Liberal Democrats have voted overwhelmingly in favour of resisting any further cuts to welfare spending that would fall “disproportionately” on disabled people.
The party’s annual conference in Brighton also demanded an independent review of the impact of the Welfare Reform Act on disabled people.
They agreed that the coalition’s current welfare policy was “failing sick and disabled people”, and called for a public consultation on the current assessment procedures for disability benefits, including the much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA).
Although the conference vote will not force Liberal Democrat ministers to act, it demonstrates the strength of feeling among party members on the issue of welfare reform.
Party activist Kelly-Marie Blundell highlighted the importance of government-funded support for disabled people, and said that without the Access to Work scheme – and the voice recognition software it funded – she would be unable to work and would be “reduced to one of those benefit scroungers” written about in the right-wing press.
George Potter, the Liberal Democrat activist who devised the motion, said that, although Liberal Democrats had ensured some improvements to the government’s welfare reforms – including the independent Harrington reviews of the WCA – disabled people were still “suffering right now because of what we have done in government”.
He also drew the attention of party members to the influence of the US insurance company Unum – which has been criticised for influencing welfare reform over two decades and then profiting from those policies – and which “sat on the committees which designed the assessment systems”.
His motion criticised the last Labour government for “relying too heavily” on “advice from private companies with a potential financial interest” in the outcomes of welfare policies affecting disabled people.
And he praised the investigative research of the disabled activist Mo Stewart, who has tried to expose the role of Unum in influencing welfare reform and has contributed to several Disability News Service (DNS) stories.
Robert Adamson, chair of the Liberal Democrat Disability Association, said the country had watched the performances of Britain’s Paralympians at London 2012 “in awe”, but he told the conference: “They don’t get medals because of threats and punishments.”
He said there were only a “tiny number of cheats” in the Paralympics, and added: “The same is true of the welfare system. People cannot move off benefits if there is nowhere to go to. We need to encourage and support success, but never punish failure.”
GP Dr Julia McLean, told the debate that a patient of hers with depression had – after several visits – told her that because her benefits had been cut she was no longer able to feed herself, and so was feeding her son instead.
Shana Pezaro, a disabled party member, said she feared that the transition from disability living allowance (DLA) to personal independence payment (PIP) would see her reassessed from her current higher rate mobility to lower rate, and leave her unable to afford a cleaner, see her friends or attend the exercise classes she needs.
She said: “My physical, emotional and mental health and ability to be part of society will be seriously affected.”
She added: “The key purpose of getting rid of DLA and introducing the new PIP is simply to reduce the number of claimants by 20 per cent.”
She said that, because of the transition from DLA to PIP and the associated cuts of 20 per cent to spending, 280,000 fewer people would be eligible for the Motability scheme, many of whom relied on their Motability vehicles to get to work.
Pezaro called on Liberal Democrat politicians to fight for improvements to PIP in parliament.
Stephen Lloyd, the disabled Liberal Democrat MP and a member of the Commons work and pensions committee, also backed the motion.
He told DNS later that he believed the committee would be pushing for a review of the Welfare Reform Act next year, although he said he believed the results of that review would be “much better” than many people were predicting.
24 September 2012