Interview: Mark Harper, Conservative disability spokesperson

Conservative disability spokesperson Mark Harper tells Mithran Samuel why his party has a distinct message from that of Labour for disabled people

Shadow minister for disabled people Mark Harper wants to reassure disabled people that they have nothing to fear from a future Conservative government.

He points out that the previous Tory government introduced the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and says that the position he now occupies has consistently been a senior one in the party.

Recently, Harper has also taken a more “pro-disability” stance than the government on the current provision under which MPs automatically lose their seats if sectioned under the Mental Health Act for more than six months.

While he has tabled an amendment to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill to end the ban, the government has not committed itself despite branding the current situation “untenable”.

“We have a good record and I don’t think disabled people have anything to fear from a Conservative government,” Harper tells Community Care.

However, one area where Tory policy and the views of campaigners for disabled people are not in tune is welfare reform.

Last year, the party issued plans to fund an extra £600m investment in employment support by transferring 500,000 incapacity benefit claimants on to jobseeker’s allowance, cutting their benefits by an average of £25 a week.

While not out of step with Labour policy, this sparked significant concerns among disability groups that people would be pushed into work too soon or deeper into poverty.

Harper emphasises that those who cannot work should stay on incapacity benefit or employment and support allowance – its successor introduced in 2008.

For the rest, he claims, the Tories’ plans would provide sustainable employment where the government has failed. And he argues that transferring money from benefit budgets to employment support is the key.

“You can only do that because we are going to move to a system which is much more focused on results,” he says.

He says 80% of employment support providers’ fees would be conditional on them finding clients work for at least a year, up from the current 60%.

Harper hopes the one-year stipulation would ensure those with fluctuating conditions, such as people with mental health problems, do not find themselves well and in work only to deteriorate after support has been removed. “Providers are going to have to think about what kind of support needs to be there. It may not be a lot; it may be that the provider simply knows there is someone to call if there is a problem,” he says.

The work capability assessment, which people applying for employment and support allowance must undergo, has been criticised since its introduction in October 2008 for unduly finding many people to be able to work, and thus only eligible for jobseeker’s allowance.

Harper admits there is a case to answer on the assessment but stresses that until more data is available on its shortcomings the Tories would not be able to commit to reform.

Key benefits

On social care funding, the Conservatives have distinguished themselves from the government by stating that they would not touch attendance allowance or disability living allowance – the key benefits for disabled people requiring care.

By contrast, Labour is considering using money currently paid to pensioners in DLA and AA to increase state funding for care – an idea that has been deeply unpopular with disability groups.

Harper says that the Conservatives’ policy to invite older people to pay about £8,000 to insure themselves against the future costs of residential care does not reflect any desire to introduce a similar contributory system for disabled people.

“It does not imply though that we are going to start charging working age people for the service they receive,” he says. Rather the funding of social care for disabled people is not something on which the Conservatives have firm plans, he says.

This is one of a number of areas for which Conservative policy is a work in progress and it could be that disabled people are kept guessing about what a Tory government would mean for them until beyond polling day.

In the meantime, they will have to decide whether the Conservatives’ record on disability is as good as Mark Harper would like us to believe and whether his commitment to improving disabled people’s lives in future can be trusted.


Who is Mark Harper?

Harper, MP for the Forest of Dean, was first elected in 2005. His maiden speech in the Commons dealt with disability issues, addressing special education for disabled children a subject he can still speak passionately on today.

He was previously shadow minister for defence and describes the radical change to covering disability issues from 2007 as “fascinating”.

This article is published in the 18 February issue of Community Care magazine under the heading ‘You have nothing to fear’


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