Hopes still high for changes to welfare reform bill


Disability rights campaigners say they remain optimistic that changes can still be made to the government’s hugely unpopular welfare reform bill before it becomes law.

This week, the Commons committee that was examining the bill in detail finished its deliberations, with the Conservative and Liberal Democrat majority ensuring the reforms remained intact.

But four Liberal Democrat MPs have registered their unhappiness with proposed reforms to disability benefits – an important part of the bill – warning that they could “push thousands of disabled people into poverty”.

The four MPs – Andrew George, Mike Hancock, John Leech and Bob Russell – have signed an early day motion condemning reforms such as time-limiting the payment of contributory employment and support allowance and removing the mobility component of disability living allowance (DLA) from people in residential homes.

They are also unhappy about plans to force people with permanently high support needs to undergo new assessments in order to claim personal independent payment, the proposed replacement for DLA.

A Liberal Democrat party spokesman said discussions were “ongoing” over “various concerns” around the measures on disability benefits, although he claimed there would “not be any broad brush changes” to the bill.

Neil Coyle, director of policy for Disability Alliance, said he was not hopeful of any improvements to the bill before it leaves the Commons, but was optimistic that the “more independent-minded House of Lords” would make “significant changes”.

He said: “By the time the Lords have finished a more thorough analysis of the impact and we have further time for disabled people to make clear what the impact could be, when the bill returns to the Commons the government should be forced to make some amendments.

“I don’t think they will go far enough, but I think we are going to see a vastly different bill coming out of the Lords and there will have to be some level of change.”

Sue Bott, director of the National Centre for Independent Living, said she believed it was crucial to convince the Labour party to oppose the bill, as campaigners were “not making any headway” in persuading the party’s “upper echelons”.

But she added: “At first the Labour party were pretty much behind the welfare reform bill, but I do sense that that position is shifting. If Labour are going to vote for the bill it doesn’t really matter what anyone else does.”

She said she felt that Liberal Democrat MPs would back the bill because they wanted to reserve their opposition for other pieces of unpopular coalition legislation.

Jaspal Dhani, chief executive of the UK Disabled People’s Council, said he believed there was still an “opportunity” to secure changes to the bill.

He said this could be aided by recommendations expected later this year from the inquiry by the joint committee on human rights into the implementation of disabled people’s right to independent living.

He added: “I think the fact that more MPs are starting to question the policy direction of the disability reforms and spending cuts would indicate to me it is not too late.”

26 May 2011