Disabled People in Politics

– in the Scottish Parliament on 17 September 2013.

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Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

The final item of business today is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-072555, in the name of James Dornan, on disabled people in politics. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes the publication by the Independent Living in Scotland project of the report, Politically (in)correct - representation of disabled people in Politics, which reported on a pop-up think tank that took place in Glasgow; considers that ensuring that the country’s parliaments and councils reflect the diversity of society is just, makes them more effective and enhances their legitimacy; is concerned that, while society is increasingly diverse, representative bodies do not reflect that diversity; understands that one in five people in Scotland are disabled, yet only a handful of elected officials identify themselves as disabled; believes that this is the result of a number of issues, such as a general lack of support for disabled people to participate in society and be active citizens, the lack of role models for disabled people in political office, that the physiology of political activities presents barriers to disabled people’s participation and, while a major route into politics is via political parties, support for disabled people to engage in the party political process can be patchy; considers that to make progress it is important to demonstrate to disabled people that politics is for them by looking to support and resource capacity building and engagement and properly fund access requirements; congratulates the Independent Living in Scotland project for bringing this issue to the fore in its recent Solutions Series pop-up think tank; wishes success in progressing the solutions suggested, and looks forward to further progress on what it considers this important issue.

Photo of James Dornan James Dornan Scottish National Party

I welcome the many visitors here tonight, including those from the British Deaf Association Scotland, West Lothian College, Inclusion Scotland, Renfrewshire Council and, of course, a couple of my Twitter friends, who are up in the gallery as well. It is nice to see you here. I thank those in the independent living in Scotland project—Pam Duncan in particular—for all the hard work that they have done in ensuring that people with disabilities have their voices heard loud and clear.

I am delighted to bring to the chamber this members’ business debate on independent living in Scotland’s report “Politically (in)correct—representation of disabled people in Politics”. It is just one of the reports from independent living in Scotland’s “Solutions Series”, which is an initiative on pop-up think-tanks that bring people, including stakeholders and policymakers, together to discuss the solutions to specific barriers to independent living. Other reports in the series include “Personalisation and independent living” and “Rights to reality—implementing Article 19 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Disabled People (UNCRDP) in Scotland.” Both those reports are well worth a read and can be accessed online at the independent living in Scotland website at www.ilis.co.uk.

However, we are here today to discuss specifically representation of disabled people in politics. I was delighted to take part in the think tank on that subject with a number of different representatives from political parties. The think tank was chaired by Dame Anne Begg and it included Patrick Harvie MSP, along with a number of Glasgow councillors, including my colleague Susan Aitken, as well as representatives from Inclusion Scotland, Glasgow Disability Alliance, the National Union of Students, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament.

I was hugely impressed with the pop-up think tank idea and I found the event to be incredibly useful and informative. Hearing at first hand of the practical difficulties that people with disabilities face while trying to be part of the political process makes one recognise just how determined people such as Dame Anne Begg and Dennis Robertson have to be to overcome those monumental challenges. However, most of the discussion was about how to make it easier for people with disabilities just to begin to take part in the political process.

One of the clear themes of the think tank and the subsequent report is that disabled people are among the most disenfranchised people in society and can feel that decisions are made about them rather than in conjunction with them. That has never been more important than at this time when we are seeing the harmful impact that the welfare reforms that have been implemented at Westminster are having on disabled people. We can see it in the bedroom tax, changes to carers support and in the move from disability living allowance to personal independence payments. Those changes will mean that 90,000 fewer disabled people in Scotland will receive assistance for their care needs by 2018, and the cost of that loss in entitlement will be £272 million per year by 2018. I have taken those figures from Inclusion Scotland, so members can blame it—not me.

It was strongly suggested at the think tank that it is less likely that policies such as those would have been implemented had there been more MPs with direct experience of disability. However, to be realistic, for the representation issue to be fully addressed it will take years of continued progress before we see the representation that we want. It is therefore crucial that we, as politicians, continue to support disabled people in the fight for fair treatment and a stronger voice.

