Labour’s new shadow minister for disabled people looks set to spearhead a stronger line from the opposition over offensive government rhetoric on the “abuse” of disability benefits.
Anne McGuire was announced as Labour’s new shadow minister for disabled people this week, as part of Labour leader Ed Miliband’s first shadow cabinet reshuffle.
McGuire, who has a long-term health condition, was minister for disabled people between 2005 and 2008, and currently co-chairs the all-party parliamentary disability group.
She said she was “delighted” by her appointment and pledged that Labour would be the voice for “those in genuine need, who need extra help to live a full life”.
McGuire told Disability News Service in a statement that disabled people “feel that they are unfairly being portrayed as scroungers and are feeling very vulnerable”.
Her comments were welcomed by disabled activists, who took them as a sign that recent criticism of the Labour leader’s failure to speak out on the issue had had an impact.
They came on the day that The Broken of Britain’s Kaliya Franklin spoke to Miliband by phone to discuss his failure to speak out on behalf of disabled people.
Miliband had promised to discuss the issue with Franklin after she accused him in a televised question and answer session at his party conference of not speaking up because of hostile media attacks that have labelled benefits claimants as “scroungers”.
The Labour party was also accused of blocking attempts at its conference to discuss the problems caused by the controversial “fitness for work” tests, introduced by the previous Labour government.
Disabled campaigners have repeatedly claimed that Conservative ministers and their advisers are causing hostility towards disabled people with inflammatory messages about the abuse of disability benefits.
Earlier this month, ministers used the Conservative party’s annual conference to reinforce the message that many disabled people claiming out-of-work benefits were “abusing” the system.
In her statement, McGuire also pointed to government plans in its welfare reform bill to introduce a new “universal credit”, which she said would see support for disabled children halved, while the severe disability premium – an extra allowance for many disabled people on income support – would be scrapped with “nothing appropriate put in its place”.
She added: “We believe there can be reforms made to the system, but this is the wrong way to do it, and we will do all we can to stop these changes.”
But it is unclear how much of the government’s bill – currently being debated in the Lords – McGuire and her Labour parliamentary colleagues will try to change.
Her predecessor in the role, Margaret Curran, suggested at Labour’s conference that the party would still back key parts of the government’s welfare reform agenda, because it was vital to “get people back to work”. Curran has become the new shadow Scottish secretary.
Miliband has also appointed a new shadow minister for care and older people, Liz Kendall, who is likely to play a key role in responding to the government’s social care white paper, expected next spring.
13 October 2011