Campaign’s legal threat forces government pledge on election access fund decision

By John Pring Disability News Service 3rd May 2018

The government is finally set to publish a long-awaited review of a fund that supported Deaf and disabled people with the extra costs of standing for election but has been closed for the last three years.

The announcement came in response to a legal letter sent on behalf of three disabled politicians, Labour’s Emily Brothers, Liberal Democrat David Buxton and the Green party’s Simeon Hart.

They handed in a petition of more than 8,000 names to 10 Downing Street on Monday, calling on the government to reopen the Access to Elected Office Fund (AEOF).

And they later took part in a protest in Parliament Square, opposite the House of Commons.

In response to a legal letter from the trio’s lawyers, Bindmans, the government has now promised to publish its evaluation of the fund and announce its decision on the fund’s future by 11 May.

Three disabled MPs, Tory Robert Halfon, Labour’s Marsha de Cordova and Liberal Democrat Stephen Lloyd, have also written to the home secretary to urge the government to reopen the fund.

Hart, Buxton and Brothers say the government has breached the Equality Act by failing to complete the review and reopen AEOF – which ran from 2012 to 2015 – and say they have effectively been unable to stand as candidates in a general election since the government froze the fund in 2015.

They are being supported in their campaign and judicial review by the cross-party campaign group More United, which is funding the legal action.

AEOF was set up in 2012 and offered grants to disabled people to pay for some of their additional impairment-related costs in standing for election as a councillor or MP, such as the costs of British Sign Language interpreters, support workers or assistive technology.

Brothers, who contested the Sutton and Cheam seat at the 2015 election, said it was “shocking” that the government had refused to publish the evaluation of the fund until it had been confronted with a judicial review, and demonstrated “how low disability is in their priorities”.

She told Disability News Service (DNS): “I think it says that they are dismissive of disabled people and that unless their hand is forced by legal action they are not going to take the necessary action.”

She pointed out that the recommendation to set up AEOF came originally from the cross-party Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation in January 2010.

She said: “We live in a democracy and 20 per cent of the population are disabled people and we have a fundamental right to be part of that democracy.”

If there was a representative number of disabled MPs, there would be about 130 rather than the six MPs who self-describe as disabled people.

Buxton, who was the first user of British Sign Language (BSL) to stand in a general election, in 1997 and 2001, and has since been part of the Liberal Democrat leadership programme, said the delay in re-opening the fund was “just not acceptable” and showed the government had “an attitude issue” when it came to disability.

He said: “The fund is a wake-up call for the government.

“I want to show them that I can do it, that I am able to do as much as anybody else if I have interpreters.

“It’s not about my deafness, it’s about my knowledge, my role as a politician.”

Hart, who stood for the Greens in Oldham West and Royton in 2015 and in the subsequent by-election later that year – when the fund’s closure meant he had to crowd-fund money to pay for his own interpreters – said: “For almost three years, whilst the fund has been frozen, some deaf and disabled candidates like me have been effectively barred from standing for election because of the additional costs that we incur.

“We’re simply asking ​the government to reinstate the fund that enabled us ​to take part in the democratic process ​on a level playing-field with non-disabled political opponents.”

The campaign has drawn widespread, cross-party support from politicians and other prominent disabled figures, including the Tory peer and former minister Lord Blencathra, the Liberal Democrat Baroness [Celia] Thomas and Labour’s Pam Duncan-Glancy, as well as Professor Tom Shakespeare, crossbench peer Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson, comedian Lee Ridley and musician Blaine Harrison.

Disabled activist Eleanor Lisney, a former member of the AEOF advisory panel, said that many disabled people would “get nowhere” with seeking elected office without the kind of support funded by the AEOF.

She said: “Not having the right support would undermine anybody’s confidence in tackling a new challenge, let alone contemplating a public position.”

She added: “I think, cynically perhaps, that this government do not see disabled people as the type of politicians who will be supporting the Tory government’s ideology towards austerity.

“The three-year delay does not surprise me at all. Given the steps they have taken to cut social care and their cruel disregard of disabled people, they would not be at all encouraging or empowering disabled people’s voices in politics.”

Lisney said there needed to be disabled people at every level of the political system, not just in parliament.

She said: “Any type of experience needs to be nurtured. The shame about these lost three years is that disabled people could have learned about the business of politics.”

Liz Sayce, former chief executive of Disability Rights UK, who also took part in the protest, said: “There have been consequences of this delay.

“What is important now is that the delay ends and we have some clarity about what the support looks like.”

She added: “There are huge issues facing disabled people in Britain and we need a critical mass of disabled people in parliament to make good decisions.

“When disabled people are really trying to have an aim of participating, contributing, being part of solutions, everything should be geared to making it easy, making it happen, making it possible.

“It’s really important that disabled people are here demonstrating, wanting to contribute, wanting to be MPs or local councillors.

“For the institutions of the country to be respected and trusted they really need to reflect the whole country.”

The Government Equalities Office (GEO) declined to confirm that the government would publish the review and announce its decision on the fund’s future by 11 May.

A GEO spokeswoman said it would “not be appropriate” to comment on “ongoing legal proceedings”.

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