Labour conference: Welfare reform sees disability inch up the agenda


theweeksubThe focus on cuts and reforms to benefits helped to raise disability further up the political agenda at this year’s Labour conference, according to disabled party members.

Labour’s plans for a new national disability insurance scheme – bringing health, social care and out-of-work benefits into a single service – were discussed prominently.

Liam Byrne, the shadow work and pensions secretary, mentioned Sir Bert Massie – who is leading a disability poverty taskforce for Labour – in his main conference speech, and praised the “hundreds of disability activists” who had helped Labour “think radically about how we make rights a reality for disabled people”.

Byrne also referenced carers’ rights and the Remploy factory closures, and said that the welfare state was “one of our proudest creations”.

And he said Labour would repeal the so-called “bedroom tax”, a policy which is affecting hundreds of thousands of households across the UK, with two-thirds containing a disabled person.

Ed Miliband, the party leader, talked of the need for mental health services to become more than just an “afterthought” in the NHS.

This “tangible” focus on disability led to discussions on other key issues, such as hate crime and access to information, according to one disabled party member.

Eleanor Southwood, who is seeking to become Labour’s parliamentary candidate for the seat of Harrow East, said: “I am encouraged by the feeling that at this conference disability issues are further up the agenda; that is quite tangible.

“Primarily discussions have been about social security… but I think I can hear other discussions starting as a result of that.”

Nicholas Russell, chair of Labour’s disabled members’ group, welcomed the announcement that Labour would scrap the bedroom tax and Miliband’s decision to stress the importance of mental health.

Kirsten Hearn, a member of the group, who herself narrowly missed being selected to fight a parliamentary seat, welcomed Byrne’s discussion of disability policy, and the comments of Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, who spoke in fringe meetings about the impact of hate crime and domestic violence on disabled people.

Hearn told Disability News Service that disability had been mentioned positively in “a number of policy speeches” and other contributions from shadow cabinet members, while “a number of delegates talked positively about the issues”.

She said there may have been “a shift in awareness”, which could be connected to the work of disabled people’s groups such as We Are Spartacus, the WOW petition and Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC).

Hearn told the party’s women’s conference that Labour should be “investing in welfare, social care and health care”.

She told delegates: “When we support people to live independently, we stimulate the economy by providing more jobs, helping people to become more economically active and supporting those who can’t to live in dignity.”

And she raised the UK Disabled People’s manifesto, which she said would “make women’s lives better both as disabled women and as those who often have the job of supporting family members when the state doesn’t.”

Hearn said: “These issues disproportionately affect disabled people and urgently require tackling, including through new powers for press regulation as a result of media influence on stigmatising disabled people as scroungers.”

Southwood, who is also RNIB’s vice-chair for external affairs, said she was optimistic that her party would have the “courage” to discuss “the sort of society we want to create”, rather than “focusing on how much people earn within it and how hard they work, and to accept that some people cannot work”.

She is receiving vital support in her political career from the government’s new Access to Elected Office fund, which helps disabled people with the extra disability-related costs they face while campaigning.

The fund pays for support workers to guide her when she is campaigning, and she also plans to use it to pay for a driver.

She said: “It is very important in the selection process that I can show up on my own terms. Having someone with me can make sure I can talk to the people I need to talk to.”

Southwood described the fund as “incredibly supportive” and “very useful and flexible”.

The former head-hunter and policy researcher is now undertaking a part-time masters degree in organisational behaviour, and has a place on the prestigious Clore Social Leadership Programme, for leaders in the non-profit sector.

25 September 2013