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 recommendationsfor
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 roleand 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
There are MPs who have been elected who
have chosen not to be open about disabilityor not until
after they are elected
There are barriers in legislationlack
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
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 lifeand 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-healtheg
serious mental health problems or heart diseaseas 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.
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).
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
policywhen 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).
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
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 incompetenceand
the great lengths that disabled politicians have gone to conceal
their disability. Franklin D Roosevelt created a massive pretence
that he was able to walkand 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 officeand was re-elected after being
openthere 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
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 MPperhaps 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 anxiousperhaps
with good reasonthat 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
14. Governmentand Parliamentcould
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
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 themselvesin 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
adviceeg 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 adjustmentsfrom
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
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 fatigueto building
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 conditionsbroken
down by broad impairment groupto 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
Disability Rights Commission 2006 Equal Treatment: Closing
the Gap. Back
Disability Rights Commission 2007 op cit. Back
Report of the All Party Mental Health Group. Mental Health in
Parliament 2008. Back