UK Member of Parliament, Dame Anne Begg MP kindly took some time out to chat to Disability Horizons and share her amazing story. Her website perfectly summarises how “Anne was elected the Labour MP for Aberdeen South in 1997, the first permanent wheelchair user to be elected to the House of Commons. Born in 1955 she was brought up in Brechin, Angus. Before her election she was a Secondary School English teacher for 19 years in Kirriemuir and Arbroath. She is now Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee and was made a Dame in the 2011 New Year’s Honours List.” Here you can read about political life and how you can make a difference in the world too.
Hi Anne, thank you for your time today. We would like to start by asking you to share with the readers how you got into politics?
I joined the Labour Party after Labour did very badly in the 1983 election. I felt I could no longer stand on the sidelines and complain so should get involved. However, I had no intention of ever being an MP – although I thought I might like to be an MSP. However, Labour didn’t win the 1992 election so there was no Scottish Parliament. I was approached in 1995 to consider putting my name forward for selection for Aberdeen South which was to be an all woman shortlist. After a lot of thought, I decided chances like that only come along rarely and that I would regret it if I didn’t at least try. Without this encouragement I would never have put myself forward. And, of course, I wanted to make the world a better place; get enforceable, comprehensive civil rights for disabled people; and to right the wrongs done during the years of Tory government.
What was the attitude of other MPs towards disabled people when you first became a member, and how has that changed over time?
For a couple of years the Chamber used to quieten when I spoke and MPs didn’t interrupt me as they did everyone else. It took some time for them to forget about the wheelchair and to treat me like everyone else. Other than this, I have always found Parliament friendly and supportive – not the impression most people have. The House authorities tried very hard to ensure I could carry out my work in the same way other MPs did.
How accessible is the House of Commons?
Parliament itself is much more accessible than it was when I arrived in 1997. The public entrance was not accessible but MPs didn’t go in that way. All of the temporary ramps which were put in for me are now permanent and look as though they have always been there. However, there is always room for improvement, especially when there are a number of wheelchair users trying to get into the same meeting.
How would a wheelchair user get to the dispatch box in order to address the Commons?
As I have never been a Minister, or on the “Front Bench”, I have not had to solve this problem. Probably it would be by sitting to the side of the dispatch box. However, I was on the Chairmen’s Panel for a number of years so ramps are now available for someone in a wheelchair to get on to the raised dais in committee rooms and Westminster Hall. I also chaired a session of the Chamber so sat at the Clerks’ desk in front of the Speaker’s Chair.
What issues and campaigns are you currently working on in Parliament?
Almost all the work I do in Parliament at the moment revolves around the Work and Pensions Select Committee which I chair. It covers all the policy areas covered by the Department of Work and Pensions so it is very busy scrutinising the work of the Department. There are huge changes being planned to the benefits system and pensions so we are not short of things to look at. However, I also chair the All Party Offshore Oil and Gas group so I also take up issues important to my constituents.
What tips can you provide to any aspiring disabled parliamentarians out there?
Get involved. Many elected politicians have some experience in campaigning groups or Trade Unions which helps when they come to face a selection panel – they can show what they have achieved. It doesn’t all have to be in the political field, but you do need a track record. You also need to have joined a political party and got yourself known as someone who can lead and inspire.
For something a little lighter – what do you do to switch off for leisure time?
I love getting my feet up and reading murder mysteries or detective novels – although I will read most types of novel. I also enjoy the theatre and going to the cinema. However, most of my “social” life revolves around my life as an MP – there is no such thing as a work/life balance in my life.
We like to really put our interviewee on the spot with some quick fire questions. Are you ready?
I always find these the quick fire questions tricky, but go on then!
Who is your political role model?
My Dad – although he was never an elected politician, he gave me the values and principles which lie at the heart of my politics.
What is the most inspiring speech you heard in parliament?
Ann Widdecombe on the abolition of fox hunting.
What is your favourite act of parliament?
The Equalities Act 2010, without a doubt.
What is your most memorable political campaign?
Very difficult to chose one – lots of campaigns around disability such as mobility DLA for sight impaired, changes to use of embryonic stems cells in research, minimum wage, Scottish Parliament, abolition of fox hunting and I could go on. Then on a local level, Cod War fisherman’s compensation and Financial Assistance scheme for those who had lost their occupational pension.
Brilliant! Many thanks again Anne and on behalf of our readers, best of luck with the DWP work in these coming months.