Speaker's Conference (on Parliamentary Representation) Contents

Submission from RADAR (SC-3)


    — Numbers of disabled MPs are unknown. Numbers of openly disabled MPs are very low compared to the proportion of disabled people in the population (we would expect 65 disabled MPs on the lowest estimate)

    — This presents two significant problems: inadequate attention to the major disability dimensions of mainstream policy priorities, from child poverty to skills; and a lack of role models to inspire trust in Parliament from disabled people

    — RADAR works with actual and potential disabled leaders. There is a significant untapped pool of talent. Some wish to stand for Parliament. RADAR would be happy to bring those interested in standing for Parliament together with the Speaker's Conference and/or to be involved in implementing recommendations—for instance, undertaking targeted outreach and leadership development

    — There are a number of barriers to disabled people standing for Parliament and being elected. These include lack of knowledge, practical issues like reasonable adjustments to fulfil the role—and also fear and confusion about whether to disclose. Fear that disability will be equated with incompetence has a long history in politics and is still endemic.

    — People who fear exclusion on several grounds, for instance ethnic minority disabled people, can face multiple barriers

    — There are MPs who have been elected who have chosen not to be open about disability—or not until after they are elected

    — There are barriers in legislation—lack of clear coverage of MPs under the Disability Discrimination Act and an archaic statute that can require MPs sectioned under mental health legislation to stand down.

    — There are interventions that could be made at different levels to improve levels of representation. These include outreach and leadership development; cultural change within both Parliament and political parties; promotion of positive role models; and legislative change. Government, Parliament, political parties and campaigning organisations all have a role to play.

    — We propose a confidential survey and monitoring duties on political parties to identify baselines and track progress.


  1.  RADAR, founded in 1977, is the UK's leading pan-disability campaigning network with over 900 individual and organisational members. RADAR is a charity run by and for people living with ill-health, injury or disability (IID). Our vision is a just and equal society whose strength is human difference. We enable individuals living with IID to "do life differently" through peer support and materials; and we bring together networks of disabled people and policy makers to help make the UK more inclusive for everyone.

  2.  RADAR's 3 strategic priorities are independent living, routes out of poverty and improved leadership opportunities for disabled people. Our ambition is that people living with IID should be able to participate in every aspect of British life—and to influence it. This includes political representation in the House of Commons. RADAR strongly welcomes the Speaker's Conference on parliamentary representation and is pleased to have the opportunity to give evidence.

The problems of unbalanced representation

  3. Using a Disability Discrimination Act definition of disability (which includes people living with long term ill-health—eg serious mental health problems or heart disease—as well as physical, sensory and learning impairments), there are at least 11 million disabled people in Britain, around 20% of the population. A representative House of Commons would therefore include approximately 129 disabled MPs. Even if one used a more restricted definition, to include only those with the most significant impairments, one would expect 10%—the figure used recently by David Blunkett MP who, in a 2008 letter to The Times, noted that one should expect to see at least 65 openly disabled MPs in the House of Commons.

  4.  Numbers of disabled MPs are not firmly known, but disability organisations are not aware of numbers anywhere near 65, let alone 129. Measurement is complicated by the fact that MPs may not always be open about experiences of disability (see further discussion below); and many impairments are invisible. Disability organisations have expressed great appreciation of those openly disabled MPs who have drawn on their experiences in their work as MPs. For example, an event in 2008 paid tribute to Lord Jack Ashley's (previously Jack Ashley MP's) longstanding chairing of the All Party Disability Group. When Chris Smith MP decided to be open about his HIV status Sir Bert Massie, then Chair of the Disability Rights Commission, wrote to congratulate him on his decision to be open and act as a role model for others. Disabled people applaud the work of those openly disabled MPs who play a leading role either on disability issues (like Anne McGuire MP, who when Minister for Disabled People decided to be open about her diabetes or (Andrew Turner MP) or on wider agendas.