An issue that came up time and again at the think tank was that the main route into elected politics is via political parties. It is therefore important that parties have mechanisms and structures in place to support disabled people in getting involved. In my party branch, we ensure that all our meetings are held in places that are accessible to all. We are also currently asking all members whether they have any practical problems in accessing politics at branch level. That includes considering issues such as the timings of meetings, the geography of where meetings are held, whether members need written reports in specific formats and whether they need assistance in getting to branch meetings. We are also undertaking an audit of campaigning skills.

Campaigning has moved on from the traditional door-knocking and leafleting, both of which could be barriers to political participation for some disabled people. We are working on a campaign strategy to ensure that all members of the local branch can make a contribution to political campaigns in a number of different ways, be it for Holyrood, Westminster or the local council, as well as for the independence referendum next year.

However, although it is hugely important to ensure that the political party structure is as friendly as possible to all, we must also engage more disabled people in politics more generally outwith political parties. One of the initiatives that is mooted by Inclusion Scotland is an internship programme at the Scottish Parliament, similar to a programme that is already working at Westminster. As a member who has had a high school internship competition for the past two years to help to engage young people from my constituency in politics, I am supportive of such initiatives, so I have written today to the Presiding Officer to ask whether she will ask Parliament to look into the benefits of introducing such a scheme. In the interim, members could consider bringing about such a scheme through our own offices. I will look at doing something like that in the forthcoming year.

I note that the access to elected office fund, which Westminster runs, assists disabled people to meet the extra costs that they incur in running for office. Will the minister investigate the possibility of introducing a similar scheme for the Scottish Parliament? It is crucial that we continue to consult organisations such as the independent living in Scotland project, Inclusion Scotland, Glasgow Disability Alliance and many others to ensure that disabled people are given all the help and encouragement that they need to access politics.

One in five people in Scotland and the United Kingdom is disabled, but only a handful of members identify themselves as such. I believe that encouraging and assisting disabled people to take part in the political process would be good not just for the individuals concerned but for democracy as a whole. Our democracy and decision making are enhanced and strengthened when many different voices and experiences are represented in Parliament. I want a Parliament that allows the people of Scotland to say, “They speak for us.” For that to happen, we need to do all that we can to assist all sectors of society to participate.

I look forward to hearing what my colleagues think about the report and how they are trying to empower more people—disabled or otherwise—to enter politics and ensure that decisions that are made in the Scottish Parliament have at their core the best interests and the experience of all our citizens.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I congratulate James Dornan on securing the debate and on his excellent and considered speech. Like he did, I see many friends in the public gallery. As I have only four minutes for my speech, I will not name them all.

I was struck by the fact that, as James Dornan said, one in five people is disabled. If Parliament truly represented Scottish society, at least 25 MSPs would have a disability, but I suspect that we are well short of that.

Photo of Nigel Don Nigel Don Scottish National Party

I am enormously grateful to Jackie Baillie for taking an intervention. I point out that some of us are quite good at hiding our disabilities. I have not yet learned to lip-read, but I might need to some day. A lot of people are dealing with becoming deaf.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

That is a timely reminder that some people with disabilities are not obvious and do not declare themselves as having a disability.

The debate should not be just about representation for the sake of it. It is about what elected representatives can and should do to create a fairer and more equal Scotland that is fundamentally about social justice and equality of opportunity.

I am offended when I see statistics that tell me that 47 per cent of families with disabled people live in poverty; that 33 per cent of disabled people live in fuel poverty; that 47 per cent of disabled people are unemployed; that 44 per cent report barriers in accessing justice; and that 74 per cent experience restrictions in using transport.

Scottish Labour believes that equality of opportunity is a right, not a privilege. It is a basic matter of social justice and human rights, so it is incumbent on all of us to address the challenges that lie behind the statistics. Representation is, of course, part of that, but it is not everything.

