things that may be forgotten if there are no other women in the room. It’s important to raise it: it would be lovely if everyone who didn’t have a disability raised all of the aspects, but because they don’t know that intimately, in the same way as someone who actually has a disability, then when decisions are made and issues are debated, you haven’t got that permanent voice.

“One would love to think that everyone raised it every time, but just in case it gets missed, then real representation is in the room. When you’re making a decision, the more brains, and the more types of people, the more experience you have in the room, the more likely the decision you make is to be right for everyone.”

The strategy also includes other elements, such as online training and paid internships for disabled candidates on the Speaker’s Parliamentary Placement scheme.

Opening up a closed world

Disability charity Scope had a big role in shaping the strategy, and its chair Alice Maynard welcomed the fund, which she said “marks an important step forward in increasing disabled people’s visibility and participation in society”.

She added: “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.”

Featherstone agreed, telling us: “There are those people who have been around politics, or have had a desire to stand, who may have found that the extra cost involved in standing for election when you have a disability has been off-putting. This will encourage them to take that step that they have never quite taken before.

“If they have taken it before, it will help them too; maybe they couldn’t afford it, and therefore it wasn’t as good an experience of participating in politics as they had hoped for.

“I very much hope that those who haven’t considered it before, because it just seems too steep a hill to climb, will actually think that it is possible, and access the fund to give them that first step on the rung.”

Winning isn’t everything

The minister added: “One of the important features is that it isn’t about winning. Obviously, we want more representation, that’s really important, but it’s also about taking part.

“If you’re serious about civic activity and you’ve got a track record of helping your community, or wanting to participate – because they will be criteria for the fund – then this will enable you to actually think about and stand for elected office, regardless of your chances of winning.

“Sometimes, even if you’re not disabled, you’ll stand for the first time and not get it, but then you’re encouraged to stand a second time. It’s part of the political process and everyone should be able to partake of it.”

Asked about the size of the fund, £2.6m, Featherstone said it was thought to be “a substantive amount” felt to enable enough people to come forward, but said she didn’t yet know whether it would be over-subscribed or under-subscribed. The fund, developed by the Home Office, Cabinet Office and DWP and independently administered by Digital Outreach Ltd, lasts until March 2014, when it will be evaluated for a potential future roll-out, assuming the money can be found to fund it.

Featherstone said that during the consultation into disabled people’s access to elected office, she heard people’s own stories about being put off by the extra costs of standing, showing there was not a level playing field.

She said: “I was talking to one person who said she would like very much to stand for elected office, but her disability meant she really needed to be accompanied. Otherwise, she couldn’t be sure of being safe, in terms of attending, say, a public meeting and getting back to her home.

“That would be a cost, if you had to pay someone to do that, or pay someone to come and sign for you. Obviously, when we evaluate [the fund] and when we see how many people come forward, that will be a significant step forward in understanding the role the financial aspect plays. It is more expensive, without any doubt, if you do have a disability, to even begin to compete on a level playing field.”

Help at every level

Clearly, because of the sheer number of elections to local authorities compared to seats at Westminster and other higher-level elections, a higher proportion of people at councillor level may be expected to apply.

Featherstone said there would not be criteria prioritising bids for funding from people standing for higher office.

She said: “It doesn’t matter what level of election they are going for. That’s immaterial.”

Applicants will need to provide information about their disability and the extra costs they face when they apply, as well as evidence of previous, relevant civic or political activity such as volunteering, being a school governor or magistrate, or student politics.

Parliamentarians give their views

Charles Walker, Conservative MP for Broxbourne, won widespread praise in June when he spoke out in Parliament about his mental health issues – he has lived with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) for more than 30 years.

Walker 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.”

Baroness Brinton, a Liberal Democrat peer in the House of Lords and trustee of the Christian Blind Mission, has rheumatoid arthritis, which causes pain and swelling in the joints.

Baroness Brinton had this advice for disabled candidates seeking elected office: “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.”

She said she got involved in politics because of a real desire to help people, to promote the philosophy and policies of her party, and because she was attracted to the casework and ‘championing’ side of being a councillor and portfolio holder, and then an MP, and her particular interest in education.

Her disability developed after she was selected to fight a target seat, and she chose to hide it as much as possible. She said: “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.”

Dame Anne Begg, Labour MP for Aberdeen South, has long campaigned for civil rights for disabled people. She was born with the rare genetic condition, Gaucher’s disease, which has resulted in her bones breaking regularly.

Dame Anne, the first full-time wheelchair user elected to Parliament, said: “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.”

She got into politics after the 1983 elections, starting out behind the scenes, helping out with things like running elections and becoming the secretary of her branch party. But then she decided to stand as an MP herself in 1997.

She said: “The biggest barrier for me was having faith in my ability to become an MP. If I had been left to my own devices, I would not have considered standing for an election. I was invited to stand for the 1997 elections for a constituency that was 40 miles away, partly because of the all-women shortlist that had been introduced but also because I had built up a good reputation and national profile due to my activities in the teaching profession.

“Despite this, I still needed encouragement from colleagues before considering running for an MP.”

Asked for tips for other disabled people thinking of standing, she said: “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.”

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