While disabled people have a vital contribution to make to public and political life, they are significantly under-represented throughout our political system. The reality is that Parliament is nowhere near reflecting the proportion of disabled people in the UK, and local government reveals a similar story in terms of the level of under-representation.
The consequence of this is that the quality of our government suffers from the existing lack of representation. As the Government presses ahead with a wealth of reforms that will have a real effect on disabled people’s lives, it is essential that their voices are being heard – now more than ever.
Tackling under-representation of disabled people
The different barriers that prevent disabled people from standing for elected positions have been widely examined by the Speaker’s Conference on parliamentary representation a few years ago. The Government has already acted upon some of the recommendations, for instance by committing to establish a dedicated fund to address the extra costs faced by disabled people in standing for election.
We know the additional financial disadvantage – arising, for example, from the cost of employing an interpreter or from the extra cost of taking a taxi rather than a bus due to the inaccessibility of transport – is a real concern to many disabled people who want to put themselves forward and stand for election. Over the last months, Scope has been working with the Government to help develop the fund.
With the fund set to become operational by later this year, this will no doubt represent a crucial moment in terms of improving disabled people’s participation in public life. In the meantime, we are seeing welcome progress on a number of other proposals.
Following the consultation last year, the Government is now publishing guidance for political parties to ensure that parties are clear about their legal obligations. Many disabled people fear that their reasonable adjustment requirements would not be met if they were to stand for election.
In light of this, the guidance is welcome indeed. All political parties have important roles to play in making sure that disabled people feel confident about seeking support and are provided with the reasonable adjustments they need, thus enabling them to perform to the best of their ability.
In addition, the Government is also currently working with disabled people and disabled people’s organisations to develop a training package for disabled people wishing to access elected office – which is due to be launched in the months to come.
We still have a long way to go before there is any prospect of achieving an equal representation of disabled people in public life. More needs doing, but as Lynne Featherstone, the Minister for Equalities, writes, “These policies are just the start of what we are doing to make Parliament and councils more representative of the people they serve.”
What is absolutely clear – and as the Minister acknowledges – is the positive effect this would bring in terms of decision-making: “As the Minister for Equalities, it seems obvious to me our democratic institutions make the best decisions when they have a mix of people with different skills, backgrounds and experiences, from right across the country.”