  5.  The very small numbers of openly disabled MPs presents two significant problems.

  6.  Firstly, it is all too easy for a non-representative House of Commons to overlook the disability dimension to critical, mainstream policy issues. One third of all British children living in poverty has at least one disabled parent. One third of all British adults with no qualifications experiences disability.[5] Health inequalities are acute between some groups of disabled people and their non-disabled peers (for example, people with long term mental health problems or learning disabilities are more likely to get some killer diseases like stroke and heart disease, more likely to get them young, and likely to die of them faster, than other citizens).[6] Achieving targets on child poverty, skills or health inequalities can only succeed if the disability dimension is addressed. Yet these policy issues tend not to be viewed as "disability issues" by a non-representative House of Commons (with some exceptions). This is a disbenefit not only to disabled people but to Britain as a whole: child poverty and skills strategies that address disability successfully are quite simply more likely to be successful in meeting their overall objectives, because of the numbers involved.

  7.  Secondly, the absence of a critical mass of openly disabled MPs risks entrenching the view that disabled people are the passive recipients of public services and public policy—when disabled people can and should be part of the solution and leadership.

Impact of problems on voter attitudes to Parliament

  8.  We hear from some of our members that they mistrust Parliament in relation to seriously addressing disability issues, because there are so few openly disabled MPs. We have not quantified this concern but it is raised regularly. We also hear from disabled people from black and minority ethnic communities that they feel unrepresented as they see neither disabled MPs taking up BAME issues nor BAME MPs addressing disability and other social policy issues.

What are the reasons why more disabled people do not become MPs?

  9.  RADAR knows that there is a pool of highly talented disabled people who in many cases are working/operating below the level of their capacity (for example, there is a 10% pay gap between disabled and non-disabled people in employment[7]). We recently ran a leadership programme attended by 40 disabled people. 50% were from BAME communities. 94% rated the programme as excellent and 100% stated that they are now more likely to achieve their leadership ambitions. They included young Moslem disabled community leaders, disabled magistrates and councillors and in some cases people whose ambition was to enter Parliament. The barriers they recounted to taking up ANY leadership roles included lack of knowledge and encouragement, fear and/or experience of being patronised and under-estimated, anxiety that their reasonable adjustment requirements (for instance, materials in different formats or need to use a PA) would not be met.

  10.  Research is less advanced on the barriers that disabled people face to becoming MPs than into the experiences of women and people from black and ethnic minority communities. It appears that there are more significant numbers of disabled councillors than MPs. We have heard from a number of disabled people who wish to become MPs that the barriers include:

    — Lack of knowledge of how to become an MP, how the systems work

    — (For some) the impact of social exclusion on the ability to amass the required portfolio of experience including policy and parliamentary knowledge; and/or to have the financial resources to make time to travel the country and build political experience

    — Fear about being "out" and confusion as to whether or not to be open about a hidden impairment. Note: there is extensive evidence that this is a major issue also in the employment sphere, with individuals fearing either to be open and risk rejection, or to conceal a hidden condition and risk later exposure or challenge for dishonesty.

    — MPs not being clearly covered by the Disability Discrimination Act (whereas councillors are)—which means people are unsure whether there is a duty not to discriminate and to make reasonable adjustments where needed

    — An archaic statute that says (under s.141 of the Mental Health Act 1983) that an MP who is sectioned under the Mental Health Act can be removed from office. This was not amended, despite opportunities to do so, with the passage of the Mental Health Act 2007. Modern good practice, following the DDA, would rather be to offer time out while the individual is unwell, followed by gradual return and any other adjustments needed to resume full responsibilities. Only if the person is genuinely unable to perform the duties long term could termination of the role be considered

    — Anxiety amongst individuals who are (for instance) black, female and disabled, that a political party would be unlikely to select them, especially not for a safe seat

  11.  Disabled people tell us about the long history of assumptions that disability is equated with incompetence—and the great lengths that disabled politicians have gone to conceal their disability. Franklin D Roosevelt created a massive pretence that he was able to walk—and hid his polio and wheelchair use from the public, even to the extent of having two aides support him by the elbows and make it appear that he was walking. Presidential candidate Dukakis was "discredited" in 1988 by the spread of a story that he had experienced mental illness (and he lost). Churchill's depression was hidden. Until the ex-Norwegian Prime Minister Mr Bondevik was open about his experience of mental illness whilst in office—and was re-elected after being open—there were no role models of political leaders being open about significant impairment. The message to disabled people has been that a disabled person cannot lead; that being disabled makes you weak, dependent and perhaps unfit for office.

