Marsha de Cordova: “Parliament should be inclusive for everybody. It’s supposed to be the people’s house”
This Parliament has been more stressful than most for MPs – add in ongoing battles with IPSA and being forced to fire staff, and you can see why Marsha de Cordova is having sleepless nights. The life-long disability campaigner talks to Anahita Hossein-Pour about why she’ll never stop demanding inclusivity
Labour’s shadow disabilities minister is no stranger to the barriers faced in her brief. Marsha de Cordova has fought her own battles through school, college, university and work; this year has seen her embroiled in a struggle in Parliament that many of her colleagues will not relate to.
Sitting down with The House magazine, the Bristol-raised campaigner describes, as if for the umpteenth time, that she was born with a severe visual impairment called nystagmus, which is an involuntary movement of the eye. “I actually call it my wobble, because they just bounce around the place all the time,” she says, light heartedly.
We’re joined in the room by de Cordova’s sighted assistant, who has acted as “her eyes” since the former Lambeth councillor ousted the Tories in Battersea in the 2017 election. That means helping de Cordova get around the Parliamentary estate, her constituency, to events and meetings. But this is only one of many adjustments needed to do her job.
From brightening up the voting lobbies to having a secure transport system home, and reading materials produced in large print – sometimes 40+ font – de Cordova is unapologetic for pushing Westminster to up its standards on accessibility.
“There have been many times papers or briefings, or reports are produced and mine hasn’t been done in large print. Now I make a point every time that will happen, I will raise it in the House because it’s unacceptable,” the sight-loss charity founder says.
“They are getting better, the House, at doing this but we are over two years in. So they should be near perfect frankly but it’s a work in progress.”
For all MPs the pressure amid the Brexit chaos and crunch Commons showdowns for the past year has been relentless, but for de Cordova? “Challenging!” she stresses. For most MPs, Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement ran to a daunting 586 pages. The shadow disabilities minister’s copy ran into the thousands. “It came in bundled – it was huge,” she laughs. “Bless the delivery people.”
Away from the day-to-day drama as an MP during these turbulent times, de Cordova has been facing her own turmoil in trying to convince the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) to accept her requests for extra support for her disability.
The public body had refused to cover the extra costs racked up from de Cordova’s large-printing needs, and the frontbencher was left shocked after she was forced to fire one of her own members of staff, as IPSA said the funding had been “made in error”.
The employee had come on board after de Cordova was quickly catapulted from being a first-time MP to a shadow minister within six months of arriving in Westminster. IPSA had agreed to cover the expense of the assistant, who worked with de Cordova for nearly a year, helping her prepare for speeches, debates, meetings and briefings in light of her extra needs.
But in February this year, they backtracked and said the funding was coming to an end. “It caused me a great deal of upset and frustration. Physically, mentally, emotionally, it was just really tiresome. As, while all that is happening, I am still trying to be a damn good MP for my constituency in Battersea and so, those additional challenges you really don’t need,” she says. “And the outcome of that was I had to let a member of staff go.”
The upset caused de Cordova to speak out in the Commons on International Women’s Day, highlighting her lack of support as a disabled MP. She told the chamber: “I have faced many barriers in my life – in education, in the workplace and so forth – so getting elected was a huge achievement, but unfortunately obtaining the additional support I need in this place to operate as an MP has been challenging.
“I am continuously fighting for additional support but being told by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority,: ‘We know you have additional needs, but we are not going to support those additional needs’. It has made it very difficult for me.
“The people of Battersea sent me here to represent them, and I should not have to fight the authorities here for the additional support I need, but I will fight on, because that is what I have had to do my whole life. I will keep fighting. It does not stop here.”
The clear message to IPSA appeared to have worked, as the agency in charge of MPs’ expenses and salaries quickly got in touch with de Cordova following her impassioned speech and have agreed to cover her further printing costs since June. Further talks over how to support her shadow ministerial role are also continuing. “But it really shouldn’t have had to take that,” the former Unite union disabilities committee member says.
“I’m currently in a rut doing my shadow ministerial role without any additional support.”
Fast forward from de Cordova’s cautious optimism during our recess meeting, and things have gone from bad to worse. The defiant MP calls with an update that the discussions with IPSA had erupted into a row over its “unreasonable” demands.
“I thought everything else was going quite well, until this year which has been really difficult. It’s causing me so much stress, anxiety, upset and worry – if you’re not getting the support you need then how are you supposed to be effective?” de Cordova worries.