Having said that, I commend independent living in Scotland for producing the report and for hosting the “Solutions Series” of pop-up think tanks. I participated in one, which was much fun. We should support much that is in the report, and I hope that the minister will consider and respond to the recommendations. It is clear that we need to do more to break down the barriers to people standing for elected office, but our experience tells us that we need to effect change much earlier in the process.

We support an access to elected office fund and believe that Scotland should have a dedicated fund. We support practical action, such as parliamentary internships for disabled people, and we agree that we need positive role models to inspire and challenge us to respond with a vision for the future. All of that is important.

We should be honest and acknowledge that getting into politics is not as simple as a person turning up and saying that they want to stand; a long, hard slog is ahead of them. We have experienced that. The smoke-filled rooms might be gone, but getting into the informal networks can still be a bit of a mystery and a challenge.

Perhaps our funding and efforts should be directed at engaging people much earlier in the process. There is a place for Government action, but political parties must do much more. That is why I am pleased to announce that, as a first step, the Scottish Labour Party will establish a disabled members’ network, to ensure that there is a real focus on policies that meet the needs and aspirations of disabled people and, in addition, to ensure that we actively encourage representation at every level of elected office—in local government, in this Parliament and in the United Kingdom Government.

Dame Anne Begg, MP for Aberdeen South, is a real inspiration and a trailblazer and is the first permanent-wheelchair-user member in the House of Commons. Nobody would deny that her contribution to the whole country has been immense.

What are we waiting for? We need to take the recommendations, use them as a framework against which to measure progress, and do so in partnership with disabled people’s organisations. Then and only then will we begin to make a difference.

Photo of Dennis Robertson Dennis Robertson Scottish National Party

I, too, commend James Dornan for bringing this important debate to the chamber, and I thank all the organisations representing people with disabilities that provided the briefings for this evening.

In 2011, we made history in this Parliament. No, I mean not the landslide win by the Scottish National Party, but the fact that we elected our first blind person to the Parliament—it took four sessions of Parliament. Although I am immensely privileged and feel greatly honoured to serve the people of Aberdeenshire West, it was not an easy journey.

My journey into politics goes back a good number of years. It was when I was out campaigning with a certain, much younger John Swinney—who probably had a full head of hair at the time—that he suggested that perhaps I should put myself forward to be vetted. He explained what that meant and I was okay with the suggestion, so I went forward, but then my journey became complicated, because I needed to access information from my own political party. To be fair and honest, information from my branch and constituency was not particularly accessible. Before, I had just been going along to meetings, not particularly wanting to rock the boat, but then for some reason I became a convener and suddenly found that I had to up my game.

Being a blind person in the political world is not a particularly easy journey, and I am sure that David Blunkett found it difficult at times. I am sure that he remembers more than one occasion when he picked up his papers and suddenly realised that the transcript into Braille was not what he was looking for and he was standing up to give a presentation in Parliament.

I, too, went through a difficult journey, as Dame Anne Begg did. I remember Dame Anne Begg on the access panels in Angus, back in the early 1980s, when we were campaigning side by side, trying to get councils to realise the difficulty that people with disabilities had in even getting access to buildings.

I commend the Scottish Parliament because, when I was elected, it probably had everything that I needed to come forward and try to be an equal in the chamber. The staff had done their research. Goodness knows how they knew that I was going to be elected, but they had done their research just in case. They had software programs, but they did not assume that what they had researched was what I wanted or needed, or what would enable me to participate in the chamber; there was no presumption there. They asked the questions: how can we help, what can we provide, what support do you need? That is all that it takes, a simple, simple question: what support do you need?

Every political party needs to raise its game and get people with disabilities into the political arena. However, people with disabilities also have a part to play. It is not just up to the community or to wider society to open the door: people with disabilities need to knock on that door. People with disabilities need to say, “I want to engage in the political world,” “I want to become a councillor in a local authority,” or “I want to become an MSP at Holyrood.” If such people do not come forward, the door will remain firmly closed.

