A disabled Conservative parliamentary candidate has admitted that comments by George Osborne in a speech to his party conference risked causing “collateral damage” to disabled benefits claimants.
Osborne, the chancellor, caused alarm and anger when he talked about the unfairness of a “shift-worker” leaving for work early in the morning who looks up and sees “the closed blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits”.
He is the latest in a line of Conservative politicians to be accused of risking stirring up hostility to disabled people on out-of-work benefits.
At last year’s conference, work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith said that incapacity benefit was “too often abused as an excuse for avoiding work”.
Many activists pointed out that there were good reasons why many disabled people would have their blinds or curtains closed early in the morning, related to both their impairments and the crisis in social care.
Some took to Twitter, using the hash-tag #mycurtainsareclosedbecause to respond to Osborne’s comments, including @latentexistence, who said: “#mycurtainsareclosedbecause I’m light sensitive when I have a migraine and I’d like to stop gasping with pain.”
A spokesman for Osborne claimed later that the chancellor was “not referring to disability benefits and made no mention of them”.
But Adrian Berrill-Cox, a disabled barrister who stood for the party at the last general election in Islington North, said he was concerned about the “collateral damage” that could be caused by Osborne’s words, and added: “Stigmatisation is something we have to be extremely careful about.”
He said he was “a little bit worried” that people might be “incited” to abuse disabled benefits claimants because of a “misunderstanding” of Osborne’s words.
He said: “If you say something like ‘shop a dole scrounger’ the chances are that people who aren’t dole scroungers are going to get shopped.
“It is important for all politicians to be able to illustrate a problem. Sometimes that illustration can lead to unintended consequences and I am sure George Osborne would not want disabled people to suffer as a consequence.
“I don’t think it is likely to lead to a wave of hate… It would be very sad if people misinterpreted and did horrible things as a consequence.”
Berrill-Cox said the “vast majority” of people on welfare were “on benefits because they have no choice”.
He said: “When it comes to disabled people, benefits are a matter of civilisation. It is about enabling people to be part of the society in which they live. That is what a civilised society does.
“Benefits in the case of disabled people like me are enabling. They enable me to contribute in a financial sense.”
9 October 2012