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Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Government funding aimed at increasing access to elected posts may help disabled people to thrive in public life, but other issues also need to be addressed, campaigners have said.

The Government’s new Access to Elected Office Fund, worth £2.6 million, is meant to cover the additional costs a candidate might face in seeking to become a councillor, Police or Crime Commissioner, or Member of Parliament.

The funding follows a consultation in 2011 for views on eliminating the barriers to elected office.

The fund will be open for applications until March 2014.

Announcing the funding, the equalities minister Lynne Featherstone said: “The ten million disabled people in the UK are under-represented in public life and today we are making an important step towards levelling the playing field.

“This is about breaking down the physical, financial and cultural barriers that prevent many talented people from playing their part in political life.

“Encouraging disabled people to make their voices heard will not only help individuals fulfil their potential but enrich and improve our politics at local and national level.

The new support will first be applied to the election of Police and Crime Commissioners in November this year.

Anyone seeking election will be able to apply for a grant worth between £250 and £10,000.

Jane Cordell, who has a hearing impairment and whose career as a diplomat was cut short because the previous (Labour) government refused to fund her support needs, says that any measure that could support more disabled people to participate in public life is welcome.

But she says that more has to be done to enable people with costly support needs to stand a realistic chance of being elected on merit.

“The Government’s recognition that something must be done has to go with a fuller appreciation of the big picture. The Government is saying that it wants to have more representative MPs but there is an anomaly at the heart of government at the moment which I embody.”

What does she think the Government can do to address that?

“The fundamental point is encouraging confidence from the earliest age among people with disabilities that they will be able to play a fuller role. That can be about finding a mentor and promoting role models, which doesn’t need consistent funding.

“One of the things I regret most about not being able to continue in my Foreign Office career is not being able to use that clout as one of the first senior deaf people doing a job like that and which could have inspired others.”

Deborah King from the campaigning group Disability Politics UK says that she doubted whether £10,000 would be enough to help someone needing significant support.

“I welcome what the Government has done, but by announcing funding they have chosen the easy option. Political parties need to establish disability contact officers in each constituency who would welcome disabled people to become members.

“At the moment political parties are slow when it comes to making sure that their procedures and policies are disability friendly. A lot of them have political meetings in the evening and many disabled people find it hard to go to evening meetings. Parties would be better off having those meetings on a Saturday, for example.”

The disabled campaigner Linda Burnip said that she welcomed the funding, although she doubted it could help in her case.

“It’s not enough just to throw money at things, you have to make further adjust­ments to help disabled people participate. The only way that I could consider becoming an MP would be if I could share the job with someone else.”

Alice Maynard, Chair of the disability charity Scope said: “Disabled people face huge extra costs in everyday life as a result of their impairment and these extra costs can be amplified when running for elected office, leading to woeful under-representation.

“We are therefore delighted that the Government has launched the Access to Elected Office Fund which we believe marks an important step forward in increasing disabled people’s visibility and participation in society.

“For Scope, the launch of this fund marks the start of the journey to tackle the barriers disabled people face and give the confid­ence they need to stand for office, rather than the end.

“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.”

As part of its Access to Elected Office strategy, the Government has also announced an online training course for disabled people interested in pursuing a career in politics and internships for disabled people.

Disability Now