Inquiry could boost number of disabled MPs
MPs are to conduct an inquiry into ways of boosting the number of disabled people elected to parliament.
The move is part of a drive to increase the representation of minority communities in the Commons.
A cross-party group of 17 MPs, chaired by the speaker, Michael Martin, will be set up to consider and make recommendations on how to improve the representation of disabled people, women and minority ethnic people in parliament.
Harriet Harman, leader of the Commons and minister for women and equality, said: "The House of Commons would have greater public confidence and have more legitimacy if it was more representative of this country as it now is.
"The speaker's conference will be a historic step forward in the drive to bring parliament into the 21st century."
The government will also set new targets on gender, race and disability in public appointments and give a stronger diversity remit to the commissioner for public appointments.
Saghir Alam, a commissioner for the Disability Rights Commission, and a member of the disability committee of its successor, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and the government's Equality 2025 advisory network of disabled people, stood unsuccessfully for selection as a prospective parliamentary candidate for Labour in Sheffield earlier this year.
He welcomed the move, which he said was overdue.
He said the main barriers to the election of more disabled MPs were the negative perceptions of local political parties and voters.
He said: "Disabled people tend to face attitudinal barriers. Sometimes people think that just because you're disabled, you won't be able to fulfil your role."
He said he would like to see a mentoring scheme to allow disabled people to shadow politicians. He also suggested that MPs should engage with and encourage disabled constituents.
Trevor Phillips, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said that it would be inspiring to think that British politics was on the brink of real change.
He pledged to work with the conference and added: "Sizeable barriers remain for candidates from different backgrounds. It's still too difficult to gain admittance to the dusty old gentleman's club called parliament. But I recognise that all parties are sincere in their commitment to fairness."
The conference is expected to put forward its recommendations in 2009.
Conferences are set up to enable the government to deal with matters relating to electoral law. There were just five in the last century and the conference of 1916-7 led to the enfranchisement of women over the age of 30.
Country: United Kingdom of Great Britain
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Source: Sunil Peck