Labour’s new leader has resisted the opportunity to criticise the coalition government over its incapacity benefit (IB) reforms.
In his set-piece speech to the conference in Manchester, Ed Miliband said that many people were in “genuine fear” about the “impact” of the new work capability assessment (WCA).
But he said IB reform was “one of the hardest issues for our party” and there was “a minority” of people who had become trapped in the benefits system, which was “not in their interests or the interests of us as a society, and we are right when we say it must be challenged”.
He said: “Reforming our benefits system must not be about stereotyping everybody out of work. It must be about transforming their lives.”
He said he would “look closely” at the coalition government’s plans for benefit reform that he hoped would be “not arbitrary cuts to benefits but a genuine plan to make sure that those in need are protected and that those who can work have the help in order to do so”.
Miliband also told the conference that he would not “oppose every cut the coalition proposes”.
He added: “There will be cuts and there would have been if we had been in government. Some of them will be painful and would have been if we had been in government.”
But he said the coalition government should not reduce the deficit “without learning the basic lessons of fairness”.
Miliband also used the example of a female care worker he met during his leadership campaign – who was “barely paid the minimum wage” – to illustrate his call for a living wage for all workers.
He said: “She is doing one of the most important jobs in our society, and if it was my mum or dad, I would want anyone who cared for them to be paid a decent wage.”
The disabled Labour peer Baroness Wilkins said afterwards that it was a “splendid” and “optimistic” speech.
She said Miliband could not have opposed the coalition’s plans for IB reform because Labour “did start this process” when in government.
But she added: “It depends on how it is done. [There must be] enough staff in the support process to help people back into work.”
Maria Brenton, chair of Hammersmith and Fulham Action on Disability and a Labour member, said Miliband had had to be “realistic” in his speech when talking about challenging coalition cuts, as a Labour government would have had to make cuts itself.
But she said she agreed with him when he said he “disagrees with the pace of the deficit reduction”.
Olwyn Emery, a disabled Labour delegate, said the speech was “pretty inspiring” and “exactly what we needed”.
She said it would have been “foolish” for Miliband to “simply go against everything”. “We have to be seen to be credible. But I am absolutely certain that he will be looking to fight the cuts that will be affecting the most disadvantaged.”
But she did call for the party to put more of a focus on the disability equality agenda, rather than focusing on women and black and minority ethnic issues.
29 September 2010