The Tory minister for disabled people appears to have accidentally admitted what many disabled activists feared: that a Conservative government would cut the out-of-work benefits of people with mental health conditions if they refused treatment.
In a debate broadcast on local radio, Mark Harper strongly suggested that people with mental health problems would be among the group with “long-term yet treatable” conditions who could be sanctioned if they refused treatment.
The pledge to review whether such sanctions should be introduced is included in the Tory manifesto, under a promise to “review how best to support those suffering from long-term yet treatable conditions, such as drug or alcohol addiction, or obesity, back into work”.
It adds: “People who might benefit from treatment should get the medical help they need so they can return to work.
“If they refuse a recommended treatment, we will review whether their benefits should be reduced.”
But the party has refused to confirm that people with mental health conditions would be among this group facing potential sanctions.
Disabled activists have described the plans as “wild, stupid”, “unconscionable”, and “highly dangerous”, while the Tory MP Dr Sarah Wollaston, who chaired the Commons health select committee in the last parliament, has said on Twitter that sanctions linked to medical treatment would be “unethical”.
But this week, at an election hustings event hosted by the BBC in Harper’s Forest of Dean constituency, the minister for disabled people appeared to confirm that people with long-term mental health problems would be among those facing sanctions.
He told the audience: “For people who are long-term sick… sometimes people simply can’t return to work and we need to make sure we support them, which is why we have systems in place.
“The most beneficial thing we can do though is to deal with the disability that they have got and particularly with those people with mental health problems, most of which are treatable, is to get the support in place so they can get back to work, which is what most of them want to do.”
So far, neither Harper nor the Conservative party have been willing to comment on Harper’s apparent blunder, which came after Tory ministers repeatedly ducked out of opportunities to defend their disability-related policies and their record over the last five years.
Last week, Harper himself cancelled an appearance on Newsnight, when he was due to debate benefit reform with representatives of Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
And this week, employment minister Esther McVey was reported to have pulled out of a planned live interview with the radio station LBC.
The party has said it would cut social security spending by a further £12 billion a year if re-elected, but has yet to say how it will find most of these “savings”.
Disability News Service has already reported how the Tories declined invitations to take part in three national disability-related hustings events organised by the Alliance for Inclusive Education, Learning Disability Alliance England, and the British Deaf Association.