What does the Parliamentary Placements Scheme involve?
The Speaker’s Parliamentary Placements Scheme is part of the UK Government’s Access to Elected Office for Disabled People Strategy, which was set up with cross-Party support to provide support to disabled people who want to become MPs, councillors or other elected officials. The Parliamentary Placements Scheme aims to give paid interns an insight into how Parliament works.
I started my placement in October 2012 and finished in July 2013, so I got to experience a full Parliamentary cycle. I spent four days a week working with an individual MP and one day working for the House of Commons.
What experience have you gained?
I’ve met a lot of people and my contacts list has really grown. Day to day, I took phone calls on behalf of my MP’s office, put meetings in the diary, deal with emails, created briefs for my MP and attended meetings. I even got to experience running the MP’s office myself for a week when one colleague had left and we were waiting for another to start. I also got to see all the main political events, such as Prime Minister’s Question Time and big debates where I had the opportunity to learn and take on new ideas.
It’s been a very positive experience and I’ve gained a lot of confidence. I’ve also learnt that to work in politics takes courage, a strong fighting spirit, and a will to never give up to overcome the barriers and demonstrate that you’re not going to run away from unpredictable moments and challenges. It’s important to keep positive when things aren’t going well or when you’re under pressure.
Some people expect there to be people who have negative attitudes towards their involvement in politics because of their disability, but my experience is that people’s attitudes are very positive towards disabled people being involved in politics.
What made you want to take part in the scheme?
I always wanted to get involved in politics and have a love for Westminster politics. I saw it as an opportunity to prove that people with my condition – autism – can be successful, can make good employees, and be passionate about issues. It’s given me the chance to learn how Parliament works and to develop not just personally but politically: in Parliament you bump into people from all the parties and are exposed to new, challenging political ideas.
What was your previous experience before getting involved in the intern scheme?
When I was at high school I was diagnosed with autism and I was keen to help others who were facing challenges, no matter what they were – disability, educational reform, social mobility, or the issues surrounding Scottish independence. While I was at school I undertook campaign work around the subject of autism, travelling to Sweden to learn about how their educational system serves children with autism and giving a presentation about this to the Scottish Government ASD Reference Group. I felt that by joining a political party I could make a real difference and I joined my party when I was 16 or 17, in 2006.
When I went to university I became heavily involved in student politics. I spoke at the Scottish Parliament when the Scottish Autism Bill Campaign was launched, and so I’ve been quite involved in the disability and equality field.
What disability-related barriers do you face in political life, and how have you overcome them?
Debates can get very heated and people with autism can get put off by ‘schoolboy politics’. You have to make sure that when you’re involved in political debate, you don’t take it personally when another person disagrees with the point you’re making. It took me a long time to learn how to do this.
With autism, sometimes I have trouble communicating as well as socialising. When it comes to elections, this happens most during the campaigning activities – for example, knocking on doors and not knowing what reaction you’re going to get and how to deal with it. This can affect your confidence. Luckily, I have always had people who support and encourage me, for example having someone by my side when I’m campaigning so they can step in if I become anxious. Having the support of people who understand and are happy to help has helped me overcome this challenge and build my confidence.
What are your plans for the future?
Ideally I would like to be involved in Parliament and stay in London. I’m being open-minded, and would also consider a job in the public or private sector. I hope to stand for Parliament in 2020.
What advice would you give to other disabled people who want to play a role in politics?
Disabled people are still very under-represented in politics so it’s encouraging to see that more disabled people are getting engaged in politics and are speaking out and being heard.
If you then want to get some hands on experience try taking part in peaceful protests, join disability groups, get involved in campaigns and political parties. Party involvement is good because if you want to create change it gives you a fantastic opportunity to do this in a wide range of issues that you’re interested in. If you decide to stand for elected office, apply for the Access to Elected Office for Disabled People Fund, which is excellent and really benefits people with physical and complex disabilities.