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People with Disabilities Standing for Elected Office

Volume 811: debated on Monday 22 March 2021


Moved by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what support they intend to provide to assist people with disabilities with the additional financial costs associated with standing for elected office.

My Lords, it is the Government’s ambition to see more disabled people in public office. The Government have been clear that the responsibility for supporting disabled candidates sits with political parties and that the EnAble Fund was an interim measure to give parties time to put their own support in place. Ministers wrote to the main parties twice in 2019 to ask them how they intend to support their candidates on a long-term basis.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his response. I am sure he would agree that it is important that people with a disability are represented in Parliament. Can he tell the House how many MP’s have a disability, and, in the last election where financial support was given to candidates with a disability, how many candidates were supported?

My Lords, I do not have all those specific figures. In relation to the EnAble Fund, 41 applicants were awarded funding and 19 were elected. Some 33 disabled candidates for the 2019 local elections received financial support through the fund, and of these 15 were elected. I will write to the noble Baroness on her other question.

My Lords, as the Government prepare their national strategy for disabled people, does the Minister accept that more must be done to facilitate disabled people, who face enormous challenges in seeking elected office? Will this issue be included in the strategy? Is it not time to consider reinstating some kind of financial support, given the staggeringly low number, proportionately, of disabled people in elected office in this country?

My noble friend makes an important point on which all parties would, I hope, unite. The reality is that the law regarding electoral expenses, permissible donors and grant-making is complex, and therefore the funding model has always been to contract with other organisations to deliver funding to political candidates. But I note what my noble friend says.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the Government may be able to perform a useful convening role with political parties, to gain more traction on this issue? In 2018, I was commissioned to produce a report on increasing access to public appointments for disabled people. Unfortunately, many of its recommendations remain unaddressed. Could I gently ask my noble friend whether the Cabinet Office could help get some more traction on this and on working together to get more disabled people into public life and public appointments, which play such an important part in our society?

I certainly agree with my noble friend about public appointments. I am sorry to hear what he said about his report. Certainly, it is the Government’s wish to encourage more disabled people into public appointments. We wrote twice to political parties in 2019; at that time, there were not responses.

My Lords, it is well understood that there are multiple barriers faced by disabled people pursuing elected office that can be addressed only by providing adequate financial assistance. Would it therefore be helpful if the Government were to consider establishing an Access to Work model to assess the needs of disabled candidates and provide funding for reasonable adjustments? Such a tried and tested system would address many of the additional costs of standing for political office. It is work, and Access to Work is for work.

My Lords, I will ensure that the important suggestions put forward by the noble Baroness are taken into account as we go forward. I reiterate the Government’s desire to see more disabled candidates for all parties.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that in the process of managing their disability, or the disability of someone they care for, people learn many skills, both practical and organisational, that are useful in public life and elected office? As the Government are rightly—[Inaudible]—will he also agree that it makes sound economic, as well as moral, good sense to give financial support to ensure that these much-needed skills are not lost?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness’s point about skills. I do not wish to repeat the point I made about the difficulty of direct funding. After the 2019 election, we put out an invitation to tender, seeking an independent scheme administrator to help retrospectively, but unfortunately we did not receive a response.

My Lords, we all appreciate the efforts that the electoral administrators are making currently to assist disabled voters in the circumstances that we face. Since the Minister has acknowledged that the risk of fraud from large-scale postal voting is much greater than from cheating in polling stations, is he confident that all necessary precautions are in place for May’s elections? In particular, with the return of postal vote applications to the authorities, will he do everything possible to prevent political-party interference, as apparently happened with the Conservative association in Mr Gove’s constituency?

My Lords, I will not pursue the noble Lord’s political allegations. This Government have a desire, which I hope all parties share, to avoid all fraud in elections. In the Covid situation, we need to take action, including late emergency proxies to enable all to cast their vote.

My Lords, what steps are the Government taking to monitor the number of disabled candidates in the forthcoming elections? How will they use that information to inform government strategy to ensure that more disabled people stand for election?

My Lords, my noble friend raises an important point. The Government are reviewing evidence on the best ways to encourage more disabled people to run for elected office. An empirical understanding of how many have tried and how many have succeeded is important. I gave some of the figures earlier, and I will provide more in my response to the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly.

After scrapping the EnAble fund, apparently the Government are considering options for future support for disabled election candidates in connection with the national strategy. But disabled people deserve more than a consideration of options. Does the Minister agree that disabled people seeking elected office need a permanent fund to assist in removing the barriers that they face?

My Lords, not repeating the Government’s view that we believe responsibility for supporting disabled candidates sits primarily with the political parties, and that the EnAble fund was a temporary interim, I agree that disabled people seeking elected office face a broad range of barriers; that is true, and not all are financial. The forthcoming evaluation of EnAble will help the Government understand all those aspects.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. I hear what the Minister is saying about the responsibilities of political parties. I agree, but does he also accept that Article 29 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities sets out obligations on the state to guarantee disabled people’s political rights, including the opportunity to be elected on an equal basis with others?

My Lords, the Government’s desire is to facilitate participation. I think the House is unified behind that. The question is how we best overcome the barriers, both financial and non-financial, and that is what we are all working on.

My Lords, I hear what the Minister says about the responsibility resting with political parties. However, enormous costs can fall on those who have additional needs. What plans do the Government have in conjunction with political parties to encourage the disabled to stand in this coming May election, which is only around the corner?

My Lords, I commend what political parties are doing to seek to involve disabled candidates. We have evaluated the central fund’s run; the access to elected office fund was expensive to administer, and the evaluation published in 2018 found that its impact on increasing participation by disabled people had been negligible. Going forward, we have to consider all these factors but keep the central objective of more disabled people in Parliament and council chambers in sight.