The welfare system has made it “much easier” for disabled people to depend on benefits than on themselves, according to the new Conservative minister for welfare reform.
Speaking at a parliamentary reception on the financial independence of disabled people, Lord Freud said the current welfare system “holds back people who are capable of fulfilling work” and “forces disabled people into a life of dependency and robs them of dignity”.
He gave few new details on the government’s welfare reform plans, but did reveal plans to examine why only 17 per cent of working age recipients of disability living allowance (DLA) had jobs, compared with 47 per cent of all working age disabled people.
He said: “Far too many disabled people…are not in enough control of their own lives to support themselves financially.
“This is a social issue, this is not an issue of capability. We need to constantly challenge society and attitudes and perceptions towards disabled people so they are and can be really involved in society.”
He said the government would “look closely” at criticisms of the work capability assessment (WCA), Labour’s new test for assessing disabled people’s readiness to work.
But he said that, “as the fundamental structure, [the WCA] is the way to go”.
Lord Freud also said the government was committed to using the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as “a catalyst for achieving disability equality”, and that it was “looking at how best to implement” Labour’s Equality Act.
Baroness [Jane] Campbell, who hosted the reception, attacked the “common assumption…that disabled people are unable to work, we don’t want to work, we are lazy, we are scroungers”.
She said: “These are not just assumptions, they are excuses and they are inaccurate and they have no justification or underlying basis.”
She appealed to the new coalition government to “help us put an end to these misconceptions”.
The reception also saw the launch of RADAR’s new guide for MPs on disability issues.
Many of those who heard Lord Freud’s speech praised the minister’s language, but said there was too little detail to judge the government’s welfare reform plans.
Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP who was last week elected chair of the influential work and pensions committee, said that “some of the rhetoric was good” but it was too early to say if the government was taking the right approach.
But she raised concerns about the huge numbers of disabled people who will have to be assessed through the WCA and how they would receive the specialist support they need to find work.
Neil Coyle, director of policy for Disability Alliance, said the speech had contained “some very welcome language”, but the reference to DLA had been “the largest alarm bell”.
He said he feared Lord Freud’s comments suggested the government was about to make “significant changes to DLA” and that civil servants had “got their foot in the door again” on DLA reform.
He said: “In the Conservative manifesto there was a commitment to protect DLA. We hope this commitment will not be undermined by any review and hope the government will work very closely [on any review] with stakeholders.”
Liz Sayce, chief executive of RADAR, said: “I think it’s welcome that he was talking about enabling people to feel fulfilled and not being written off. The real questions about detail are yet to come.
“We want to ensure that people get support with as much control as possible…something that is very personalised.”
David Evans, vice-chair of Deafblind UK, said Lord Freud’s “fine words” did not remove the “fear” and “concern” of many disabled people about the WCA.
He also pointed to concerns about the lack of training for the many new staff recruited by Jobcentre Plus to cope with the recession, and the lack of jobs available for disabled people.
News provided by John Pring