Union activists have raised major concerns at the appointment of the ministers who will be responsible for welfare reform in the new coalition government.
The government announced this week that the minister for welfare reform would be Lord [David] Freud, who will work under work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who was appointed last week.
And in a surprise appointment, the new minister for disabled people was named as Conservative MP Maria Miller – who was formerly shadow minister for the family – rather than the former shadow minister for disabled people, Mark Harper.
Lord Freud was a welfare adviser to the Labour government on welfare reform, before resigning to become a Conservative peer and shadow minister for welfare reform in February 2009.
He is most notorious for telling the Daily Telegraph in February 2008 that he believed that fewer than a third of those claiming incapacity benefit (IB) were too disabled or ill to work.
He told the Telegraph he did not accept the “rhetoric” that people on the dole were “lazy scroungers”, but was also quoted as saying: “If you want a recipe for getting people on to IB, we’ve got it: you get more money and you don’t get hassled. You can sit there for the rest of your life.”
His appointment is likely to alarm those campaigners already concerned at the previous government’s efforts to slash the number of disabled people claiming out-of-work disability benefits.
Campaigners also hope the new government will reduce the unfairness of the strict new work capability assessment, the test for new applicants for out-of-work disability benefits, which is set to be gradually extended to existing IB claimants from this autumn.
Peter Purton, the TUC’s disability policy officer, said it was “extremely worried about the views of the people appointed to the DWP and their track record in welfare-to-work and benefits”.
He said the previous government’s welfare reform policies were “unfair, unjust and oppressive and we suspect from their public announcements that the new government’s are going to be punitive and even worse”.
But Purton said it was unclear whether Conservative hard-line pre-election comments on welfare reform were “playing to the gallery” or whether they would be followed through into policy.
Another trade union official said he had “very serious concerns” about the appointments, which he feared suggested a return to the harsh Conservative policies of the 1980s.
He said the new government needed to see disabled people “not as an economic burden but as an economic class”.
But Sue Bott, director of the National Centre for Independent Living, said she would judge the new ministerial team by how they behaved in office and the policies they put into place.
20 May 2010