We need more disabled politicians – so don’t stop them standing for...

We need more disabled politicians – so don’t stop them standing for election | Frances Ryan

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With only a week to go until the local elections in many parts of England, there’s one electoral shakeup the government wasn’t counting on: the fight for equality for disabled politicians. This month, three would-be MPs from across the political spectrum – each of them with a disability – launched a legal challenge against the government to force it to reinstate the access to elected office fund, the £2.6m pot of money intended to help disabled candidates campaign on an equal footing to any non-disabled rival.

To really understand why this matters, we need to go back to 2012 when the fund was launched. For three years, disabled candidates were offered grants of between £250 and £40,000 to help meet any potential additional costs incurred in standing for election as a local councillor or MP. The money could be used for anything from assistive technology for blind people, to a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter, or a mobility car.

But in 2015, the government froze the fund. This happened just as ministers brought in a range of policies that disproportionately hurt disabled people. Three years later, the fund is still “under review”. This is despite the Green party’s Caroline Lucas leading calls by MPs from across the political spectrum in 2016 for the fund to be reinstated “as a matter of urgency” and a recommendation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission for it to reopen.

During last year’s general election, I reported on the consequences of freezing the fund for candidate Mary Griffiths Clarke, who has ME and was living out of her agent’s caravan because she couldn’t afford a hotel, and Emily Brothers, who is blind and hard of hearing, and was unable to run again because she had no way to pay a sighted guide to help her on the campaign trail.

Mary Griffiths Clarke, who has ME and was forced to live out of a caravan during the 2017 election campaign while fighting unsuccessfully to become Labour MP for Arfon, in north Wales.



Mary Griffiths Clarke, who has ME and was forced to live out of a caravan during the 2017 election campaign while fighting unsuccessfully to become Labour MP for Arfon, in north Wales. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

It was this that led Brothers to be part of the legal case launched this month, led by the campaign group More United. The others are Liberal Democrat David Buxton, who was Britain’s first ever deaf candidate who used sign language in his 1997 campaign, and Simeon Hart, who is also deaf and stood for the Green party in Oldham West and Royton for the 2015 byelection. Because the access fund had just been closed, Hart had to crowdfund to help raise more than £4,500 that he needed to hire a BSL interpreter for three weeks. 

There’s a risk that any push to finance politicians (or would-be ones) will be greeted with public scepticism. Even years after the expenses scandal, MPs getting subsidised dinners while low income children lose free school meals, for example, understandably cause ire. But just as sensible expenses for MPs prevent a situation in which only the wealthiest citizens are able to take power , There’s good reason for disabled candidates who incur extra costs to have financial support. The access fund means disabled would-be politicians have the same shot at gaining office as their non-disabled counterparts. Remove it and many disabled people cannot run for election at all.

Disabled people are already direly represented in politics. While around 16% of the working age adult population has a disability, they make up less than 1% of MPsFawcett Society data published this week shows that only two female MPs identify as disabled. Things are better at local level, though the data isn’t up to date: the Local Government Association (LGA) found in 2013 that 13.2% of councillors had a long-term health problem or disability(the LGA says it plans to update these figures in the Autumn).

The fight for the access to elected office fund is about fairness – but really, it’s as much about what sort of politics we want. Too often, white, non-disabled, wealthy men dominate power because of their advantage, not merit. Strip disability funding away and we simply lose more talented would-be politicians. This legal case may ensure that, come the next election, the only thing that matters is who’s the best candidate for the job.



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