The Liberal Democrats have published a manifesto which – of the five main parties covering both England and Wales – appears to offer the most extensive series of proposals around disability rights.
Among them are pledges to formally recognise British Sign Language (BSL) as an official UK language, and to enact the remaining unimplemented clauses of Labour’s Equality Act 2010, including the provisions on discrimination by taxis and private hire vehicles.
Possibly the most eye-catching is that the party will “aim for the goal” of bringing together disability benefits and social care – including personal independence payment, employment and support allowance, a “replacement for the Independent Living Fund” and health and social care funding – into a single pot of funding, offering disabled people “one assessment, one budget” for all their needs.
On social care, the party promises to end the practice of care workers being forced to rush from one job to the next; to “provide more choice at the end of life”, such as having the choice to die at home rather than in hospital; and to offer free end-of-life social care, if it is “affordable and cost effective”.
Like the Conservatives, Greens, Labour and UKIP, the Liberal Democrats want to integrate the NHS and social care systems, but seem to be alone in suggesting a target date – of 2018 – for full pooling of budgets between health and care services.
Full responsibility for social care would shift to the Department of Health, while a Liberal Democrat government would commission a “fundamental review” of NHS and social care funding in 2015.
The Liberal Democrat manifesto also has a significant focus on mental health, through its “equal care for mental health” pledge.
Among its mental health policies, it would ensure people with mental health problems “get the help they need to stay in or find work”, while it would continue the government’s support for the Time to Change anti-stigma programme.
A string of welfare reform policies that would impact on disabled people include a promise to devolve support to local areas through a “reformed and improved” Work Programme, in partnership with local authorities and the Welsh and Scottish governments, and ensure better support for those furthest from the labour market, which would include many disabled people.
It also pledges to improve links between jobcentres, Work Programme providers and the local NHS, to “ensure all those in receipt of health-related benefits are getting the care and support to which they are entitled”.
It says it must continue to find “savings” in the welfare budget, but that its priority would be to tackle the causes of rising social security bills, such as high rents, low pay, sickness and unemployment.
One cut would come from a one per cent cap on annual increases in working-age benefits, which would apply for the first three years of the next parliament.
Although the party says it would exclude disability benefits from this cap – including personal independence payment (PIP) – it has confirmed that this 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.
Other social security pledges include a review of the work capability assessment and the PIP eligibility test, to ensure they are “fair, accurate and timely”.
The party also holds out the possibility of scrapping the controversial use of private sector companies such as Atos, Capita and Maximus to carry out assessments, and replacing them with a public sector provider.
There is also a pledge to review benefit sanctions procedures in jobcentres, ensuring there are no “league tables or targets”, and introducing a “yellow card” warning system so claimants are only sanctioned if they “deliberately and repeatedly break the rules”.
And the party promises to clear the backlog of PIP assessments, “simplify and streamline” back-to-work support for disabled people, and “seek” to expand the Access to Work programme.
As part of pledges on the coalition’s spare room subsidy removal policy – known by most campaigners and opposition MPs as the bedroom tax – the manifesto promises to ensure that all disabled people receive housing benefit for an extra room if they need one.
The party would also ensure that all existing social tenants do not have their housing benefit reduced until they have been offered “reasonable alternative accommodation”, while disabled tenants whose homes have been “substantially adapted” will also not see their housing benefit reduced.
The party promises to make parliament “more family-friendly”, including a review that would “pave the way for MP jobsharing arrangements”, which many disabled campaigners believe would make it easier for disabled people to enter parliament as part-time, job-share MPs.
The manifesto also says that a Liberal Democrat government would encourage employers to shortlist all suitably qualified disabled candidates for jobs, and provide employers with advice on workplace adaptations, as well as copying across the public sector the Civil Service programme that offers accelerated progress through the ranks for under-represented groups, such as disabled people.
On access, the party pledges to make more stations wheelchair-accessible and give wheelchair-users priority over children’s buggies when space is limited – a high-profile issue for many disabled people travelling on buses – and improve access to public transport for people with visual and hearing impairments.
It also promises to produce a new standard for benchmarking the accessibility of cities, and to improve legislation on blue parking badges.
The Liberal Democrats also say they would ensure “proper monitoring” of disability hate crime by police forces and other public bodies.
And they promise to ensure that the government’s push for its “transactional” services to become “digital by default” does not leave some people behind, by “upholding the highest standards of accessibility in digital services and maintaining government programmes on digital inclusion”.
The manifesto also says the party would review the impact of the coalition’s cuts and reforms to disabled student’s allowance, to “consider additional protections for the most vulnerable” disabled students, and ensure all disabled students receive “appropriate support”.
Kelly-Marie Blundell (pictured), the disabled Liberal Democrat candidate for Guildford and a leading member of the Liberal Democrat Disability Association (LDDA), said she was pleased to see policies that she and other LDDA members had worked on make it into the manifesto.
These include the commitment to recognise BSL as an official language, to take further action on disability hate crime, and to work towards reviewing and simplifying disability benefits, “including the assessments which have caused so many problems since Labour introduced them”.
She said: “Protecting disability benefits from proposed cuts and limits on year-on-year increases will help a lot of people on low income, but also moving employment support to local councils, an area which I led on nationally, will help people with disabilities be best placed to find the right provisions and help to find work.
“Protecting the Human Rights Act is vital to ensuring people with disabilities are protected in society, and strengthening resources to tackle disability hate crime, are also important inclusions.”
She said she would have liked to have seen more of a commitment in the manifesto to incentivise companies to adapt workplaces for disabled people and to take them on as employees.
She said: “All too often there are huge barriers in employing people with disabilities, and only through incentivising companies to get involved will we redress this inequality.”
She added: “I’d also like to see more on disabled access to public transport, an area which is poorly provided for across the country, to level the playing-field for thousands of people with mobility problems.”
Another disabled candidate, Loraine Birchall, who is standing for the Liberal Democrats in Carlisle, said she was pleased to see a commitment to creating jobcentre “complex case teams”, for benefit claimants who face greater challenges in returning to work or who may never be able to work.
And she welcomed the Liberal Democrat pledge to publish a disability and health employment green paper, working closely with service-users and third sector organisations.
She also praised the manifesto’s focus on mental health, including the promise of equality of access to treatment.