  12.  Research conducted for the All-Party Mental Health Group by Rethink, Mind and Stand to Reason in 2008 found that 20% of MPs had some personal experience of mental health issues.[8] Yet we are not aware of MPs who are open about this issue. Statements from MPs included the following:

    — "I'd hate to be suspected of incompetence or my views discounted"

    — "MPs are not able to display weakness"

    — "With the press we have there would be no chance of being re-elected"

  This suggests there is still a significant cultural barrier to being an openly disabled MP—perhaps particularly where the impairment is more stigmatised, as in the case of a mental health condition or HIV. We are also aware, though, of MPs who were only open about a physical impairment after they were elected (presumably because they were anxious—perhaps with good reason—that they would not be selected and/or elected if they chose to be open).

  13.  In the light of the above there are a number of inter-linked issues that impact on the low representation of openly disabled MPs. Whilst barriers of knowledge, confidence and practical adjustments may mean relatively few disabled people seek to stand, there are also barriers of fear/confusion about disclosure, lack of legal protection, perhaps anxiety on the part of political parties to select openly disabled people for reasons of "referred prejudice" (ie assuming the public will not elect them), and also fear amongst some people who ARE selected or elected about being open.

What actions could be taken by Government and Parliament?

  14.  Government—and Parliament—could use the opportunity of the forthcoming Equalities Bill to make explicit that protection from discrimination, and a duty to make reasonable adjustments, applies in relation to MPs.

  15.  Government could repeal s.141 of the Mental Health Act to remove this symbolically discriminatory statute.

  16.  Political parties are covered by the DDA. Government could set clear expectations of political parties for a diverse legislature and ask the Equality and Human Rights Commission to monitor progress.

  17.  Parliamentarians could work together to create a mutually supportive culture in which MPs feel confident to be open about impairment; and in which openness is viewed as a positive step in creating role models. This could be beneficial for the MPs themselves—in the employment sphere, disclosure (whether of hidden impairment or indeed sexual orientation eg see Stonewall www.stonewall.org.uk) is known potentially to improve performance and can reduce anxiety. There are many role models in the employment sphere who could advice—eg Alistair Campbell has written about his decision to be open from the outset about his mental health problems when working for the former Prime Minister. Good practice could also be adopted and implemented to make reasonable adjustments—from materials in different formats to physical access and flexible working (within constraints of the requirements of the role).

  18.  Government could support outreach and leadership development of under-represented groups, enabling disabled people and others to understand pathways to different leadership opportunities and to set and meet goals including local and national public office and political engagement (eg see data on RADAR leadership programme above).

What actions could be taken by political parties, campaigning groups and others?

  19.  Political parties could do more to specify their ambitions to be diverse and representative and be open to scrutiny on their selection of candidates and the allocation of seats. They may also need flexibility to support people to overcome financial barriers —or barriers of fatigue—to building political experience

  20.  Campaigning groups could spread examples of role models, implement outreach and leadership development and encourage disabled people to understand the opportunities open to them.

How can success be measured?

  21.  We propose a strictly confidential survey of MPs' experiences of disability and long term health conditions—broken down by broad impairment group—to act as a baseline for future monitoring. We also propose that political parties could monitor the disability profile of the prospective candidates, those selected and those selected for safer seats. This would provide better data than currently exists on the stages of the process at which barriers are greatest and would indicate where additional intervention was needed to achieve improved representation.

5   Disability Rights Commission 2007 The Disability Agenda. Back

6   Disability Rights Commission 2006 Equal Treatment: Closing the Gap. Back

7   Disability Rights Commission 2007 op citBack

8   Report of the All Party Mental Health Group. Mental Health in Parliament 2008. Back

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