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Parliamentarians give their views

Charles Walker, Conservative MP for Broxbourne, won widespread praise in June when he spoke out in Parliament about his mental health issues – he has

lived with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) for more than 30 years.

Walker said: “Political parties need to ensure that they open to all people with talent, insight and understanding. Disability should not be a barrier to entering Parliament because what counts is the quality of the person and their ability to make a thoughtful contribution to public life and the good governance of our country.”

Baroness Brinton, a Liberal Democrat peer in the House of Lords and trustee

of the Christian

Blind Mission, has rheumatoid arthritis, which causes pain and swelling in the joints.

Baroness Brinton had this advice for disabled candidates seeking elected office: “Find an adviser who really understands both your disability and the electoral process. You are

“I very much hope that those who haven’t considered it before, because it just seems too steep a hill to climb, will actually think that it is possible, and access the fund to give them that first step on the rung.”

Winning isn’t everything

The minister added: “One of the important features is that it isn’t about winning. Obviously, we want more representation, that’s really important, but it’s also about taking part.

“If you’re serious about civic activity and you’ve got a track record of helping your community, or wanting to participate – because they will be criteria for the fund – then this will enable you to actually think about and stand for elected office, regardless of your chances of winning.

“Sometimes, even if you’re not disabled, you’ll stand for the first time and not get it, but then you’re encouraged to stand a second time. It’s part of the political process and everyone should be able to partake of it.”

Asked about the size of the fund, £2.6m, Featherstone said it was thought to be “a

likely to have to overcome subtle as well as obvious challenges: identify them up front, and tackle them.”

She said she got involved in politics because of a real desire to help people, to promote the philosophy and policies of her party, and because she was attracted to the casework and ‘championing’ side of being a councillor and portfolio holder, and then an MP, and her particular interest in education.

Her disability developed after she was selected to fight a target seat, and she chose to hide it as much as possible. She said: “I felt it would be used against me by difficult opponents in a hotly contested seat. This meant that I did too much. If I was doing it again, I would find someone to be my disability mentor, and help me respond to the specific challenges I face.”

Dame Anne Begg, Labour MP for Aberdeen South, has long campaigned for civil rights for disabled people. She was born with the rare genetic condition, Gaucher’s disease, which has resulted in her bones breaking regularly.

Dame Anne, the first full-time wheelchair user elected to Parliament,

substantive amount” felt to enable enough people to come forward, but said she didn’t yet know whether it would be over-subscribed or under-subscribed. The fund, developed by the Home Office, Cabinet Office and DWP and independently administered by Digital Outreach Ltd, lasts until March 2014, when it will be evaluated for a potential future roll-out, assuming the money can be found to fund it.

Featherstone said that during the consultation into disabled people’s access to elected office, she heard people’s own stories about being put off by the extra costs of standing, showing there was not a level playing field.

She said: “I was talking to one person who said she would like very much to stand for elected office, but her disability meant she really needed to be accompanied. Otherwise, she couldn’t be sure of being safe, in terms of attending, say, a public meeting and getting back to her home.

“That would be a cost, if you had to pay someone to do that, or pay someone to come and sign for you. Obviously, when we evaluate [the fund] and when we see how many people come forward, that will be a significant step forward in understanding the role the financial

said: “Do not doubt your abilities and worry about people’s perceptions. If you can show that you have the right qualities to be a good MP, people will support and encourage you.”

She got into politics after the 1983 elections, starting out behind the scenes, helping out with things like running elections and becoming the secretary of her branch party. But then she decided to stand as an MP herself in 1997.

She said: “The biggest barrier for me was having faith in my ability to become an MP. If I had been left to my own devices, I would not have considered standing for an election. I was invited to stand for the 1997 elections for a constituency that was 40 miles away, partly because of the all-women shortlist that had been introduced but also because I had built up a good reputation and national profile due to my activities in the teaching profession.

“Despite this, I still needed encouragement from colleagues before considering running for an MP.”

Asked for tips for other disabled people thinking of standing, she said: “Just go for it! Be active in your local community or political party. Do not doubt your abilities and worry about people’s perceptions. If you can show that you have the right qualities to be a good MP, people will support and encourage you.”

aspect plays. It is more expensive, without any doubt, if you do have a disability, to even begin to compete on a level playing field.”

Help at every level

Clearly, because of the sheer number of elections to local authorities compared to seats at Westminster and other higher-level elections, a higher proportion of people at councillor level may be expected to apply.

Featherstone said there would not be criteria prioritising bids for funding from people standing for higher office.

She said: “It doesn’t matter what level of election they are going for. That’s immaterial.”

Applicants will need to provide information about their disability and the extra costs they face when they apply, as well as evidence of previous, relevant civic or political activity such as volunteering, being a school governor or magistrate, or student politics.

FOR MORE INFORMATION There is more information on the fund, including how to apply, at www.access-to-

public sector executive Jul/Aug 12 | 13

© Castle Liberal Democrats



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