There was little discussion of disability in the key ministerial speeches at the Conservative Party Conference this year (28 September – 1 October), in comparison to the Labour Party Conference. Generally, the topic only arose within the context of welfare, specifically welfare cuts. The Conservative Party were keen to set out their manifesto ahead of the General Election in May 2015 with a focus on shrinking the state.
The Chancellor, George Osborne, made efforts to differentiate the Conservatives from Labour by stating that the UK cannot tax its way out of economic crisis and into recovery, and so it must cut instead. Osborne made this clear by stating that working age benefits, such as Income Support for low-income families, would be frozen if the Conservatives were elected in 2015. Not all elements of welfare spending would be included within this freeze, however. Disability benefits, for example, will remain untouched along with pensions – which makes up half the total welfare bill.
This theme was also followed by Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan-Smith, who criticised “a something for nothing culture” which he claimed emerged under Labour, meaning that “welfare bills spiraled out of control”. This, claimed Duncan-Smith, in contrast to the Conservatives who have brought the number on out of work benefits down from “5 million” to “below 4 million for the first time in 20 years, with inactivity at historic lows as well.” Whilst no specific mention of disability was made, Duncan-Smith did say: “It was no kindness to park people on Incapacity Benefits, regardless of whether, with the right support, they might have gone back to work in time…social justice can never be about leaving people trapped in dependency”. http://press.conservatives.com/post/98728606860/iain-duncan-smith-speech-to-conservative-party
At a fringe event at the Conference, Kaliya Franklin, co-development lead at People First England, said the Government’s austerity drive had left disabled people labelled as scroungers, and the system was pushing them further from the workplace. She said the rhetoric had made employers believe disabled people were work-shy. Duncan-Smith replied by denying that any such rhetoric had ever come from the Government and said that people with disabilities wanted to work, and DLA had been reformed to PIP because lots of people were confused by it. He went on to describe that disabled people actually had been shown to stay longer in their jobs, take fewer holidays, work longer hours and were more productive than most able-bodied people. The Government had promoted this message to businesses through the Disability Confident campaign launched over a year ago and Duncan-Smith said that he hoped to expand the campaign.
Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, emphasised the need for varied thinking in relation to charities: “we mustn’t stop new ideas that come from outside the NHS – whether from charities or, yes, the independent sector”, going on to claim that “using a charity…to supply wheelchairs to disabled children…is not privatisation.” http://press.conservatives.com/post/98811391555/jeremy-hunt-speech-to-conservative-party-conference. Hunt went on to talk about the “building blocks to a modern health service” needing change, particularly personal care. A number of measures are being proposed which might realise this, including: the integration of the health and social care systems, allowing people to access their personal health records along with opening up weekend and 8 – 8 appointments.