The Liberal Democrats’ disabled president has told Disability News Service (DNS) she is “astonished” that her party’s planned cuts to social security spending would not exempt all recipients of disability benefits.
The party confirmed to DNS last week that although its manifesto says disability benefits would be excluded from a planned one per cent cap on the annual rise in working-age benefits, which will last until 2017-18, this protection would not include recipients of out-of-work disability benefits.
Although the party would protect those claiming disability living allowance and personal independence payment (PIP), the protection would not extend to the main component of employment and support allowance (ESA), or the work-related activity top-up component of ESA, but only to the ESA support group top-up.
Baroness [Sal] Brinton said she was shocked to learn that the policy would not protect all disability benefits, as her party’s manifesto had suggested.
She said: “If [the party]have already said something to you [to confirm this]then I am astonished, because the philosophy that is in our mini-manifesto is that disabled people’s benefits would be protected.”
She said that the “bulk” of the £3 billion the party wanted to cut from social security spending in the next parliament would come from the one per cent cap.
Baroness Brinton, who became the first wheelchair-user to head a major UK political party when she was elected as Lib Dem president in December, said that it was a long-term goal of the party to merge disability benefits and social care into one pot of funding for disabled people.
This pot would include PIP, ESA, a replacement for the Independent Living Fund, and health and social care funding, while there would be just a single assessment.
She said: “One of the things that we are clear about is that we have to have more integration.
“There are too many departments working on their own and everyone talks about health and social care being completely isolated but given that a lot of social care and disability support is done by the same people in councils, and increasingly in trusts where there is integration going on, it seems ridiculous not to integrate [these sources of funding]as well.”
Baroness Brinton also made it clear that her party was “appalled” by the possibility that a Conservative government would cut the out-of-work disability benefits of people with mental health problems if they refused treatment.
And she accepted that Lib Dem manifesto plans to devolve more responsibility for the Work Programme to local authorities, combined with the possibility of having disability benefit assessments carried out by the public sector, appeared to signal a shift away from private sector outsourcing giants such as Atos, Maximus and Capita.
She said: “One of the problems of the last 10 years has been moving to major contracts and I think that is one of the reasons that some of the processes have become inhumane and have forgotten the purpose of what they were trying to do.
“When you are trying to run a national programme like that you can’t get the nuance that you need on the problems of a long-term condition.”
She said that her party wanted to reform the system so that “contracts are delivered with the comments and customers in mind, and not national targets”.
She added: “One of the ways we have done that in other fields other than disability is by making sure local government is accountable for it and even if they contract it out elsewhere, they hold the contract and they have got to assess it.
“The key thing is that local areas can monitor schemes much better than a national one.”
She also insisted that the party had not wanted to introduce the cuts to disabled students’ allowance announced by the coalition last year, even though the department that made the announcement – the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills – was headed by Liberal Democrat Vince Cable.
She said: “The reason that we are going to review it is that we have deep concerns that it is discriminatory.
“The problem is in coalition you have to agree to things that you may not want to, and we are absolutely clear that that was always something we were unhappy about, and we want to review it, and we want to make sure that if there is any hint of either it being discriminatory or not providing support for disabled students, that it would be changed.
“If we were in a majority government then that would be something that we would clearly want to do. It’s clearly on our list of things to negotiate.
“We would definitely do the review and we would want to make sure disabled students were getting the appropriate support.”
Baroness Brinton also said that one of the reasons the party had produced its mini-manifesto on disability – as well as other mini-manifestos – was so that the party had “everything together in one place to be able to negotiate should there be a coalition”.