Disabled people are massively under-represented in the new Scottish Parliament.
In some ways the recent Scottish Parliament elections for 2016 were the most accessible yet. The five parties represented in the Scottish Parliament had just recently played host to disabled interns through the recent Access to Elected Office Project run by Inclusion Scotland (in which disabled interns carried out research within parties on addressing disability access barriers). Under high-profile pressure from the One in Five campaign (a cross-party group of disabled activists calling for greater inclusion in politics for disabled people) they then produced a far greater range of accessible formats for their manifestos than ever before – albeit some were released far, far too late on in the campaign for them to be utilised by many people, especially postal voters. The parties were even scored on their performance, here.
A series of fairly high profile accessible hustings were held by various charities, with increasing use of technology to offer alternative ways of participating such as live internet broadcasting, the use of captions and online submission of questions.
Manifesto comparisons show that several of the parties have come a fair way closer to matching the policy positions called for by disabled people on issues such as social care charging, building a fairer Social Security system in Scotland which respects the dignity and choices of disabled people and even smaller practical issues such as banning pavement parking.
However there is one way in which this election result has badly let disabled people down. With one in five members of the working age population being disabled a fully representative Scottish Parliament would therefore contain around 23 disabled MSPs. Before the election there were three disabled MSPs (Dennis Robertson – SNP, Sioban McMahon – Labour and Cameron Buchanan – Conservative) and it was clear that at least two of those would not be returning (one retired, another was selected too far down a regional list to reasonably have a chance). In the end, we lost all three, and so far it would appear that our newly elected Scottish parliament has just one new openly disabled member – Jeremy Balfour MSP (Conservative, Lothian region).
“One in a hundred and twenty nine” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?
Despite all the parties signing the “One in Five pledge” over a year ago, and most of them engaging with Inclusion Scotland over the past two years on this issue, this does not appear to have translated into support for disabled candidates to stand in winnable seats, at least not yet. Even if you only look at the 51 newly elected MSPs entering the Holyrood chamber this session this still comes out as achieving only 10% of what would be representative of the population.
There may of course be MSPs who have hidden impairments and have not publicly defined themselves as disabled – but this is merely another part of the problem, that politicians may feel unable to be open about their impairments due to the stigma society attaches to some conditions or differences (such as mental health, autistic spectrum neurodiversity and chronic conditions). Certainly the lack of openly “out” disabled MSPs does nothing to encourage disabled people from putting themselves forward.
Now lets try to be a little lenient here – there really hasn’t been much time for parties to act since signing the pledge, many of them had already begun selection processes for the 2016 election, and others carried it out soon after. But the under-representation of disabled people is nothing new.
During a time when disabled people are increasingly being put under pressure by cuts to social security, punitive sanctions, undignified and often inaccessible assessment processes and increasing cost of living – the need for more disabled people in our democracy has never been greater. Disabled politicians can also bring additional benefits to the role, such as a more varied perspective on many of the challenges faced by their constituents and lived experience that may offer a much deeper understanding of the effect some decisions can have. With one election out the way the challenge is now upon Scotland’s political parties to do better for the next: the Local Authority elections in 2017.
Many of the access barriers which disabled people experience, and the services so many rely upon are controlled at a local authority level, so there are clear benefits to be had from increasing the diversity of our councillors next year. This will take serious commitment and some work, to address any access barriers within selection processes but also to encourage and support enough disabled candidates to stand for selection in the first place. Fortunately help is at hand. Announced before the election and now likely to be confirmed by the incoming new Minister, the new Democratic Participation Fund will offer financial assistance to disabled candidates wishing to stand for selection or election to Councils next year. Grants may be awarded to address additional costs faced as a result of access barriers such as higher transport costs, the use of communication support workers, personal assistants and other reasonable adjustments which will give disabled candidates a more level playing field to compete with non-disabled opponents. An advice and support service, the Access to Politics project, is expected to continue and run alongside this to provide information to both candidates and parties and how they can overcome access issues. The question is: what will political parties do to ensure that disabled members are encouraged and supported to stand? Will they take action to ensure a representative level of disabled members are selected?
Progress has been achieved on gender balance within politics in part through the use of systems such as all women shortlists (e.g. Labour, SNP), gender “zipped” lists (Greens, Labour) and gender balancing mechanisms within selection processes across multiple seats (Greens). Some parties have also made use of affirmative action in the selection of ethnic minority candidates. Similar mechanisms could be utilised to improve the selection of disabled candidates under current law. At a national party conference last year, the Liberal Democrats passed a motion which enabled local parties to prioritise disabled candidates if they chose to do so at a local level. These sorts of approach may be part of the solution, but we should bear in mind they are clearly not enough by themselves, and can sometimes be ineffective – as the stagnant level of women elected to Parliament this year shows. Other approaches could include provision of training, mentoring/buddying schemes, and efforts to improve attitudes towards disabled people within political parties.
One thing is clear. The political parties of Scotland are now much more aware of the need to improve access and improved diversity of representation by disabled people. An election result where less than one percent of the elected candidates are disabled cannot be considered acceptable next time, and by this time next year they will have had adequate time to take action. Which parties will commit to doing better and take meaningful action to achieve it?