Lib Dem conference: Clegg wrestles with his conscience, while rising stars spark hope on disability


theblogopinionThe irony of the access problems at this year’s Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow did not escape Kelly-Marie Blundell, vice-chair of the Liberal Democrat Disability Association.

While disabled campaigners have been fighting the government’s move to cut the moving around criteria in the new PIP assessment from 50 metres to 20 metres, she told me, choosing the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre as their venue ensured disabled delegates would need to walk five times that distance to access their own conference.

So long are the corridors that the party had to start placing chairs at regular intervals for the many party members who needed to break their journey into several mini-marathons, rather than one epic trek. The party’s idea was obviously to ensure their delegates were too exhausted to mount the stage to attack the bedroom tax by the time they made it into the main auditorium. Fortunately, the tactic didn’t work…

The party’s other tactic, it seemed, was to try to lose its members in the maze of corridors that made up the SECC, otherwise known as the world’s only conference centre specifically designed for rabbits, by rabbits.

Just days after the launch of the UK Disabled People’s Manifesto, the conference provided plenty of other reminders of why the social model is still the only tool in town for understanding and explaining the reality of disabled people’s lives.

One of these reminders came from Julie Newman, acting chair of the UK Disabled People’s Council. She had been due to address a fringe meeting on the subject of disabled people and employment. She had booked an accessible taxi to take her to the station in her power wheelchair, so she could catch a train from London to Glasgow.

Unfortunately, the taxi broke down. And despite the RNIB – which was paying for her travel – phoning every company it could, none of them could or would provide a wheelchair-accessible taxi. So Newman missed her train.

As she said in her speech, delivered later that day by the RNIB’s Steve Winyard, this demonstrated “the true state of affairs for disabled people in our country today”.

“Our custom as disabled people has no value,” she/he said. “Our contribution to wider society has no recognition or worth. The failure to provide a service has no acknowledgement of the wider impact.”

And Newman lives in Newham, the main host borough of the London 2012 Paralympics.

This is all about valuing the contribution disabled people make to society, said Newman, but also about ensuring they can make that contribution.

Back in the main conference auditorium, Nick Clegg was fielding a question on the bedroom tax.

“My heart goes out to those people who found themselves caught out,” he said. He has, he told us, been “wrestling” with this and other difficult decisions. But a sweaty grapple on the mat with his conscience is no substitute for a proper cumulative impact assessment (CIA) of the coalition’s welfare reforms on disabled people.

Carry out a CIA and he would know exactly what harm his government’s policies were likely to cause disabled people. Despite the government’s protestations, we know such an assessment is possible because London Councils are doing one themselves. Last time I checked, their resources were considerably less than those of the Department for Work and Pensions.

But there was still a fair amount to be positive about in Glasgow.

Most strikingly, the profile of the Liberal Democrat Disability Association (LDDA)  and its leading disabled members appears to have taken a leap forward, and not just because it was celebrating its 21st anniversary.

Blundell, its vice-chair, has been selected to fight the Guildford parliamentary seat, was part of the influential federal conference committee, and also chaired one of the main conference sessions. Emily Frith, one of Nick Clegg’s special advisers, apparently wants to meet with LDDA. “I think that’s a really positive step for us,” Blundell told me.

Another LDDA member, Greg Judge, is on the party’s leadership programme, and George Potter, who created a storm at last year’s conference with his motion and speech on welfare reform, is also building a reputation both within and outside the party walls. Both made impressive contributions to fringe meetings and debates.

The LDDA also organised two excellent fringe meetings, and saw a policy motion its members had heavily backed, which called for British Sign Language to be given legal status, approved unanimously by the party, a huge coup for LDDA founder member David Buxton, who proposed the motion in the main auditorium and whose star also appears to be on the rise within the party.

Buxton is already the country’s first BSL-using Deaf councillor, and if his quest to become an MP is not successful, the party should surely find him a place in the House of Lords. After Baroness Campbell persuaded the Lords to allow her to use a PA to deliver part of her speeches, it would send an equally powerful message to have our first BSL-using Deaf peer.

As if to illustrate Buxton’s rising influence in the party, soon after giving an interview to Disability News Service, he was spotted in a group meeting with former party leader Lord [Paddy] Ashdown, who now chairs the Liberal Democrat General Election Campaign 2015.

To finish on a lighter note, it gladdened the heart to hear Paul Rickard, director of corporate finance for Circle, a group of housing associations, remind the audience at their fringe meeting that their government’s brutal cuts and reforms to welfare did at least provide himself and his colleagues with one reason to keep a smile on their faces.

Welfare reform is “painful”, Rickard acknowledged, particularly for the third of their tenants who are disabled people. But he said there was an upside: the flood of tenants now requiring advice and support from their housing association. “We now know our tenants better than we ever did before,” said Rickard.

I’m not entirely convinced that this will be a comfort to the many disabled people who find themselves evicted because of bedroom tax arrears, forced to choose between heating and eating, or having to quit their job because their car has been towed away by Motability.

But if it eases the consciences of our Lib Dem friends in government, who am I to complain?

19 September 2013