Before the 1979 General Election, Margaret Thatcher made the following commitment:
“Much has been done in recent years to help the disabled, but there is still a long way to go. Our aim is to provide a coherent system of cash benefits to meet the costs of disability, so that more disabled people can support themselves and live normal lives.”
Margaret Thatcher did exactly as she promised. By 1983 spending on the disabled had increased by 21% - even after allowing for rising prices. In contrast to the harsh caricature Margaret Thatcher was a compassionate politician who protected the vulnerable. Our generation must continue to do the same.
Conservative ministers in the last Parliament increased spending on sickness and disability benefits by £7 billion – despite cutting the deficit by a third. Yet remarkably, in the eyes of many voters our party is seen as uncaring.
As Deputy Chairman Robert Halfon told my Association last week, “When a socialist knocks on doors at election time, voters may disagree with his views, but they’ll probably believe that he cares.” Conservatives don’t tend to get the same treatment. Many people view us as being strong on competence, but weak on compassion. The reality of course is that we’re strong on both. Conservatives are strong advocates of mobility and aspiration, but much weaker as advocates of security and solidarity.
The Labour party will eventually get around to choosing a leader with a shred of economic credibility, so we need to appeal to the electorate's heart as well as head. We need to rebut negative perceptions of how our policies affect the vulnerable. So let’s start by being proud of our record. Every time someone tells you the Conservatives lack heart, remind them that this Conservative Government spends £33.5 billion each year on benefits for the disabled alone. We support a generous safety net. Indeed, as a proportion of GDP, the UK spends double the amount of the United States, a fifth more than Europe, and six times what Japan spends on benefits for disabled people. We are fulfilling Winston Churchill's ambition to have the “finest social ambulance service in the world”.
But we must also do more. Cutting benefits for the unemployed who are assessed as being temporarily unfit for work, thereby causing debt and stress, is unlikely to help disabled people get better, and then seek employment. So the Government should think carefully before cutting the work-related activity component in the Employment and Support Allowance.
Finally, ministers should create a separate welfare budget for the sick and disabled so that when we talk about making cuts to welfare, our most vulnerable people no longer find themselves tarred with the same brush as those the tabloids describe as ‘benefit scroungers.’ We need a separate welfare budget with a different name, and with different priorities, so that when we do need to make savings and get the fit-to-work unemployed back into jobs, the vulnerable and the sick aren’t terrified by point-scoring Labour politicians into believing they’re about to have their incomes snatched away.
For too long we’ve allowed ourselves to be defined by our opponents when it comes to protecting the vulnerable. We are the compassionate party as well as the workers' party of British politics– as much now as when Margaret Thatcher was leader. Our mission is summed up by IDS to "catch you when you fall, lift you when you can rise”. We should defend our record of protecting the vulnerable as much as promoting full employment. We can show our head and our heart in the Welfare Bill today.
David Burrowes is the Member of Parliament for Enfield Southgate.
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