Improving disabled people’s living standards at the Liberal Democrat Party Conference

Scope’s political conference season concluded in a decidedly wintry Glasgow this week with the Liberal Democrat Party Conference. As at the Labour and the Conservative conferences, we were seeking to once again highlight the need to drive improvements in the lives of disabled people to the key influencers within the Party, specifically in the areas of extra costs, employment and social care.

On Sunday night the Care and Support Alliance (CSA) hosted the final of three conference fringe events. The debate was this time chaired by Emma Stone, Director of Policy and Research at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, with Helena Herklots, CEO at Carers UK, Joe Twyman, the Head of Political and Social Research at YouGov and the Care Minister Norman Lamb MP completing the panel. In front of another large audience, the debate stressed the importance of social care support in empowering people to realise their aspirations, and amidst some tough questioning from the floor, it was encouraging to hear the Minister acknowledging the need for more resource in the system, alongside the potential benefits of improved integration with the health care system.

Norman Lamb and Richard Hawkes at the Care and Support Alliance stand

There were a number of fringe events on social care throughout the conference, and the CSA polling was quoted time and against throughout the week. This reflected a key narrative of the conference, with the Party keen to emphasise that having the Liberal Democrats in Government is the only way to build a stronger economy and a fairer society. On several occasions, including his speech as Party leader, Nick Clegg explicitly highlighted that safeguarding the social care system was an issue of key importance. It is extremely encouraging that the Party recognises this, and Scope will continue to push for this to become a political priority.

As part of our work on improving social care for disabled people, we also met with Paul Burstow MP, the former Care Minister. With important regulations on the Care Act set to be published within the next month, it is particularly important that we keep working closely with all Parliamentarians on this issue.

Glasgow also marked the third and final appearance of the spectacular CSA conference stand – for this autumn at least – and it proved to be as popular as ever with a range of Ministers, MPs and conference delegates visiting across the four days. This included the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, the Cabinet Minister, David Laws and Norman Lamb. It was fantastic to have the opportunity to speak to these senior figures about the importance of social care, and a great example of the unique levels of access that only conferences can provide.

Nick Clegg at the Care and Support Alliance stand

On Tuesday, Scope co-hosted the final event of the Centre for Social Justice’s (CSJ) conference programme. This time the Minister for Pensions, Steve Webb MP, joined Richard Hawkes on the panel alongside Alex Burghart, the Director of Policy at the CSJ.

CSJ panel

The event again underlined the importance of improving employment support for disabled people, stressing the importance of positively changing employer attitudes and the necessity of building disabled people’s confidence when engaging with the workplace.

Richard used the debate to highlight the welcome understanding the Liberal Democrats have demonstrated in their time in Government in relation to the importance of flexible working. He also set out Scope’s recommendation for a new form of flexible adjustment leave that would significantly benefit disabled people in employment, calling for this to be included in the final Liberal Democrat manifesto for 2015.

Scope also attended a range of fringe events and private roundtable meetings with Norman Lamb and Paul Burstow, discussing the importance of person-centred care and how the integration of the health and social care systems could be used to benefit the lives of disabled people. Scope also met with Polly Mackenzie, the Senior Policy and Strategy Adviser to the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, to discuss the policy recommendations that we’d like to see included in the Party’s manifesto.

It was another busy few days that wrapped up what has been an extremely successful conference season for Scope and the Care and Support Alliance.

A love letter to Access to Work

I’m writing a love letter to a Government policy initiative… I may be the first person to do so!

However the support I have receive through Access to Work (AtW) is so important to me that I feel compelled to say how much I love it.

When I relocated to London from Ireland in the mid-1990s, to work at the BBC as an advisor on disability employment, there was no accessible transport. I had to take taxis everywhere.

Early in my career, I didn’t have a lot of money and I used my credit card to pay for taxis, which meant running up a huge bill. I seldom went out, and reduced my heating and grocery bill to help pay travel costs.

It was a tough time, but I’d studied hard and relocated and was determined to remain in work.

When I started a new job in 1998 at RADAR as policy lead on independent living, a disabled colleague told me about AtW – a scheme which had been set up by Government in 1994, to help meet the additional costs a disabled employee might face as a result of their disability.

I applied to the scheme and finally got some funding for my travel costs. It was wonderful!

AtW enables me to travel to and from work via a wheelchair-accessible taxi.

I live in a part of London not well-served by accessible public transport. I have tried many, many times to use public transport to go to work, but this has proved very difficult and involves taking three buses, as no local tube stations are accessible.

As a wheelchair user, it is difficult and at times impossible to take a bus at rush hour. Anyone who knows me will say I am no shrinking violet, but I find it very challenging to get passengers to make space for me in the designated wheelchair space.

Getting three buses to work takes two hours each way. The reliability of bus ramps is also not good – in one week, the bus ramps were faulty on half the journeys I took!

It is fair to say that the fund has transformed my working life.

Thousands of other disabled employees have been able to remain in and progress in work thanks to the scheme.

In 2013/14 over 35,000 disabled people received support. For some, this will be a one-off cost of an adaptation or piece of equipment. For others it will mean ongoing support, such as transport or sign language interpreter.

In recent months, I have heard of very worrying cases of people having had their AtW support removed, causing great stress and concern.

In one case, a person’s spouse was required to attend work with them to act as their interpreter, as funding for this support was withdrawn.

Actress Julie Fernandez has also recently blogged about her experiences of cuts to her AtW funding.

These stories really worry me.

I wouldn’t be in work now without the help of Access to Work. It is one of the most progressive Government initiatives on work and disability. In her review into disability employment support, Liz Sayce described it as the “best kept secret in Government”.

Too often disabled people are invisible in society and in the work place. How many disabled people are in your work place? How many more could be there if they had support through Access to Work?

We want to show MPs how important #AccesstoWork is for thousands of disabled people in work. We’d love to hear why it’s so important for you.

(Photo by Peter Hellberg)