David Blunkett's guide dog Sadie at Labour conference. Photo: Getty
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How can we make parliament more representative when we've scrapped the fund for disabled MPs?

For the last few years, aspiring MPs and councillors who have a disability have been able to get help from the Access to Elected Office fund. But it's being closed in March. 

In her spare room, Emily Brothers shows me a battered old Braille machine. It looks sturdy, like a toolbox, and weighs a tonne. “When I was ten, and losing my sight – well, it was 1974 and my dad was on strike,” she says. “We didn’t have any money, and the men in his trade union got together to buy me this.”

Forty years on, the machine still works; Brothers punches out a card with my name on to prove it. She now uses it in her effort to be elected as MP for Sutton and Cheam, a constituency on the outskirts of London at the far south of the Northern Line. Her chances are, it is fair to say, not good; Labour scored just 7 per cent of the vote in this Lib Dem-Tory marginal at the last election.

Brothers is also aware that this might be her only roll of the dice. In order to campaign, she relies on her two assistants to skim-read information and convert it into accessible formats, and to steer her towards the right people to talk to at events. She tells me that being blind at party conference makes networking far harder, as it is easy for her to get stuck with the “conference bore” or, worse, end up “talking to a pillar”.

But the money to pay for her assistants comes from a cross-party pot, administered by the Department for Work and Pensions, called the Access to Elected Office Fund. It is being closed in March. “Beyond the next election, I’m not going to get funding – unless a Labour government gets in and makes a quick decision,” she tells me over a cup of tea in her living room. “There is going to at least be a gap.” She bangs her fist on her lap for emphasis. “The parties should have got around the table and come to a cross-party commitment and continued it. They haven’t. That is a criticism from me to all parties – and a challenge.”

The loss of the fund will be felt particularly keenly for several reasons. The first is that several trailblazing MPs (such as David Blunkett) are stepping down at the next election, leaving only a handful of disabled representatives in the Commons, with little prospect of replacing them. Brothers knows of only one other disabled candidate, Mary Griffiths Clarke, who has ME, who is standing for Labour. “Mary keeps quoting that we have 11 million disabled people in this country; that equates to 104 disabled people in parliament,” says Brothers. “But we’ll be lucky if we have five or six.” (It is possible there are others who have not disclosed their disability to selectors – which was not an option in her case; her condition is “blindingly obvious”, she says with a wry smile.)

Dame Anne Begg, who has been the Labour MP for Aberdeen South since 1997, concurs that there is a problem. “With disability issues, it’s often two steps forward, one step back.” This parliament, she tells me over the phone, “has been the one step back. Attitudes seem to have polarised to ‘Aren’t they wonderful?’, which is the Paralympics, or ‘What a bunch of scroungers. If they got off their bums, they could do a lot more.’” Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms have hit disabled people particularly hard, with cuts to several services – each of which might be manageable on its own – piling up for people who rely on multiple benefits to keep them mobile and active.

This point exercises Emily Brothers hugely, because, as someone who was born sighted and had to learn to cope with going blind, she insists vehemently that disabled people’s potential is being overlooked by employers. “I believe there needs to be some form of [statutory] disability leave – where people can take time out, under an agreed action plan, to adjust or rehabilitate,” she says. “It might be time out for treatment, it might be time out to learn new skills.”

Both she and Begg mention better public transport as a way of giving disabled people more independence. London buses are now wheelchair-accessible, and have audible announcements of stops – simple changes that make a huge difference. But in other ­areas of the country, progress is slower.

Why does any of this matter? “It’s not just about how the chamber looks,” Brothers says. “It’s about how decisions are made. I think if you’re talking about access for disabled people in the transport system, using the roads, benefits, employment opportunities . . . if you’re talking about those issues and you have a disability, you bring a different perspective. That adds value, in the way that it adds value for us to have more women.” She believes that a more representative parliament would help combat the anti-politics mood, where “people feel that politicians are not like them”.

Frances Ryan, who writes for the NS web­site on disability issues, adds a caveat. “Getting more disabled people into politics is never going to be the magic bullet for fixing the pretty dire state of disability policy in this country,” she tells me via email. “It’s better class representation as much as disability that would help the Commons understand what it’s like to have to get by on £61.35 Carer’s Allowance a week. But it’s clear that a policy such as the bedroom tax –
which got through based on a hugely flawed understanding of disabled people’s needs – would have looked very different if there had been more disabled voices in the room.”

At least getting into the Commons is now only electorally, rather than physically, challenging. “Given that it’s a historic building, they’ve done a good job of building access in,” says Begg, who uses a powered wheelchair and has an office close to the chamber.

She advises disabled candidates to be upfront about reassuring voters and selectors that they are up to the job – because although no one will say anything for fear of seeming politically incorrect, “they’re still thinking it”. Finally, she says, they should cherish the hard work and bloody-mindedness that got them into selection in the first place: “The kind of qualities you need to survive as an active disabled person are the same qualities you want in an MP.”

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

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Grenfell survivors were promised no rent rises – so why have the authorities gone quiet?

The council now says it’s up to the government to match rent and services levels.

In the aftermath of the Grenfell disaster, the government made a pledge that survivors would be rehoused permanently on the same rent they were paying previously.

For families who were left with nothing after the fire, knowing that no one would be financially worse off after being rehoused would have provided a glimmer of hope for a stable future.

And this is a commitment that we’ve heard time and again. Just last week, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) reaffirmed in a statement, that the former tenants “will pay no more in rent and service charges for their permanent social housing than they were paying before”.

But less than six weeks since the tragedy struck, Kensington and Chelsea Council has made it perfectly clear that responsibility for honouring this lies solely with DCLG.

When it recently published its proposed policy for allocating permanent housing to survivors, the council washed its hands of the promise, saying that it’s up to the government to match rent and services levels:

“These commitments fall within the remit of the Government rather than the Council... It is anticipated that the Department for Communities and Local Government will make a public statement about commitments that fall within its remit, and provide details of the period of time over which any such commitments will apply.”

And the final version of the policy waters down the promise even further by downplaying the government’s promise to match rents on a permanent basis, while still making clear it’s nothing to do with the council:

It is anticipated that DCLG will make a public statement about its commitment to meeting the rent and/or service charge liabilities of households rehoused under this policy, including details of the period of time over which any such commitment will apply. Therefore, such commitments fall outside the remit of this policy.”

It seems Kensington and Chelsea council intends to do nothing itself to alter the rents of long-term homes on which survivors will soon be able to bid.

But if the council won’t take responsibility, how much power does central government actually have to do this? Beyond a statement of intent, it has said very little on how it can or will intervene. This could leave Grenfell survivors without any reassurance that they won’t be worse off than they were before the fire.

As the survivors begin to bid for permanent homes, it is vital they are aware of any financial commitments they are making – or families could find themselves signing up to permanent tenancies without knowing if they will be able to afford them after the 12 months they get rent free.

Strangely, the council’s public Q&A to residents on rehousing is more optimistic. It says that the government has confirmed that rents and service charges will be no greater than residents were paying at Grenfell Walk – but is still silent on the ambiguity as to how this will be achieved.

Urgent clarification is needed from the government on how it plans to make good on its promise to protect the people of Grenfell Tower from financial hardship and further heartache down the line.

Kate Webb is head of policy at the housing charity Shelter. Follow her @KateBWebb.