As the Labour party sets up a “taskforce” to look into how its policies on welfare and benefit reform might be shaped, Ian Macrae finds out that those policies are a long way from being formed.
If your expectation of a politician, particularly one in opposition, is that they will shower you with blandishments, unkeepable promises and inducements to vote for them, then prepare to be disappointed by Anne McGuire. Labour’s shadow disability Minister is relentlessly short on commitments as to what a Labour administration would do to reverse current coalition acts of vandalism on the welfare and benefits system.
What she and shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne have done is to set up a so-called taskforce.
Under the chairmanship of Sir Bert Massie, this small group will explore and make recommendations on how the benefits system might be made to work differently for disabled people. Among the taskforce’s members are long time disability campaigner Dr Roger Berry, Neil Crowther, who was formerly with Sir Bert at the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), and activists Kaliya Franklin and Agnes Fletcher.
But when it comes to what will happen to the recommendations made by the taskforce, Anne McGuire’s pronouncements remain rather gnomic.
“At the moment, we are preparing hopefully for government in 2015. We’ve conducted our consultation on making rights a reality for disabled people and we’ve had discussions with disabled people across various geographical locations. And the taskforce is another element of that preparation. It will give us advice and we will obviously see what that advice is when it’s given.”
So, another exercise in consultation then. But as disabled people, we could be forgiven for being cynical about the consultative approach. After all, the current government consulted us on the proposal to change Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to personal independence payments (PIPs). The Spartacus report then revealed that most of those who responded said it was a bad idea. But the government went ahead and did it anyway.
But McGuire bridles at the suggestion that this is yet another piece of window dressing.
“I can understand why people are cynical at the moment. We’ve had free years of unremitting attack on disabled people and a government which doesn’t recognise the impact of welfare reform on people’s lives. But frankly, this is not window dressing. I’ve known Bert Massie a long time and he wouldn’t be into a window dressing exercise.”
Ask most disabled people now what they’d really like an in-coming Labour government to do and be likely to say ‘revert PIP back to DLA, restore benefit to those who have lost it through new assessment procedures and make clearer the definition between those benefice which take account of the extra cost of disability and those which are given to people who are out of work for whatever reason’.
So can Anne McGuire say that this is what would happen were her party to come to power? No.
“I can understand why people want to throw down those challenges. But I’m not going to, with the greatest respect, write a manifesto for disabled people at this time. We are out there, we’re listening to disabled people, we’re consulting and involving disabled people. We understand the anxieties of disabled people and so we want to work with them to make sure that we get it right for 2015.”
But according to Sir Bert Massie, it’s in exactly these sorts of areas that the taskforce is likely to look and make recommendations. And what they say may well go against current rhetoric as it’s expressed by Labour as well as by coalition politicians.
“If you look at what Liam Byrne has been saying about the contributory principle, that’s easy rhetoric: ‘those who put in should be those who get out’. On that basis you would never give social security or help to people such as babies who have not contributed. There has to be some point where you have to say we have to support those who’ve not been able to contribute.”
Where commitments have been made by Labour, in pronouncements for instance by Ed Balls and Ed Miliband, they seem likely to limit the impact of such recommendations on actual policy and hobble any Labour administration in taking action. Promises of matching existing government spending targets and continuing to reform welfare to reduce the bill don’t look likely to bring much hope to those of us who are activists or to individuals feeling the pain at the sharp end of it all.
But Anne McGuire says it’s all a matter of how you do things.
“Politics is about priorities and the fact that Ed Balls and Ed Miliband have put down the rule about spending doesn’t mean to say that the priorities will be the same. And I think that’s the message we have to get across. We could do a lot more with what the government is spending now because we would do it differently.”