The UK Independence Party (UKIP) looks set to jettison some of the discriminatory policies it campaigned on at the last general election, following the appointment of a disabled politician as its new disability spokeswoman.
UKIP’s 2010 manifesto included a call to move away from independent living and inclusive education, and for out-of-work disability benefits to be paid at the same rate as jobseeker’s allowance.
But UKIP has now appointed a disabled former Conservative party member, Star Etheridge, as its new disability spokeswoman.
In an interview with Disability News Service (DNS), she distanced herself from some of her party’s previous disability policies, and said the new version would be a “radical change” and about “common sense”, compared with the 2010 manifesto.
She suggested that leaving the European Union would bring huge savings, some of which a UKIP administration might use to reinstate the Independent Living Fund, which is set to close in 2015.
The 2010 UKIP manifesto called for key benefits such as incapacity benefit and jobseeker’s allowance to be replaced by a single, flat rate “basic cash benefit”, set at the same weekly level as jobseeker’s allowance.
But she said: “Definitely it is not something I would be putting forward. Being disabled is more expensive.”
The last manifesto included few disability policies, but called for a rethink on inclusive education and declared its support for “congregate” communities – self-contained “villages” for people with learning difficulties, such as the Ravenswood site in Berkshire, run by the charity Norwood.
Etheridge said: “You throw them all into one area on their own? It definitely will not be anything I would put forward.
“I really don’t know where that has come from. It seems rather bizarre. How can you get rid of intolerance if you don’t have everybody around? It’s like something from 1950s America. It’s definitely something I wouldn’t want.”
The UKIP manifesto also called for the policy of inclusive education to be “re-examined”, but Etheridge said she would not want such a “blanket policy”, although she would not push for inclusive education for all disabled pupils.
She said: “For some students [a special school]might be a good idea. However, to have it as a blanket policy… I think it should be up to the parents.”
Etheridge also backed away from UKIP’s 2010 policy to repeal the “misconceived” Human Rights Act, even though it has been used repeatedly by disabled people to fight for their rights.
She said the act had been “exploited” and “misused by over-zealous lawyers”, although she accepted there were “a lot of cases where there is a genuine need for that case to be heard”, so maybe there simply needed to be some “tweaking” of the act.
Etheridge, who has been a UKIP member for two years, has been working with her party on its new disability policies since last autumn, but was only appointed as its new disability spokeswoman earlier this month.
She has submitted policy ideas to her party’s national executive committee, but they have yet to be approved.
Etheridge, a wheelchair-user, is one of the few disability spokeswomen for a political party to have undergone a work capability assessment (WCA), which tests eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA), the replacement for incapacity benefit.
Changes to the WCA are likely to be at the heart of the disability policy document, when it is approved by the party. Etheridge wants to see the tests conducted “by NHS doctors in an NHS environment”, although not by claimants’ own GPs.
Like thousands of other disabled people across the country, she is currently appealing against a decision to place her in the ESA work-related activity group (WRAG). And again like many other thousands of people, she has also been waiting for months – currently 42 weeks – for her appeal to be heard.
Etheridge, a qualified solicitor and law lecturer, said: “Unless I can get a job working from home, around hours to suit my illness, I am pretty much unable to work. If I was able to work, believe me, I would.”
Her Jobcentre Plus adviser has told her she has been put in the wrong group, and so does not force her to undertake any work-related activity, but “just rings me every few months”.
Etheridge said she was convinced that Atos Healthcare, the company which carries out the assessments for the government, was working to targets for the number of people it had to find “fit for work”.
She said: “Disabled people are made to feel they are scroungers. It’s just wrong. I don’t believe it is the assessors themselves [causing the problems], it is the managers over them.”
She is pushing for the assessment to become a “real world” test, so that it takes account of the barriers the claimant faces in the work environment.
Etheridge also wants her party to campaign to reinstate the Independent Living Fund, which faces closure in 2015.
She said: “I think that needs to remain. There will be a lot of people who will end up going into some sort of group care home [if it closes].”
As for her party’s headline policy – pulling out of the European Union – she said such a move would cut the health and safety “red tape” that she claimed was preventing disabled people finding jobs.
She said: “There is still going to be discrimination, but if we are out of the EU we are not going to be paying them all of that money [£53 million a day, UKIP claims], so there will be more money to put things back in. Things like the ILF.”
When DNS asked if being in the European Union was helping to bring disability rights and equality in other countries up to the standard of countries like the UK, she said: “No, I think that has to be done from the grassroots, and the people themselves will have to do it like we have done.”
She said she might stand as a candidate in a local constituency at the next general election in 2015 if her health stabilises, but will certainly be standing in next year’s elections to Dudley council in the West Midlands.
And she said that allowing MPs to job-share was – in principle – a good idea. “I would be an ideal candidate. I would happily work from home and do that.”
Campaigners want parliament to introduce new laws that would allow two people from the same political party to stand together for election to represent a single parliamentary constituency.
They believe such laws would open parliament up to disabled people who might not be able to work full-time for impairment-related reasons.
Etheridge also joined the condemnation of the comments of Cornish councillor Colin Brewer, who told DNS in an interview last week that he believed there was a good argument for killing some disabled babies.
She said: “I cannot for the life of me imagine how any person can think like that. I just can’t get my head around it.
“I don’t believe in killing something just because it isn’t perfect. That is just utterly wrong. I worry about the people who voted for him.”
Finally, she defended the controversial incident which led to her and her husband being forced to quit the Conservative party in 2011.
The couple – who are both members of the Campaign Against Political Correctness – posted a picture of themselves holding a golliwog toy on Facebook.
Etheridge said they had posted the picture after being told that it was no longer acceptable to buy golliwogs.
She said: “We thought, ‘that’s odd, it’s just a toy.’”
When DNS suggested that they were seen by many people as offensive caricatures, she said: “It’s just a rag doll.”
She insisted that neither she nor her husband were at all racist, and that her husband had a Sikh god-daughter, while her son’s god-mother was Polish.
When asked what she thought about the use of disablist language such as “retard”, “cripple” and “spastic”, she added: “I don’t like hate language. Anything that implies a hate of somebody is wrong. It is all about context. It depends who says [the words], where they are said and how they are said.”
15 May 2013