We have a challenge. I ask all political parties to look at what they are providing and ask whether it is enough. I would say that it is not. They should ask how they support their elected members when they are being elected and whether that support is enough. That might be a subject for another debate.

I hope that by being the first blind MSP, I will open the door for others to become MSPs. I sincerely hope that I will continue to have the support not just of Parliament but of the electorate of Aberdeenshire West, because it is those people who put me here. They elected me.

The selection process is, however, another story and perhaps we need to look at the selection process for our members and, if we want representation by people with disabilities in this chamber, ensure that the selection process is fit for purpose.

Photo of Siobhan McMahon Siobhan McMahon Labour

I congratulate James Dornan on bringing this important debate to Parliament this evening, and I add my thanks to independent living in Scotland for publishing its report on the representation of disabled people in politics.

When I first entered the Scottish Parliament, I was determined that I would not be known as the disabled member for Central Scotland. I remember that during the election campaign, a national newspaper ran an article highlighting the fact that Dennis Robertson and I had been selected to run as candidates. I found that quite disturbing because being disabled had never before been a characteristic by which I was defined. I would have thought that the article could have highlighted many things about me, but the writers seemed to be fascinated that we had been selected and that we each had our own disabilities. Having two years’ experience under my belt, I now know what the big deal was.

I am proud to be a member of the Scottish Parliament, and I am proud to be a disabled person. Neither title defines me but I embrace them both. No one forced me to become a member of the cross-party group on disability; I wanted to do it because I thought that I could add value to the group, just as I thought that I could add value to the cross-party groups on Malawi and international development.

I am always delighted and honoured to take part in conferences, debates or discussion panels that focus on disabled people, and I enjoy the challenge of those. However, I would be lying if I said that they do not provide me with my own set of challenges. It is a fine balance between being proud of being a disabled member of Parliament and being pigeonholed as one. I want people to look at me and think that I am doing a good job because I am, not that I am doing a good job despite my disability. That, in itself, can prove difficult.

To my cost, I have found that not standing up every few weeks and sharing my latest private health concerns can leave me in a difficult situation. One example of that is campaigning. At the moment, I walk with a crutch when I have to walk long distances, so I cannot take part in the door-knocking sessions that are planned for the upcoming by-election. Of course, I can do other things to help the campaign, but the pressure of having to explain myself to anyone who asks why I am not doing my bit on the ground can be annoying, to put it mildly. I can understand why examples like that, trivial though they might sound to others, can put disabled people off politics. That is why the whips in each parliamentary group should be required to receive diversity training so that they become more aware of the distinct needs of the individuals in their group, and so that we become more inclusive in action and word.

When I was doing a bit of research for this debate, I was concerned to see that so far no disabled person has been selected to represent Labour at the next general election. I found out because the party publishes data on that on its website. Although that is a disappointing statistic—

Photo of Dennis Robertson Dennis Robertson Scottish National Party

Is it that no one has put themselves forward or have they not said that they may be disabled? It is the point that Nigel Don made—there could well be a disabled person putting themselves forward but they have not said that they are disabled.

Photo of Siobhan McMahon Siobhan McMahon Labour

That could well be, but the point that I am trying to make is that if a disabled person does not have someone to look up to, to see that it happens in society, they are less likely to put themselves forward—as the report suggests.

As I said, although the stats I mentioned are disappointing, my concern is not limited to the Labour Party, as no other party publishes such data so readily. If we are to challenge some of the barriers that are discussed in the report, it is important that all political parties become more transparent about their selection procedures. The Liberal Democrats have a disability association that anyone can join. That is a good example of inclusiveness and more groups like that should be established by political parties if we are to tackle the problems of disabled people’s representation in politics. That is why I am delighted to welcome the news from Scottish Labour this evening.