And time lost? “It’s hard to quantify, but you worry. You know, sleepless nights. Bless my sighted assistant, they are probably the one person that really got to see the impact it’s having on me – me being in tears – it’s been an emotional time.”
De Cordova is among another five or six “self-defining” disabled MPs in the Commons, by her estimates. In a message for IPSA, she offers some words of advice: “They need to develop a proper policy on how they support disabled MPs because what my experience has demonstrated is they don’t have a clear understanding of how best to address the issues that arise. No one disability is the same, but they need to spend some time and resource in understanding the needs of disabled people and how they can be best supported by IPSA.”
An IPSA spokesperson tells The House: “IPSA fully supports a diverse Parliament. We, and others, can do more to achieve that. IPSA works closely with MPs and their staff to ensure that funding is provided to support their parliamentary and constituency work, in line with the rules.
“In particular, we support comprehensive assessments of the specific needs of MPs and their staff, so that any reasonable adjustments can be identified and quickly funded to help them in their jobs.”
Beyond IPSA, Parliament’s restoration programme is an area de Cordova feels more positive about. She was among those invited to contribute to how the estate could be disability friendly for MPs, peers and visitors. And she’s got plenty of ideas: “To have a tour of the estate there’s got to be an accessible route to do that – and there is one – but wouldn’t it be great if there’s just one route?”
“I do believe that there is a will to get it right and do it, so fingers crossed when that programme begins that we will start to see some changes,” she adds.
“I’m sure I’m not going to be the first visually impaired person and I certainly hope I won’t be the last Member of Parliament there. Ultimately, I just want a place that is inclusive for everybody because it’s supposed to be the people’s house and it’s the mother of all Parliaments. People look to us at what we’re doing and it’s so important that we get it right. Part of why I’m there I suppose is to be that voice to try and improve things.”
And in her short two years in Parliament, de Cordova has made a series of asks for changes to the estate to help navigate the 112,476 square metres of space. These range from tactile markings on steps to fluorescent markings on glass doors, and an ongoing trial and error process to make the annunciator more visible in the chamber.
“I always say I will face these challenges, I will try and overcome these barriers just to ensure those who may come behind me won’t have to face the same ones. So, if I can try and break those down the journey will be smoother for somebody else that comes behind me, that’s my hope.” She doesn’t think switching up the voting lobbies to electronic voting would be wide off the mark either. “Don’t you think that would move us forward slightly, a century or two?” she asks.
On entering the House, de Cordova tried to copy one of the methods used by Gordon Brown to cope with sight issues. At the despatch box the former Prime Minister would stack books to help overcome the blindness in one of his eyes. “So I thought ‘ooh I’m going to try that’. But I would have to stack loads of books for me to be able to read that way. So I use a portable music stand which remains in the chamber all the time, and when I’m speaking from the frontbench, then I will use that,” she explains.
De Cordova is also inspired by the likes of Lord Blunkett, another Labour grandee, who she remembers as one of the first blind people in Parliament. “He would sit on the frontbench and his dog would just be lain across, and I would be like ‘that is so cool’.”
But the disabilities activist has been making her own mark in the UK, having been announced as one of Vogue magazine’s 25 “high-powered and visionary women” working to shape Britain’s future for 2019. The Duchess of Sussex, Oscar-winning actress Olivia Coleman, model Naomi Campbell and Liberal Democrat MP Luciana Berger also hit the top spots.
“Oh my gosh,” de Cordova laughs. “I didn’t know! I didn’t get a heads up on it and so I started to get these messages through ‘congrats on Vogue’...when I saw it, that was such an honour.
“I did notice I was next to the Duchess of Sussex which was kind of like ‘that’s a bit of a coup’,” she jokes.
On ambitions going forward, what’s de Cordova gearing up for? “The goal for me is I want a Labour government. I can’t do anything unless I have got a Labour government to do it through. For me I want to see disabled people a central part of any Labour government we see, any government department, housing, accessible homes, transport, social security, the labour market. It is threaded into everything.”
With betting odds strongly tipping for a general election by the end of the year, de Cordova may soon get that chance. But regardless of that outcome she vows to fight on for disability rights.
“I will always be a disability rights activist and campaigner, whether I’m an MP or not, I will always do that because I have to. Because until we have full equality and equal parity in life, my work here will never be done.”