Last autumn, I spent a couple of days shadowing the Lib Dem MP Stephen Lloyd.
I spent a day with him in his constituency (Eastbourne and Willingdon) and one at the House of Commons.
The day in his constituency included surgeries with constituents at Asda, a pint with the members of a naval club and watching toddlers play football.
The day at the House of Commons included piles of paperwork and PMQs.
It also included meetings with disability campaigners and a select committee on the Department of Work and Pensions’ planned changes to the benefit system. You can read my account of my time with him here.
Lloyd has worked with disability charities, and businesses related to disability, for years. He’s an active member of the all-party parliamentary disability group, and vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary groups on deafness and multiple sclerosis.
His interest isn’t theoretical. He uses a hearing aid, went blind for six months in his twenties, and had a mother with a mental illness. Which is why, when he voted for the Government’s changes to the benefit system, an awful lot of people were cross.
So is he, I asked, in a follow-up interview this week, proud of what the Government has been doing on disability?
“I think,” he says, in the tone you’d use if someone was asking you this question a lot, “we’re doing the right thing. There are two million children growing up in this country in households where no one works. There are six or seven million people of working age who, for one reason or another, are on benefits. The system has put them there over the past 30 or 40 years. I think it’s appalling. It is,” he says, “one of the things that got me back into politics.”
He doesn’t, he says, “blame individuals in that position”, because when benefit dependency passes down the generations, it “becomes the norm”.
He thinks the Government’s “absolute determination” to tackle this is “the right thing”, but where it sometimes falls down is on tone. “Where I think they occasionally get it wrong,” he says, “and where the print media, and particularly right-wing tabloids, are despicable, is where they’re selling it as ‘get these work-shy people back to work’. That got better for a while, but I’ve noticed that in the past couple of months or so they’re beginning to use that sort of language again.” But he is, he says, just as irritated by the left-wing press – he mentions, in particular, The Mirror and The Guardian – who give the impression that the Government is “forcing people down coal mines”. It is, he says, an “incredibly important” issue, but it’s “almost impossible” to get a clear message out.
But surely, I say, most people on benefits aren’t disabled? So isn’t it wrong to conflate disability benefits with welfare reform?
“There are,” says Lloyd again, “six or seven million people on benefits. Only a small percentage of those are job seekers. Of the range of people on ‘sickness’ benefits, I don’t know the exact figure, but it’s certainly a few million.”
There are, he says, some people with disabilities who can’t work and they “should be supported”. Under the new system of PIPs (Personal Independence Payments, which will replace the old Disability Living Allowance) they should, he says, “in theory”, get more money than they did before. But for him, it isn’t about money.
It isn’t even, or at least mostly, about cutting costs. “My whole agenda on disability,” he says, “has always been that a lot of people can work, with the right support, and have a hell of a lot to give society. They need that additional support. The challenge is that if you’ve been out of work for some time, and I’ve been in that situation, normal behaviour becomes dependent on living with benefits.”
He used to work, he explains, for a business that tried to help people who were off sick get back to work within three months. “We knew,” he says, “that if that didn’t happen within six weeks, there was a good chance we’d lose them.”
And what about the Work Capability Assessment? Which seems, according to a fair number of reports, to be making a lot of people’s life hell?
That, he says, was brought in by the Labour Government and was “not fit for purpose”. Iain Duncan Smith has, he explains, brought in an eminent academic who specialises in disability to “make it much fairer, and less of a blunt instrument, with better recognition of fluctuating conditions like MS and mental health”. It’s still, he says, “not perfect”, but “much better than it was”. So why, he says, asking the question before I can, do people hate it so much?
“If I’d been on benefits for 20 years and you’re suddenly telling me to go to a work-based capability assessment, I’m going,” he says, “to be bloody angry. That’s what happens with dependency. Over the years, a paper-based system has developed that’s not fit for purpose. Many people have not been assessed for 10, 20, 30 years. You’re on benefit, put you on the scrapheap, as Maggie did with a lot of the steelworkers and the miners in the late 80s. Let’s park you out of sight, out of mind.”
Sure, I say, but how likely is it that people with disabilities who’ve been unemployed for 20 years, will get back into work?
“Well,” says Lloyd, “the job of the training providers is they get them into work or they don’t get paid. The way it used to work was like this: I’m a training provider. I’d get £1200 for getting someone off job seeker’s allowance and into a job if they’d been out of work for about six months, and I’d only get £1400 or £1500 if they’d been on benefit for years. So those people would get parked.
‘I’d focus on the job seekers, because if you’ve had a job already, I can get you a job in a few weeks. What the Government is saying is: ‘we’ll give you £500 per person, we’ll then pay you upwards of £13,500 for the people who are difficult to get into work. We’ll pay you £6,000 if you get them a job, and the other £6,000 monthly for up to two years if they stay in a job’. So yes, I know there’s high unemployment and we’re in a recession, but I also know that these training providers are going to get diddly squat unless they get people a job.”
So why, I ask, is the Government closing factories for disabled workers down? Maria Miller, the Minister for the Disabled, announced in March that Remploy, which provides work for people with disabilities, was closing 36 of its 54 factories, which means that 1,700 disabled people who had jobs now won’t.
“I couldn’t be in the House for most of the debate,” he says, “but I got there in time to confirm from the minister that every single penny saved would be spent on helping people back into mainstream employment. That money will help 10,000 disabled people a job. That doesn’t mean I’m happy about the folk who have lost their job. But anyone who’s been involved with disability will know that Remploy is not the social model of disability. Check out how many disability charities that are run by disabled people support Remploy. They don’t. That’s because they don’t want to be patronised. They just need a bit of support.”
The Government, he says, should be “more half glass full” in its approach:
“The papers on the left, their whole approach is ‘this is Thatcherism, attacking people with disabilities’, which is so wrong. If I go into a GP surgery and say I’m depressed, he or she will sign me off, because who needs the grief?
‘More often than not, every couple of months I go back and say I’m getting more depressed. The fact is I am getting more depressed. When you’re in that downward spiral, you do get more depressed. That’s not the doctor being bad, or the person being bad, it’s the system, and human nature, actually working together to end up with seven million of our citizens, on benefit, who are of working age, and mostly around disability and incapacity in one shape or form.”
“I know,” he says, “when I was unemployed I’ve never been so depressed. My self-worth was down the toilet, and I was only out of work for three or four months. I want to cut through the crap from right and left and focus on what’s better for Mrs and Mrs Bloggins, who’ve been off work for years, and their children who think that’s the norm. And that,” he says, “is just not on.”
Contribute to the debate at the Indy: http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2012/08/01/is-mp-stephen-lloyd-proud-of-what-the-government-has-been-doing-on-disability/