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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In your 30s? You missed out on £26,000 and you're not even protesting

The 1980s kids seem resigned to their fate - for now. 

Imagine you’re in your thirties, and you’re renting in a shared house, on roughly the same pay you earned five years ago. Now imagine you have a friend, also in their thirties. This friend owns their own home, gets pay rises every year and has a more generous pension to beat. In fact, they are twice as rich as you. 

When you try to talk about how worried you are about your financial situation, the friend shrugs and says: “I was in that situation too.”

Un-friend, right? But this is, in fact, reality. A study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that Brits in their early thirties have a median wealth of £27,000. But ten years ago, a thirty something had £53,000. In other words, that unbearable friend is just someone exactly the same as you, who is now in their forties. 

Not only do Brits born in the early 1980s have half the wealth they would have had if they were born in the 1970s, but they are the first generation to be in this position since World War II.  According to the IFS study, each cohort has got progressively richer. But then, just as the 1980s kids were reaching adulthood, a couple of things happened at once.

House prices raced ahead of wages. Employers made pensions less generous. And, at the crucial point that the 1980s kids were finding their feet in the jobs market, the recession struck. The 1980s kids didn’t manage to buy homes in time to take advantage of low mortgage rates. Instead, they are stuck paying increasing amounts of rent. 

If the wealth distribution between someone in their 30s and someone in their 40s is stark, this is only the starting point in intergenerational inequality. The IFS expects pensioners’ incomes to race ahead of workers in the coming decade. 

So why, given this unprecedented reversal in fortunes, are Brits in their early thirties not marching in the streets? Why are they not burning tyres outside the Treasury while shouting: “Give us out £26k back?” 

The obvious fact that no one is going to be protesting their granny’s good fortune aside, it seems one reason for the 1980s kids’ resignation is they are still in denial. One thirty something wrote to The Staggers that the idea of being able to buy a house had become too abstract to worry about. Instead:

“You just try and get through this month and then worry about next month, which is probably self-defeating, but I think it's quite tough to get in the mindset that you're going to put something by so maybe in 10 years you can buy a shoebox a two-hour train ride from where you actually want to be.”

Another reflected that “people keep saying ‘something will turn up’”.

The Staggers turned to our resident thirty something, Yo Zushi, for his thoughts. He agreed with the IFS analysis that the recession mattered:

"We were spoiled by an artificially inflated balloon of cheap credit and growing up was something you did… later. Then the crash came in 2007-2008, and it became something we couldn’t afford to do. 

I would have got round to becoming comfortably off, I tell myself, had I been given another ten years of amoral capitalist boom to do so. Many of those who were born in the early 1970s drifted along, took a nap and woke up in possession of a house, all mod cons and a decent-paying job. But we slightly younger Gen X-ers followed in their slipstream and somehow fell off the edge. Oh well. "

Will the inertia of the1980s kids last? Perhaps – but Zushi sees in the support for Jeremy Corbyn, a swell of feeling at last. “Our lack of access to the life we were promised in our teens has woken many of us up to why things suck. That’s a good thing. 

“And now we have Corbyn to help sort it all out. That’s not meant sarcastically – I really think he’ll do it.”