Cristina Sarb, Scope
Reform of our welfare state has been high on the agenda since the Coalition Government took office. Like in many other areas, the Government has been pressing ahead with reforms at a rapid pace.
However, a concern that has been expressed by many has been the issue that decisions about reforms which will inevitably have a great impact on disabled people’s lives are currently being made without disabled people around the table.
The reality is that there is currently a huge gap in disabled people’s representation in politics, and not just in Westminster. Among local councillors – which is generally seen as a stepping stone onto national politics – only about 14 per cent reported that they were disabled according to the census in 2010.
This lack of disabled people’s representation in our politics at all levels is a sign of a long-standing deficit in our democracy. A step change is needed to boost the number of disabled people who stand for elected positions.
Given the low numbers of disabled people in political life, it is welcome that the Government has committed to act on this.
We are particularly pleased that they’ve taken on board one of the proposals that Scope has put forward to the Speaker’s Conference – and will be launching this week a dedicated fund to cover the additional financial costs of running for election that disabled people incur.
The fund is based on a recognition that extra costs – such as those arising from the cost of employing an interpreter for a selection interview or from the cost of taking a taxi rather than a bus due to the inaccessibility of transport – present a serious barrier for disabled people wanting to stand for elected office.
By aiming to tackle this additional financial disadvantage that disabled candidates face, the access to elected office fund will be instrumental in helping to achieve a more representative make-up of Parliament.
The issue of representation is hugely important, as is shown by the growing body of evidence that disabled people make a positive difference to the quality of decision-making and bring a fresh perspective.
We can also expect ensuring disabled people have a greater presence and voice in politics to improve attitudes towards disabled people. A Scope poll found that 79 per cent of disabled people believe that having more disabled politicians would have a positive effect on attitudes.
The opportunity we have at the moment is to re-imagine what we want politics to look like, and the representation of disabled people must be at the heart of the agenda.
We cannot afford not to act now. Unless we do, we are bound to witnesses trust in politics steadily ebbing away – with more disabled people losing confidence in a political system that fails to make their voices heard and doesn’t focus on the issues that matter to them.
As one of the respondents to our poll put it:
I really feel that until there are more disabled politicians with a high profile, there will never be a good understanding of the problems disabled people have to deal with”.
Accurate data is difficult to come by as there are no official figures on the number of disabled people who put themselves forward as candidates for election. But it has been estimated that we would need at least 65 disabled MPs if the House of Commons were truly reflective of the people it represents.
The launch of the access to elected office fund could be the moment where change starts.