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29 January 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 1:56pm

As far as disabled people are concerned, the House of Commons is going backwards

For our political institutions to be truly representative, their make-up must bear at least a minimal resemblance to society. 

By Elliot Dunster

This week, MPs from across the political spectrum called for the reinstatement of the Access to Elected Office fund (AEO), after it was suspended following the General Election in May.

Life costs more when you are disabled. And running for election is expensive. So the extra costs you face as a disabled candidate can be prohibitive – anything from BSL interpreters to travelling around the constituency in a car or taxi, due to inaccessible transport options.

The AEO fund offered grants of between £250-£40,000 to disabled people to help with the additional costs that they face when standing as a political candidate.

MPs including the Conservative Ben Howlett, the Lib Dem Alistair Carmichael and Labour’s Kate Green, are urgently calling for its reinstatement in time for the local and mayoral elections in May this year.

The suspension of the fund could not have come at a worse time.

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At the general election, former Home Secretary David Blunkett stood down, and Stephen Lloyd and Dame Anne Begg both lost their seats. Out of the country’s 652 MPs, now just Paul Maynard and Robert Halfon are openly disabled. Given that there are 11 million disabled people in the UK, there is clearly a severe deficit in their political representation.

Scope led the campaign to establish the AEO fund in 2012, which was then included in the Coalition Agreement. All the reasons that we campaigned for the fund then, remain true today.

For our political institutions to be truly representative, their make-up must bear at least a minimal resemblance to society. Disabled people might also wonder whether the policies that affect them might be drawn a little differently if they had more of a say in their creation.

This is currently not the case, and with the pausing of AEO, it will go backwards.

The  consequences of the lack of representation for disabled people in the UK’s highest chambers of elected office extends even to the most basic of issues, such as meeting with the local MP. Research by disability charity Livability found that almost half (42 per cent) of all constituency offices have doors and corridors that are inaccessible for wheelchair users.

It is also hugely important for the visibility of disability. The impact of seeing disabled people in important positions in society cannot be underestimated – on public attitudes, and on the aspirations of young disabled people.

The AOE fund was introduced in 2012, the same year as the London Paralympics.

The 2012 Paralympics were a high point for the visibility and public perception of disabled people in the UK, and went some way to tackling negative attitudes.

In the aftermath of the London Paralympics, Scope’s research found that 70 per cent of disabled people felt that the games had had a positive effect on public perceptions. This underlines that it is only through increased visibility that we will ultimately be able to challenge negative attitudes towards disability.

There has been some notable progress on disability visibility outside of politics, such as Channel 4’s commitment to a Year of Disability. C4 has pledged to boost the numbers of disabled people both starring in top programmes and working behind the scenes.

But as our Paralympians prepare for the games in Rio this summer we are in danger, at least in the political sphere, of going backwards.

There is an urgent need for some of the optimism in 2012 to be re-captured, and the reinstatement of the AEO fund is crucial to this. If 2012 was the year of progress, let’s make sure that 2016 is not the year we turn the clock back. 

Elliot Dunster is head of policy, research and public affairs at disability charity Scope.

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