Liberal Democrat conference: Confusion over party’s position on disability benefits cuts


The Liberal Democrats have refused to rule out further government attacks on disability benefits, even though their president has suggested the party will not allow any more cuts.

Tim Farron was speaking to Disability News Service (DNS) after party members voted overwhelmingly to resist any further cuts to welfare spending that would fall “disproportionately” on disabled people.

Although he said the motion did not “bind” Liberal Democrat ministers, Farron went further than the measures voted for by rank-and-file party members.

Rather than arguing that cuts should not fall “disproportionately” on disabled people, Farron said he believed that there should be no further cuts to disability benefits at all.

Earlier in the conference in Brighton, Nick Clegg, the party’s leader and the deputy prime minister, had argued for more taxes on the wealthy.

Although he told the conference the coalition would start looking for cuts “at the top” and work down, he did not explicitly rule out further cuts to benefits.

But Farron said that he had a “very clear sense” from Clegg that his leader’s “instincts” were that these calls for those with more resources to pay more in taxes were “instead of” cuts to disability benefits and not “as well as”.

Farron added: “Personally I do not want to see any further cuts to disability benefits.”

And he said he was “fairly sure” that “the intentions of the top of the party in government” were to be “significantly more supportive of people with disabilities” than the motion passed by party members.

He said: “It is incredibly important that the government not only protects those who are the most vulnerable in society but are seen to.”

The disabled Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Lloyd also suggested that there would be no further cuts to disability benefits, and told DNS that he believed the decision by the Conservative work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith to resist attempts to move him from his post meant “he will fight tooth and nail to resists further cuts to welfare”.

Lloyd said that the Liberal Democrats “certainly will” fight any such cuts.

The party’s second-most influential government figure was less reassuring.

Danny Alexander, the chief secretary to the Treasury and a former shadow minister for disabled people, told the conference that spending on welfare – at one third of all public expenditure – was “still rising”.

He said: “We will have to look at it. But that cannot, must not, and will not, be the only place we look.”

And he added: “We insist that the difficult choices must be fairly shared: that those who can afford more must contribute more.”

A Liberal Democrat spokesman said the party’s position was that “if we have to look at cuts we should not dive for the welfare benefits” and that “before anything else we look at making sure the wealthy pay their fair share through wealth taxes”.

But he said he could not rule out further cuts to disability benefits “because the discussion has not been had in the party”.

27 September 2012