Four Liberal Democrat ministers have defended the coalition government’s planned spending cuts, and have pledged to “protect” disabled people and other “vulnerable” groups.
The ministers – pensions minister Steve Webb, care services minister Paul Burstow, children and families minister Sarah Teather and junior communities and local government minister Andrew Stunell – shared a stage to answer questions from party members at the conference in Liverpool.
Burstow said ministers would “need to make sure we fulfil our commitments around protecting the vulnerable”.
He said the Department of Health was working with the Department for Work and Pensions and across government to create more employment opportunities for people with mental health conditions, including tackling stigma, “which is absolutely key to changing employers’ views”.
Webb defended the government’s welfare reform plans and said that a quarter of people on incapacity benefit (IB) had been claiming it for more than 10 years.
He said: “Simply parking people on IB… and saying we will leave you there does not sound very progressive to me.”
He said the government’s new Work Programme would pay voluntary and private sector providers of employment support “very heavily” by results, with providers having “complete flexibility to do the thing that works for you”.
He said: “We will not be forcing people into a mould. If they don’t meet your needs as an individual they don’t get paid.”
But he suggested that he shared delegates’ disquiet over the language used by some Conservative ministers on IB reform, telling the conference that language was “certainly important”, and adding: “I hope nothing I have said is about demonising.”
Teather pointed to the green paper on special educational needs and disabled children she will be publishing this autumn.
She said: “Families who have a disabled child go through real horror with the number of assessments they have to face.
“I hope we will be able to get some announcements on this that will make a real difference.”
In response to a delegate who asked whether the four ministers had experience of living on benefits, Teather said she had spent time as a wheelchair-user as a teenager because of a health condition, and had received disability living allowance.
Stunell accused the previous Labour government of going on the “biggest trolley dash in history” and then leaving their purchases “at the checkout on election night”.
He said the coalition government – as a result of Liberal Democrat policies – had been “protecting the vulnerable” by moving those on low incomes out of paying tax, index-linking state pensions and “raising tax from the wealthy rather than the poor”.
But he said that “tackling the deficit has to be the fundamental job of this government”.
22 September 2010