A disabled MP has defended his decision to vote with the coalition government on controversial measures in the welfare reform bill that will see cuts to disabled people’s benefits.
Stephen Lloyd has faced accusations of hypocrisy because of his decision to vote with the government on five amendments around disability, while also playing a leading role on several disability-related all-party parliamentary groups.
He is vice-chair of the groups on deafness and multiple sclerosis and is an active member of the all-party parliamentary disability group.
But the Liberal Democrat MP for Eastbourne today rejected these claims and said he had repeatedly lobbied ministers over the bill, and hoped eventually to secure an important concession on one of the most unpopular disability-related proposals.
Two weeks ago, he voted with the government to reinstate proposals to time-limit the contributory form of employment and support allowance (ESA) – for those in the work-related activity group – to one year.
He also backed plans to reinstate contributory ESA time-limits for some people receiving cancer treatment, and prevent disabled young people with the highest support needs claiming contributory ESA.
And he voted to cut benefits for young disabled people with lower support needs, which will see most families with a disabled child losing £27 per week.
This week, he voted to overturn a fifth Lords amendment to the bill, this time to exempt many disabled people from a proposal to cut the housing benefit of working-age residents of social housing with spare bedrooms.
Although he voted with the government, he did warn ministers it would be “daft” to move disabled people out of their homes because of the spare bedroom rule if thousands of pounds had been spent on physical adaptations.
He told Disability News Service (DNS) afterwards: “The government have given a commitment that there will be enough money given in discretionary funds to local authorities by the government [£30 million] to ensure that where you have a disabled person’s house that has been adapted that they will not be moved out.”
Lloyd said he understood why some disabled people might call him a “hypocrite” for voting with the government, while he was also a leading figure on disability-related all-party groups.
But he said he had lobbied ministers heavily on several disability-related issues in the bill, and continued to do so.
A member of the work and pensions select committee, he did manage to secure improvements to some proposals, while on others he didn’t and “took it on the chin”.
He said: “If I keep dying in a ditch on principle and keep [voting against the government]then my influence goes down the pan.”
He said he was frustrated at some of the criticism being levelled against the coalition over its welfare reforms, and pointed out that the government had been “hammered” over continuing problems with the work capability assessment – which tests eligibility for ESA – even though it was introduced by the Labour government.
But his strongest defence is his own lived experience as a disabled person and passionate interest in disability issues – he has a hearing impairment, and lost his sight for six months in his twenties, while his mother had bipolar disorder.
Before entering parliament in 2010 he worked in business for more than 20 years but also focused on disability and other diversity issues, including work with both RNIB and RNID.
He said: “I fight like hell around the issue of disability. Sometimes [the hypocrisy]is true, but sometimes it’s more nuanced than that.
“Disability is something I am determined to do something about in parliament, so having me on some of these groups is a real asset.”
He comes, he stresses, from a “social model” perspective, which explains his support – in a debate two months ago when he stood almost alone against a swathe of union-backed Labour MPs – for ending subsidies for the remaining segregated Remploy factories and encouraging disabled people to work in mainstream employment.
He stresses that he has lobbied work and pensions ministers hard on the welfare reform bill, particularly on the issue of disabled people having to undergo repeated assessments to claim ESA and the new personal independence payment (PIP), the planned replacement for disability living allowance (DLA).
He believes some disabled people only need to be assessed in person once, with future reassessments on paper, probably through a letter of confirmation from their consultant, a change he says would help disabled people and save the government money.
He believes ministers have been listening to him on the issue, although they have not yet promised to make the changes. Lloyd believes such a change could be politically possible once every working-age person on DLA has been reassessed for their eligibility for PIP.
But he remains unapologetic about backing the government on other measures in the bill, such as the hugely controversial proposal to introduce the ESA one-year time limit, because he wants to “get people back to work”.
He believes in the government’s “broad direction of travel” on ESA and its Work Programme, and says he is “evangelical” about helping people move from welfare dependency into employment, although he says most of this group are not disabled people.
But he does make a promise: that if the government’s welfare reforms prove after all to be a “Thatcherite” plot, he will have no qualms about turning from a “critical friend” into a “vehement foe”.
Lloyd insists that he did not feel uncomfortable voting with the government on the cuts to disability benefits, and that only if he had been “very, very specific” and “very vocal” on a particular issue would he then feel “daft” to vote against it.
He said: “There are some issues where I am winning, there are some issues where I am losing. But I do understand the concept of coalition, that coalition is a compromise and you win some, and you lose some.”
23 February 2012