Welfare reform minister Lord [David] Freud even bragged at one fringe event that his party now “owned” welfare as an issue – reclaiming it from Labour – because of the success of its reforms.
Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, told the conference in his keynote speech that the effect of his reforms had been “transformative” in helping people “overcome the barriers holding them back and start a job”.
He claimed that the benefit cap and the use of benefit sanctions had ended the “something for nothing culture”, while a future Conservative government would lower the cap, “ensuring people cannot opt for a life on welfare and receive more in benefits than hardworking families”.
He spoke of disabled people “stuck” on sickness and disability benefits for years under the Labour government, as “welfare bills spiralled out of control” and people were “trapped in dependency”.
And he announced that he would be piloting electronic cards that would allow claimants with drug or alcohol addictions or problem debts to use their benefits to pay only for certain goods.
But Conservative ministers and MPs repeatedly faced accusations at fringe events during the week that the party’s policies were not working as well as Duncan Smith claimed.
Gary Bourlet, co-development lead for People First England (PFE), told Lord Freud that the Work Programme had failed him when he was looking for work.
Bourlet was told he would be sanctioned if he did not fill in the correct job-searching forms, but Jobcentre Plus officials refused to help him, even though he has trouble with paperwork.
Kaliya Franklin, Bourlet’s co-development lead at PFE, told Lord Freud: “It shouldn’t be a radical suggestion that you come to the experts – disabled people – and ask us what we want and what we need to get into the workplace.”
Franklin said a similar discussion had taken place in front of an almost identical panel – and possibly in the same Birmingham hotel meeting room – at the 2012 Tory party conference.
She said: “We are near the end of the government and we still have not had that conversation [about what support disabled people need].”
Mark Harper, the new minister for disabled people, told a fringe meeting organised by Scope and the Centre for Social Justice, that the only way to make a significant difference to the gap between the employment rate for disabled and non-disabled people was to address the “shockingly low” proportion of people with mental health conditions and learning difficulties in work.
Harper also stressed the importance of social care, disability living allowance [and its working-age replacement, personal independence payment (PIP)] and the NHS in supporting disabled people to find and keep jobs.
He said the government was “not asking employers to be charitable and employ disabled people because they feel sorry for them and it is the right thing to do”, but because “evidence says if you employ disabled people they will be more committed to your business, they will take less days off sick than non-disabled people and they will be some of your best employees”.
Harper said he was attracted to the idea of providing more personalised employment support for disabled people, bringing their Access to Work (AtW), PIP and social care funding together into a personal budget, and then giving them control over how that was spent.
But Richard Hawkes, chief executive of the disability charity Scope, said the UK had a lower employment rate for disabled people than the EU average, while 220,000 more working-age disabled people left work and moved into unemployment or “economic inactivity” in 2012-13 than moved into work.
He said: “Disabled job-seekers need better support if they are going to be able to find work and stay in work.
“We can’t claim the country is in a better place if the employment gap remains as wide as it is.”
Michael Oglesby, chairman of property company Bruntwood, said that employment of disabled people was still seen as “charity”.
He said: “We do it because we feel good about it, not for commercial reasons. I think that is the case for most companies. Somehow we have to move the agenda.”
He said employers would need advice and support if they were going to employ more disabled people.
Bourlet told Harper that his AtW support had been cut from 18 hours per week to 12, while his fellow-self-advocate Shaun Webster, from the user-led organisation CHANGE, said his support had been cut from eight hours to six.
Meanwhile, a packed fringe meeting at another hotel saw Deidre Kelly – who is known as White Dee, and featured in Channel 4’s controversial reality TV series Benefits Street – share a platform with former employment minister Mark Hoban.
Kelly, who previously spent time on out-of-work disability benefits, said that people like her were “looked down upon” by jobcentres, while the government had been far too quick to sanction job-seekers.
She said the situation for job-seekers had worsened in the four years since the Conservative-led coalition assumed power.
She said: “We have to make sure the resources are there to enable the job-seeker to get a job. They tend to just leave people to sort it out for themselves.
“Sanction is the big word at the moment, sanction, sanction.”
Kelly described Duncan Smith as “someone who is completely out of touch with the real world, making decisions on those who do live in the real world”.
Mencap’s Ciara Lawrence told the meeting that she and other people with learning difficulties did not receive the right support at jobcentres, while there was not enough access to disability employment advisers.
But there was also evidence at the meeting of strong support for benefit cuts and tougher welfare regimes among Conservative activists.
One young Tory asked Kelly why “people like you” should be able to buy alcohol and cigarettes with their benefits, while another asked whether anyone had a right to be “outraged by people who take advantage of the system” when the education system was churning out “illiterate” school-leavers.
But there was also support for Duncan Smith from disabled people at the conference.
He had been preceded in his keynote speech by several young speakers – including two disabled people – who spoke of how the government’s welfare reforms had helped turn their lives around.
Elspeth Van Der Hole won a standing ovation from conference delegates after she described how a combination of support from the Prince’s Trust and the coalition’s new enterprise allowance had allowed her to set up as a freelance fashion photographer when she had been left unable to work, homeless, without any financial support, and with a mental health condition.
She said: “It is the only thing that hasn’t affected my mental health. I own my business and it’s pretty cool.
“Remember that you don’t have to do it alone. I have the Conservatives to thank for the welfare reforms they have put in place to help me and my business.”
Louise Lowrie told delegates that a car accident had left her with a number of impairments, including a broken back and neck, and unable to return to her previous job as a marketing manager.
She said the Work Programme had provided the support she needed to set up in business as a dog walker.
She said: “I lost everything: my health, my job, or at least the capability to do my job. Once you are that low it is difficult to pick yourself up again.”
2 October 2014