The Labour Party has a proud history of equality. We are the party that established the first Minister for Disabled People and we are extremely proud of that. It has been suggested that the Scottish Government should look at replicating that and I hope that it gives serious consideration to doing so. I hope that the Government will also look at establishing the Scottish access to politics fund that so many organisations are calling for, as those organisations and I believe that that would be a start towards helping to remove some of the barriers that disabled people face when trying to become more active in politics, in order that it becomes less of a newspaper story when a disabled person is selected to fight a seat at an election in the future.

Photo of Nanette Milne Nanette Milne Conservative

I, too, thank James Dornan for bringing this issue to the chamber as I believe that it is an area that does not receive sufficient attention.

Often when we discuss the lack of representation in politics the focus is rightly on the need to attract black and minority ethnic groups into local and national government. I make no criticism of that and, indeed, I believe that more needs to be done in every political party to engage with those groups. However, that should not be at the expense of engaging with other groups whose participation in politics should be encouraged and nurtured.

To reflect the diversity of our society, there has to be a greater emphasis on bringing into politics those who live with some form of disparity. That should by no means be seen as tokenism—more as an acknowledgement of the rich experience of life that disabled people have and the contribution that they can make to public office.

The motion lodged by James Dornan welcomes the publication of the independent living in Scotland report on the representation of disabled people in politics in Scotland, which is a comprehensive document that asks some searching questions and suggests some ways forward.

In its report, independent living in Scotland has suggested various factors that might explain why we do not see enough disabled people—whether they are disabled physically or mentally—serving in public life. One area that is identified is something that we in this chamber and many of our party activists take for granted—campaigning. For a less able-bodied person, leafleting and door knocking—routine to us and part and parcel of being a political campaigner—both present their own barriers. Those barriers should not be insurmountable and it is the duty of all of us to show disabled people that alternatives exist and that they should not be put off because of preconceived notions of what politics involves.

The report goes some way towards addressing those obstructions to participation and one message that we should deliver to each of our party leaders and party machines is that they have a responsibility to drive forward change by putting in place mechanisms to attract disabled people, whether by talent spotting or by making party positions in the voluntary wing more accessible. I am happy to have that conversation with Ruth Davidson and I am sure that James Dornan will not hesitate to take up the issue with the First Minister.

I was also drawn to the idea of disabled people shadowing serving elected members. I believe that there would be huge merit in the Scottish Parliament emulating Westminster in its political internship scheme, which is funded by the UK Government’s equalities unit. The briefing from Inclusion Scotland rightly—

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

There are major barriers to people with disabilities accessing politics but there are also major barriers based on a person’s class. If someone is working class and disabled, they have two barriers to politics, therefore it is very important that any internship is a paid internship and that people also receive a payment to cover travel to any internship, so that everyone, not just those who can afford to take part, can take part.

Photo of Nanette Milne Nanette Milne Conservative

I take the point, which I certainly think is worthy of consideration. As I said, I think that we would do well to emulate the UK Parliament in that respect.

The briefing from Inclusion Scotland rightly highlights the many benefits of such a scheme not only to the young disabled interns but to the sitting politicians who, by working alongside people with disabilities, might develop a greater understanding of the difficulties that an individual with a disability has to endure. I also believe that such a scheme would enhance the intern’s confidence and could help to encourage the individual actively to pursue an ambition to put his or her name forward as a candidate.

The other area in which we lag behind Westminster is in not having a Scottish equivalent of the access to elected office for disabled people fund. The fund gives financial assistance to disabled candidates, whose expenses are often higher than those of an able-bodied candidate—for example, to pay for a sign language interpreter. Making such a scheme viable and successful again relies on communicating its availability. Perhaps the minister will touch on that in her closing remarks.

I slightly disagree with the report’s suggestion that Scottish politics lacks disabled representatives who could act as role models for other disabled people. In this Parliament, we have seen current and former MSPs with disabilities of one kind or another who have never shied away from being open about their disability. There is also the example of my Aberdeen MP colleague, Dame Anne Begg, whose work in championing disabled people’s rights and greater participation in politics is highlighted in the report. In Scotland certainly, I do not believe that a “coming out as disabled” campaign is necessary or desirable.

