Liberal Democrat party conference: Ministers refuse to condemn Osborne


newslatestTwo senior Liberal Democrat ministers have refused to criticise the Conservative chancellor for misleading voters about how he would protect disabled people from his planned benefits freeze.

Both Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury, and Steve Webb, the pensions minister, refused to condemn last week’s announcement by George Osborne.

Alexander and Osborne have worked closely together at the Treasury for the last four years.

Osborne was accused last week of misleading voters, after he pledged that disability benefits would not be affected by a two-year “freeze” on working-age social security.

He told a delighted Conservative party conference in Birmingham that most working-age benefits would have to be frozen for two years from April 2016 – if the Tories won the next election – but that “pensioner benefits and disability benefits will be excluded”.

Disability News Service (DNS) eventually confirmed that all disabled people claiming employment and support allowance (ESA) would be hit by the freeze, with only the support group ESA top-up excluded.

This week, Liberal Democrat party leader Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, attacked his coalition partners for choosing to “single out the working-age poor to bear the brunt of the final years of deficit reduction, while refusing to ask the super-rich to make a single additional contribution”.

When DNS asked Alexander after a fringe meeting what he thought about Osborne’s announcement, he said the party had “made our views pretty clear” during the week.

But when asked again about Osborne misleading voters on whether disabled people would be affected by the benefits freeze, Alexander said: “I am sorry, I have got to think about this dinner I am going to. I am sorry.”

There was a similar response from pensions minister Steve Webb, the only Liberal Democrat in the Department for Work and Pensions, who said: “We as a party do not think the freeze is the right way to go.”

But he also appeared to defend Osborne, saying that “a lot of these announcements are made in shorthand” – even though DNS pointed out that Osborne’s own press release failed to clarify the impact on ESA claimants – before declining to comment further.

So far, the party itself has refused to comment further on the impact of the benefits freeze, and whether Osborne misled voters about protecting disabled people.

9 October 2014