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.”