I do not want to end on a negative note, so let me once again congratulate James Dornan on securing this evening’s debate. I commend the report to the Parliament.

Photo of Michael McMahon Michael McMahon Labour

I congratulate James Dornan on securing this evening’s debate. Despite the success of politicians such as Anne Begg, Jack Ashley and David Blunkett at Westminster and a few disabled MSPs in this place over the past 14 years, the political representation of disabled people has not improved substantially or to the extent that we should expect.

Disabled people are entitled to believe that the policies that affect them might be drawn up a little differently and be of more value to them if they had more of a say in creating those policies. Starting from such a low baseline, in the short term we might be expecting too much to hope that one in four MSPs might have some form of disability, but there is no doubt in my mind that it would be better if the membership of this Parliament looked a lot more like the society that it represents as soon as possible.

The independent living in Scotland report on disabled people’s involvement in politics contains much that cannot be refuted, and I congratulate ILIS on its production. As a member of the cross-party group on disability since the outset and its convener for the past 10 years, I have heard many testimonies from disabled people about the barriers that prevent them from participating in many aspects of life that are taken for granted by the majority.

I have also heard too many examples of the difficulties that people face just as political activists, let alone elected representatives. I have had many discussions with disabled people in my party, so I know that the pool of human resources from within the disabled community is large—yet it is largely untapped. I have always tried to encourage disabled activists to put themselves forward for selection—members might even know one who was successful, although she never needed much encouragement from me—but I have been left disappointed on most occasions, when party members could not see past the wheelchair or the crutches to see the potential of the candidate before them.

Therefore, I have no hesitation in supporting the recommendations in the ILIS report. In particular—I know that it might hurt some colleagues to hear this—we should follow Westminster’s lead by establishing a Scottish fund for access to elected office for disabled people. Even in these straitened economic times, there can be no excuse for ignoring the demands of the disabled community for funding to be found to overcome some of the constraints on them in pursuing candidacy at elections.

I have heard fears expressed that much of the support available is more about patronising people than offering genuine support. There is still too much belief around that disabled people are people for whom things need to be done. We would soon see the value in policy development terms of having more people deliberating on issues as disabled people brought solutions to their own difficulties.

Despite the fact that interest in Westminster’s access to elected office fund has been limited, I think that there are grounds for optimism. Over the years, things will change and we will get more disabled people into politics. This is about levelling the playing field rather than giving disabled people an unfair advantage.

The optimism of those with whom I have engaged over the years on the cross-party group on disability has encouraged me to see more and more—and to be much more optimistic now than I might otherwise have been—that there is a great future ahead for those from the disabled community who want to join us here or in council chambers across the country and to start to put forward a strong voice on behalf of those whom we seek to represent.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

We are debating an extremely important topic and I, too, congratulate my colleague James Dornan on bringing it to the chamber. However, I cannot help but feel that, in reality, few of us who speak in the debate—with the exception of Dennis Robertson and Siobhan McMahon—can even begin to understand the reason why so few people who are identified as having a disability are actively involved in politics, let alone contribute on the subject with any degree of authority. That is why, in the main, I will focus my speech not on my thoughts but on the experiences and views of someone who undoubtedly knows what they are talking about.

Councillor Sheila Hands, who represents the Monifieth and Sidlaw ward on Angus Council, is a truly remarkable person, although she would be annoyed to hear me say that, because she does not view her blindness as defining or restricting her—it is simply something that she finds a way around. It certainly does not prevent her from being an exceptional contributor to the council administration, and I have yet to witness an example of it hindering her in discharging her ward duties.

To those who are unaware of the nature of the Monifieth and Sidlaw ward, I explain that, as the local member, I hold surgeries in seven different locations in it so that I can be appropriately accessible to constituents. Because of the area’s nature, it makes demands of its elected representatives. However, ask Sheila about the role of councillor and being active in politics and she will talk about how rewarding, rather than challenging, the experience is. Interestingly, she will say that she feels that she has achieved more in changing folks’ perceptions of disability in the past year and a half than she ever did in her previous life working in the area of equalities and disability rights. The reason is that, day in, day out, in helping her constituents, she demonstrates to them that disability need not be a barrier to providing successful political representation and that, in return for electing someone with a disability to represent them, they will not get a second-class service.

