On the 19th July, as part of the WISERD Cardiff Lunchtime Seminar Series, Professor Paul Chaney, WISERD Co-Director, outlined the findings of his research on parliamentary scrutiny and the representation of women and disabled people at Westminster. The work explores patterns and processes of “substantive representation” over the post-war period. This term refers to the situation whereby politics allows the needs and concerns of disabled people and women to be reflected in public policy-making and law.
In the case of disabled people the study showed there is evidence of “institutional ableism” – or the existence of systemic, pervasive, and habitual policies and practices that disadvantage individuals based on their abilities. In the three decades to 1970, a period when millions were affected by disability as a result of the Second World War, the analysis shows there were just four general UK public Acts of Parliament were concerned with disability. The malaise continued through to the 1990s when a small number of landmark statutes – such as the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) – were passed. Yet, the study’s overall findings show how disabled people’s representation has been far from a mainstreamed issue in Westminster law-making.
This conclusion is supported by the study’s findings on “Early Day Motions” – or “EDMs”. This is a colloquial term for notice of a debating motion given by an MP. They allow Members of Parliament to put on record their opinion on a subject and canvass support from fellow Members; effectively, it is a kind of petition that MPs can sign. Their value to researchers is that they show the topics and issues that MPs care about. However, the data presented in the seminar showed that disability is just third-ranked amongst EDMs on ‘protected characteristics’ (in other words equalities groups such as gender, ethnicity, age and sexual orientation) in terms of the level of attention received from lawmakers.
The study data reveal frustratingly slow progress over time. For example, there is only a modest increase (+3.5 percentage points) when the number of ‘disabled peoples’ EDMs in the 1992-97 parliament is compared with the 2005-10 parliament. Significantly, of the total of 217 MPs proposing Early Day Motions concerned with the disabled people’s representation, two individuals accounted for 10.4% total - and eight responsible for almost a quarter (22.7 per cent). This matters because it shows the disproportionate policy influence of ‘critical actors’ in advancing substantive representation. In other words, key individuals who do more than their peers to promote the representation of marginalised groups. This is a worrying finding. It again shows that disability issues are far from a mainstreamed policy priority amongst parliamentarians (less than a third of parliamentarians tabled a ‘disability’ EDM).
The research produced broadly similar findings in relation to women’s representation at Westminster. When the content of 22 King/ Queen’s Speeches 1945-2012 was analysed, just 26 legislative proposals (‘Bills’ – or promises of legislation) specifically concerned with women’s representation were found. This amounts to under one per cent all post-war governments’ legislative programme proposals (in other words, the things new governments promise they will do when taking up office following election). Crucially, the research also examined MPs’ response to this marginalisation. Specifically, it examined transcripts of “First Day Debates” at Westminster. These are the occasions when MPs give their response to the incoming administrations’ priorities and programme for government.
The analysis showed a significant post-war increase in attention MPs paid to women’s representation. When the first and last 25 years of post-war period are compared, the number of debating interventions on women’s representation almost doubles. Overwhelmingly, this is led by parties of Left (with Labour accounting for more than two-thirds of such interventions). Furthermore, when the debating interventions are disaggregated by sex, male MPs account for 72.9%. Yet it should be noted, when weighed against the percentages of women and men in parliament, proportionately, women MPs are much more likely to raise women’s representation issues in their scrutiny in First Day Debates.
In sum, in the case of both disabled peoples’ representation and the substantive representation of women at Westminster, the research confirms a clear history of marginalisation and representational failings over the post-war period. It also highlights that the role of “critical actors” and Left-party strength are key factors in addressing these shortcomings.