In a series of interviews, Able Magazine is speaking to the major political parties about disability issues and the forthcoming General Election.
Celia Thomas, Baroness Thomas of Winchester, is a Liberal Democrat Life Peer and was interviewed by Able Magazine editor, Tom Jamison.
Firstly, it must be very difficult to be a disabled person in politics…
I’m luckier than most because I didn’t become disabled until I was older. I got adult onset Muscular Dystrophy and was diagnosed in my forties. When I became disabled it suited me very much not to move careers as I might have done. They’ve put in a disabled toilet. It’s the best one that I’ve ever come across! I now keep a mobility scooter in the House (of Lords) and I sit in it to speak in the House.
I’ve got a progressive condition and I find it difficult to know how it’s going to progress.
Fluctuating illnesses and disabilities as you describe, seem to confuse governments… Why is that?
A couple of years ago I asked the House to set up a committee to look at the Equality Act to see how it was affecting disabled people. We produced a really good report, I think, which says that a lot of the time that disability is the forgotten ‘protective characteristic’ and that in some ways things are going backwards.
I would like the next government to take a look at that report and really start to put into place some of the remedies that actually wouldn’t cost very much money at all. For example: to change licensing laws to say that there should be one more aim of the law – to start to promote disability (access); then bars, clubs, restaurants and cafes with an existing licence – if disabled people couldn’t get into them and if it only needed a reasonable adjustment, ought to make it happen, before their licence is renewed.
We seem to be in an age of complacency – post 2012…
I couldn’t agree more. With this sort of issue, if you don’t keep pushing forward you go backwards and what is worrying me is that the whole independent living agenda will, if we’re not careful, start to go backwards. The point is, disabled people are living longer and more people are becoming disabled through age. The Government simply has not taken that on board and there is nobody really looking at the whole problem and trying to figure out what to do.
At the moment, they’re able to put up Council Tax by 2% but really I’m not sure that’s going to cut it and in areas of high population where lots of young disabled people need local authorities to help with their care. They want to go out and live a sociable life and have a job and education and leisure facilities – and why shouldn’t they? They don’t want to be stuck in their homes and unless we’re careful and the Government really tries to push the agenda, it’s all going to start to go backwards.
Given that there are an estimated 18 million disabled people in the UK, why has no party really targeted them strategically, in the same way that pensioners are, for instance?
Because they are very disparate. I think it would be a very good idea but it would be such a big agenda when you think about what they’d have to cover. They’d have to cover supported housing, transport, carers – and that brings in the whole question of EU carers and the position of nationals from the EU. That’s really going to hit disabled people, hard.
Political parties don’t want a huge bill. Nobody will take the bull by the horns.
But social care could cause the next recession…
You’re quite right. Even in the last five years or so people have realised that the population is going up fast and people are living so much longer and there’s much more expectation (on the level of care).
On the other hand, there have been some very positive things. Look at Motability. I’m very happy to see that they’ve decided to dip into their pockets and make sure that people who are appealing (PIP decisions) can keep their car for longer. That’s a very good thing.
One thing I hope will be in our manifesto will be a review of PIP and of the descriptors. I put in a bid for it. I think that’s very important.
A few weeks ago we had a debate about the PIP regulations (in the House of Lords) that ‘do down’ people with psychological problems. Labour wouldn’t vote with the Lib Dems so I wish they’d be a bit bolder.
Well let’s take the word ‘bold’ and ask if Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems Cabinet colleagues in Coalition were bold enough on these issues?
I’m very critical of the way they did the PIP distance test. That was absolutely shocking. We all thought PIP was going to be much better than DLA and at the last minute they suddenly decided to make the distance test 20 metres and not 50 metres – and I don’t think anybody could have foreseen that. That wouldn’t have gone before Cabinet, it would have gone to a small group of people around the Minister (for Disabled People). At least I got them to put in a caveat to say that it could only be 20 metres if people couldn’t do that distance in a reasonable time period. But the consultation was held at the very last minute. They got over 1,000 replies saying don’t do it, and they went ahead. That was the most shocking thing. That was one of the worst things that happened during the Coalition.