Among other things, the pop-up think tank’s report highlights the need for role models. It asserts:

“Seeing their peers in political positions ... would give disabled people the confidence to try it out. Without such positive role models, the barriers to disabled people’s participation in politics may appear to them to be insurmountable.”

I agree, and I point to Sheila as an inspiration for disabled people who want to get involved. However, although she is happy to be seen as a role model, she does not want to be pigeonholed as a spokesperson or champion for disability.

I asked Sheila to read the report and give me her candid opinion of its content—mind you, I need not have specified that, as she is not prone to holding back. Like me, she remains to be convinced of the merits of quotas. She pointed out that making it easier for disabled people to get involved will not in itself create the hoped-for surge. As she says, we cannot create a disabled person who wants to enter politics, as people have to want to get involved in the first place. We can give people confidence to go for it by showing that the opportunities are there, but they have to want to take the opportunity.

Sheila has always had an interest in politics and the independence cause and has been a Scottish National Party member for some years, but it was not until I turned up at her door and asked what she thought she could actively contribute that she took that first step. Stuffing envelopes at her dining room table—with the rest of her family dragged in to assist—was quickly followed by attending first branch and then constituency meetings, after the guy who picked up those envelopes offered her a lift to both. In no time at all, she was branch secretary. When the branch first asked her to stand for the council in 2012, she says that she laughed but, three months later, she was filling in the pre-vetting paperwork. Basic practical and enabling help and encouragement were all that she needed to take those vital first few steps.

Sheila still has difficulties to overcome daily, because those of us who do not have disabilities to contend with do not understand the issues that they can pose. Information technology training for councillors does not take account of the fact that the instruction, “Right click the mouse,” means nothing to her when she does not use a mouse. It took until four weeks ago for her to have access to emails on her phone, although every other councillor has had that as a matter of course since they were elected. As she says, we still have some way to go until we replace seeking to adapt things for disabled people—and not always succeeding—with genuine accessibility for all.

Of course, as the report makes clear, in some ways, we have not even got the basics in place to ensure that people with disabilities can compete on a level playing field for roles in politics. However, I do not believe that establishing quotas for disabled candidates would necessarily address the issue, although there would absolutely be merit in doing something along those lines for paid internships and perhaps job shadowing.

In theory, quotas would furnish us with more role models, but first and foremost do not political parties need to get our basic thinking right on how we interact with people with disabilities? Even more basically and at the same time, do not we need to create a society that treats those people better, so that they do not feel let down by and disengaged from it? In reality, might not that situation be creating as much of a barrier to disabled people becoming involved in politics as the practical difficulties that they could face if they did? That is a question rather than a statement because, as I said at the outset, I do not feel sufficiently qualified to claim to speak with authority on the subject.

I pay tribute to those whose views contributed to the report. There are aspects of it on which I remain to be convinced, but it is undoubtedly a thought-provoking piece of work. As a consequence of reading it, I—and I am sure that other MSPs feel similarly—have been left at least contemplating how I can better engage with disabled constituents and assist those of them who are interested in getting involved in the political process to do so and, I hope, follow in the footsteps of Sheila Hands, whose political journey is, I suspect, far from over.

In Angus, we are fortunate that we have the type of role model that the report calls for more of but, like many other places, we have a long way to go before we can say that the political environment that we shape and within which we operate is genuinely open to all.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

Like others, I convey my thanks and congratulations to James Dornan for securing this important debate and bringing the matter to the Parliament. The speeches have been interesting and thoughtful and have shed light on some of the barriers that affect the ability of disabled people to participate in society and, specifically, politics.

