Why do we have so few disabled MPs?

With only a handful of disabled MPs, it’s time for Parliament - the biggest force for change in this country - to get the House in order before it preaches to others about the importance of disabled people advancing in the workplace.

When Lynn Jefferies was asked to run for York County Council in 2010, she took it as a chance to raise awareness about the disability issues she has spent the last 20 years campaigning for.

Two years after her election, she resigned. Injured in a dry ski slope accident in 1992, Jefferies felt that her fellow councillors were unable to look beyond her wheelchair. “They treated me like just another whingeing disabled person.”

As a result she found it hard to get her voice heard: “They see disabled people as people you do things for, not people you work with.”

The idea that disabled people are not people you work with was part of the theme at last weeks’ Disability Employment Conference in Westminster.

Speaking at the event, David Cameron said how important it is for disabled people to get to the top of every profession.

Nearly everyone would agree with him. There are millions of disabled people in the UK who can work, want to work, but can’t. Nearly one-fifth of our workforce is excluded from the job market. It makes sound business sense to change that.

But this is coming from the leader of a political class that is woefully unrepresentative of disabled people.

With over 10 million people in the UK suffering from some form of disability, if parliament was truly representative there should be around 100 registered disabled MPs. In reality there are fewer than 10 and none in the government.

With only a handful of disabled MPs, it’s time for Parliament - the biggest force for change in this country - to get the House in order before it preaches to others.

Jefferies’ experience is just one example of the barriers that disabled people face in politics. It’s not an easy ride for more high profile politicians either. Let’s not forget the time Jeremy Clarkson described Gordon Brown as a one-eyed, idiot and that in 2011, Paul Maynard MP revealed that members on the opposite benches openly mocked him by pulling faces and stretching their cheeks as he spoke. Maynard suffers from cerebral palsy. Then there is the recent example of Cornish councillor Colin Brewer who was forced to resign for the second time after comparing disabled children to deformed lambs that farmers kill by “smashing them against a wall”.

Bigoted examples like these send a dispiriting message to disabled people throughout the UK. Added to high-profile cuts to the disability allowance, constant press-denigration of ‘benefit scroungers’ and the recent rise in disability hate crime, there is little wonder why people coping with disability feel that attitudes towards them are going backwards.

However, four in five disabled people believe that having more disabled politicians would improve the way they are treated. Bring on more Beggs and Blunketts as role models and policy makers.

But if we are to see more high profile politicians rising up the ranks, we need to address the aspects of our political system that are not so disability-friendly.

The Palace of Westminster is one. Admittedly it is an old building, not conducive to people on wheels or crutches but tell that to Lib Dem candidate and wheelchair user, Greg Judge who has fallen out of his wheelchair on uneven ground outside Westminster Hall and, as a non-passholder been forced to sit in the rain between meetings because accessible pubs and cafes are too far away.

We also need to change the language of our political discourse and the attitude it purveys. “Scrounger” is bad enough but even describing a disabled person as “vulnerable” and “in need of support” preserves that misconception that disabled people are dependent. That kind of association will do nothing to encourage their contribution to our society, or politics.

Finally, Cameron talks about encouraging businesses but political parties need to take some responsibility.

The Tories have reformed their selection process (pdf) to create priority lists of candidates, a “significant” percentage of which should be from minority and disabled communities. There is nothing, however, to guarantee that someone from the priority list will be selected.

The Labour Party, meanwhile, has no such provision for disabled candidates and a spokesman told me that they have “more pressing things” to include in their 2015 manifesto.

There are surely few things more pressing than making our Parliament truly representative. We are not so well stocked with talent in Westminster and Whitehall that we can afford to ignore those who can bring expertise and new perspectives to British politics. Lynn Jefferies says she hasn’t given up on her political career yet but as the selection process for 2015 gathers pace, the leaders of all parties should start matching rhetoric with reality.

 

David Blunkett MP campaigning at the 2010 general election. Photograph: Getty Images
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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.