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Liberal Democrat conference: Minister holds out hope over welfare reform bill

Liberal Democrat conference: Minister holds out hope over welfare reform bill
21st September 2011 developer

A government minister has held out hope that some of the most unpopular measures in the welfare reform bill could be removed or eased during its progress through the House of Lords.

The Liberal Democrat pensions minister Steve Webb was speaking to Disability News Service (DNS) after his own party members voted for major changes to policy on incapacity benefit reform.

One of the key changes that has now become party policy as a result of the vote is a call for the government to drop proposals in the bill to impose a one-year limit on the length of time disabled people in the “work-related activity group” can claim the contributions-based form of employment and support allowance (ESA).

Webb said: “We are a party that takes seriously the motions that happen here. We will go back and reflect on the things our colleagues have said. I know our peers are taking seriously the motion.”

But Webb defended the decision by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to impose the ESA cut. “We had to find over £10 billion worth of cuts. There isn’t a soft bit of the DWP budget yet. There isn’t an easy cut.”

But he said the DWP would “clearly” have to look at the motion’s calls for the contract to carry out the work capability assessment – the test for ESA applicants – to be removed from the much-criticised Atos Healthcare.

He said: “What the amendment says is a presumption in favour of the public [and voluntary] sector. Clearly we will have to look at that [when the Atos contract expires].

“What should be done at that point is look at whether Atos have improved. They need to and they need to do more.”

He also held out hope that the proposal to remove disability living allowance (DLA) mobility support from disabled people in state-funded residential care – currently delayed until 2013 – could be scrapped completely.

He said the DWP had introduced the proposal because it believed at the time that there was evidence of “double provision” – disabled people receiving the benefit when their mobility needs were already being provided for.

But he said it became obvious “very quickly” that the true experiences of disabled people were “very diverse” and there were “clear examples of people for whom the withdrawal of DLA mobility would have been a big problem”.

He said he had pushed hard himself within the DWP for the date to be put back, and added: “The extra time has given us more chance to look at exactly what is happening on the ground.

“David Freud [the Conservative welfare reform minister] will debate it with the Lords, but will certainly be listening to what the Lords have to say.”

But Webb said he had also told some of the disability charities with stands at the conference that their campaigning risked alarming many disabled people who were not at any risk of losing their support when DLA is replaced by the new personal independence payment.

He said: “You’re alleging that the government is spinning. There is a lot of spinning going on and it is not just the government…”

He declined to comment on calculations by DNS that show that, despite government claims that working-age claimants of DLA have risen by 30 per cent over eight years, the true increase is nearer 13 per cent.

He said: “I haven’t seen the numbers or your analysis.”