Successive chairs of the Conservative party snubbed a request from their own equalities minister, after she asked them to explain how they intended to support more disabled people to become MPs and councillors.
Penny Mordaunt wrote last April to the chair of her party, Brandon Lewis, to “confirm what plans you have in your party to support disabled candidates on a longer-term basis”.
The letter was written because the government had refused to set up a new permanent, long-term fund to meet the extra disability-related costs that many disabled candidates face when seeking elected office as councillors and MPs.
It had scrapped the short-lived Access to Elected Office Fund (AEOF) in 2015 and eventually replaced it three years later with the temporary EnAble fund – which offered only limited support – in response to a legal action taken by a trio of disabled politicians.
In her letter, secured by Disability News Service (DNS) through a freedom of information request, Mordaunt said she believed that “the provision of support for disabled candidates should ultimately be the responsibility of political parties”.
And she asked Lewis to confirm the Conservatives’ long-term plans to support disabled candidates.
She said this would “help us to identify ways in which Government can continue to work with you on this important issue”.
She later received a letter apologising for the delay in replying and insisting that she would receive a response the following week. That letter never arrived.
It now appears that Mordaunt and her successors as minister for women and equalities – Amber Rudd and Liz Truss – made no attempt to follow up on this failure to respond to these questions by their own party.
But the Conservatives were not the only party that Mordaunt wrote to and that failed to answer her questions.
The Liberal Democrats and Greens joined the Tories in producing short holding responses to the letter, explaining that they would reply in detail in due course.
Neither of them ever did.
Labour said it had no record of ever receiving Mordaunt’s letter.
DNS has been able to confirm the lack of response to Mordaunt’s letter through freedom of information requests to the Government Equalities Office (GEO).
Now, more than nine months after Mordaunt’s original letter, a GEO civil servant has told DNS that the three holding responses sent by the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Greens were the only ones received by the GEO, now based in the Cabinet Office.
The civil servant added: “Penny Mordaunt MP’s letter was sent to the Chairs of the Labour Party, Conservative Party, Liberal Democrat Party and Green Party in April 2019.
“I have considered the points you make about whether there were any ‘further responses made’ and can confirm that no further correspondence was received by the Cabinet Office.”
DNS reported last month that GEO’s policy on supporting disabled candidates to stand for elected office was in chaos after the government suggested it could offer funding through the EnAble fund to those standing to be police and crime commissioners, but not to those who wanted to become local councillors or MPs.
GEO has been accused of breaching the Equality Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities after refusing to ensure a level playing-field for disabled candidates in December’s general election.
It insisted again that it was the responsibility of political parties to meet the disability-related costs of their candidates, but it is now considering retrospective payments to disabled people who faced extra costs during the general election campaign.
The Conservative party this week refused to comment on its failure to respond to its own minister’s questions.
And a GEO spokesperson refused to say why Penny Mordaunt, Amber Rudd and Liz Truss had not made any effort to secure responses to the letter from the four parties over the last nine months.
But she said: “Financial support for candidates is a matter for political parties and we expect them to take action, but the government is also considering what support it might provide to succeed the interim EnAble fund.
“Political parties were fully informed that the fund was for a limited period, and strongly encouraged to put support for their candidates in place.”
A Labour spokesperson said in a statement: “Labour is absolutely committed to tackling the under-representation of disabled people in politics, to ensure parliament more closely reflects the society we live in.
“One of the specific ways we do this is to offer bursaries to disabled people to help with the costs associated with standing as a parliamentary candidate.”
The Liberal Democrats refused to say why they had not responded to Mordaunt’s letter.
But a Liberal Democrat spokesperson said the party had been responsible for introducing AEOF when in coalition with the Conservatives between 2010 and 2015, and was “deeply disappointed when Penny Mordaunt and the Conservatives subsequently abolished this fund for an inadequate replacement”.
He said the Liberal Democrats were the only party to introduce disabled-only shortlists for selecting candidates to fight some parliamentary seats, and also “provide reasonable adjustments at all stages of the candidate journey to ensure that everyone receives a fair opportunity” as well as “bespoke training and mentoring, provided by experienced staff and members”.
The Green party claimed it did not respond to Mordaunt’s questions because it was not clear which minister was responsible for supporting disabled candidates after the Tories called a leadership election last summer.
A spokesperson said: “When the government informs us who is now leading work to support disabled candidates, we will provide further information to them about the support we offer as a party.”
He said that Green MP Caroline Lucas had continued to press for AEOF to be reopened, as had the party’s general election manifesto.
He added: “We support our local parties through our field staff to anticipate barriers to the participation of disabled members in our activities, and help with removal of those barriers.
“We also help our local parties with reasonable adjustments that any member or candidate may need.”
20 February 2020. News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com