As a number of members said, the independent living in Scotland project held a significant pop-up think tank called politically (in)correct in Glasgow in February as part of its “Solutions Series”. That is where the representation of disabled people in politics was raised, and it has clearly had an impact as, among other things, it has led to the debate.

I thank the independent living in Scotland project for the work that it does to support disabled people in Scotland and for being at the cutting edge of ensuring that disabled people’s voices are heard in shaping policies and services that affect them. In particular, it has taken an innovative approach to its “Solutions Series” in the on-trend format of pop-up think tanks. It clearly works very well.

The “Solutions Series” has brought together not only people with disabilities but policy makers, public servants, academics and other experts. A number of other pop-up think tanks have been held on issues such as the personalisation agenda, independent living and the topic of rights to reality, which concerns implementing article 19 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Scotland.

We work closely with the ILIS project and other disabled people’s organisations on building capacity and engagement, with independent living as a strategic overarching commitment. It is important to be clear what we mean by independent living. It is that disabled people of all ages should have the same freedom, choice, dignity and control as anyone else at home, at work and in the community. That means the right to practical assistance and support to participate in society and live an ordinary life. James Dornan was right when he said that all those issues are unfortunately made all the more difficult by the welfare reforms that are being pursued elsewhere.

A number of MSP colleagues attended the event in February and, therefore, will be well aware of the discussion about the underrepresentation of disabled people in politics in Scotland. The latest available figures show that adults with a long-term condition or disability make up 28 per cent of the population, and we need only look around the chamber to see that disabled people are clearly poorly represented in mainstream politics.

We need more role models in politics, political parties and the Scottish Parliament. We have some good ones already, and the debate has demonstrated many of them. However, listening to Dennis Robertson and Siobhan McMahon speak about their difficult and, often, long journeys to get to the Parliament should leave us under no illusion about the fact that there are significant barriers facing disabled people who get into elected politics.

Photo of Dennis Robertson Dennis Robertson Scottish National Party

Does the minister accept that, often, people first see the disability, not the person? I remember going on a hustings with Nanette Milne at which I was introduced as “the blind chap”. I was there as a candidate. How do we get across the fact that we are there as candidates, MSPs, local government officials or whatever? How do we get society to see us for what we are—competent and, if not able bodied, certainly able?

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

Part of the answer is the fact that Dennis Robertson and others stand here today and act as role models, which shows people that, although it is not always easy—in fact, it is not easy—it is possible. We should build on the role models that we have. Of course, those role models exist not only in the Parliament. Graeme Dey talked about Councillor Sheila Hands, who is a fantastic role model. Having recently appeared with Sheila Hands at a women and independence event, I can assure members that she is a tough lady and an able performer. Whether she has disabilities or not, she is a first-class politician.

We should not underestimate the importance of such role models. As Michael McMahon said, a few years ago, they were not here. We have made significant changes, but we must keep that momentum going and build on their presence.

We have heard about some of the barriers that people face and some of the ways in which they can be overcome. The issue of attitudes is far more challenging. We must all challenge people’s attitudes when, for example, we hear certain terminology used in meetings, and we must provide encouragement and support to ensure that people with disabilities do not rule themselves out.

The Equalities Act 2010 permits political parties to take certain steps in the selection of election candidates to reduce inequality in their representation, so there are opportunities for positive action in that regard, and there are opportunities for parties to find ways of working together to address the underrepresentation of people with disabilities.

We have discussed a number of recommendations that have been made, such as mentoring and buddy schemes that give people an insight into political life. James Dornan specifically asked about the access to politics fund, which was set up by the UK Government and runs until next March. I am happy to confirm to him that we will take that away and look at the feasibility of establishing something along those lines in Scotland.

I thank the people who are in the public gallery. It is not often that a members’ business debate leads to some concrete action and change. They have demonstrated that, through the use of external pressure to get our attention firmly, some important and practical actions will flow from tonight’s debate. I thank all those who have taken part in it.

Meeting closed at 17:48.