The Government is facing a legal challenge to restore a fund that helped deaf and disabled people stand for election, for any party, at any level.
The challenge is being brought by three would-be MPs and is being supported by the cross-party campaign group More United. The three candidates are from three different parties who have been effectively barred from standing - either in ‘winnable’ seats or altogether – since the Fund was frozen in 2015. All of them hope to stand for election in a future General Election.
The cost of standing for election is prohibitive for many, but for deaf and disabled people, the costs of standing for election can be significantly higher. Most candidates incur personal costs of campaigning and foregoing salary. But those with disabilities may also, for example, incur the cost of requiring assistive technology for blind people, an assistant, a British Sign Language interpreter, or a mobility car.
The purpose of the £2.6m Fund, which ran from 2012-2015, was to create a ‘level playing field’.
David Buxton who stood for Parliament in 1997 and 2001 as Britain’s first ever Deaf BSL using candidate in history, and also as a Borough Council candidate for the Liberal Democrats in 2015, and was on the Liberal Democrats Leadership Programme, said:
“There is a real urgency to this challenge. Some political parties are already selecting their candidates for their most winnable seats in preparation for the next General Election, and if the Fund isn’t restored, the financial risks will be too high. Those of us who incur additional costs due to a disability are effectively barred from standing, which is desperately unfair. I’ve been campaigning with MPs and Peers from all parties for the Fund to be restored since it was closed and I hope the Government responds positively.”
Emily Brothers, who is blind and stood for Labour in Sutton and Cheam at the 2015 General Election, said:
“It’s absurd that the Fund has been closed for longer than it was open. There are only 5 MPs in Parliament with a disability and to be representative, there should be at least 123 of us.”
Simeon Hart, who stood for the Green Party in Oldham West and Royton in the 2015 General Election and 2015 by-election said:
“The Fund wasn’t available to me when I stood in the by-election in 2015. As a deaf candidate I had to pay for a British Sign Language interpreter to accompany me whilst campaigning, sometimes up to 15 hours a day. I set up a crowd-fund online but this only raised a fraction of the money I needed, so I was at a massive disadvantage. Having a disability can mean additional financial barriers but that should not block us from taking part in the democratic process.”
The Fund was originally due to be open until March 2014 with the “impact of the fund and the strategy overall” to be “evaluated to inform any decision about any further support beyond the current spending period.” The Fund was subsequently extended to include the 2015 General Election.
Shortly after the 2015 General Election on 10 June 2015, the Government confirmed that the Fund was under review. But that review has not, to anyone’s knowledge, been conducted or concluded and the Fund has not been re-opened.
The basis for the proposed legal challenge is that the Government’s failure to undertake and conclude the promised review of the Fund, and it’s failure to re-open the Fund is unreasonable, in breach of legitimate expectations, constitutes unequal treatment and is contrary to the requirements of the Equality Act 2010.
The Government has 14 days to respond to the pre-action protocol letter sent by Bindmans LLP on behalf of the claimants.
Jamie Potter from Bindmans Solicitors, who are acting for the claimants said:
“The Government’s delay in evaluating and reopening the fund is unconscionable. It is accepted that people with disabilities are underrepresented in Parliament and face considerable additional hurdles when seeking to stand for election. Yet the Government have allowed a General Election, along with several by-elections and local elections to pass without any additional funding being available for candidates with disabilities. This must be rectified immediately. Democracy requires that there must be a level playing field for those seeking election. The Government should commit to publishing its evaluation and re-opening an improved fund without any further delay.”
The initial stages of the challenge are being funded by the cross-party campaign group More United. More United have produced a video which shows how Emily who is blind and David and Simeon who are both deaf, can campaign on a level playing field with all other candidates when the right support is provided.
Bess Mayhew, CEO of More United said:
“We are really pleased to be able to back David, Emily and Simeon with this campaign as equality of opportunity is a core value of the More United movement. At the 2017 General Election, our 100,000 supporters donated money and volunteer time to help elect 34 MPs from 4 different parties; if the Access to Elected Office Fund is restored, I hope there will be many more candidates with disabilities standing for all parties, who will commit to working on a cross-party basis to advance our values in Parliament.”