Monday, February 14, 2011

With cuts to disability living allowances looming, hundreds of disabled protesters plan to target Deputy Prime Minister's visit

From The Herald in Scotland:

The Scottish Liberal Democrats are facing a public relations disaster at their final gathering before the Holyrood election, with hundreds of disabled protesters planning to target an appearance by UK leader Nick Clegg (pictured).

Campaigners in wheelchairs are among those set to lobby the Deputy Prime Minister at the Perth LibDems’ conference next month in an attempt to shame him over UK Government cuts to lifeline allowances.

Party insiders fear the protest, against changes to the Disability Living Allowance, will worsen the LibDems’ decline in opinion polls.

The Government is planning to scrap the mobility element of the allowance for all recipients in council residential care from October 2012.

The move, designed to save £135m a year, will affect about 80,000 people across the UK who use the allowance to buy electric wheelchairs and pay special transport costs.

Charities say the allowance, worth up to £49.85 a week, is vital to maintain the independence and quality of life of thousands of people who cannot depend on public transport.

Entitlement can also be used to access the Motobility scheme, which pays to buy specially adapted vehicles.

In theory, councils should meet the costs instead, but that is unlikely given their budgets are also being cut.

The Government is also planning to replace the allowance, which is paid to 1.8m people UK-wide, with a scheme to save £1billion a year by 2015.

There are also concerns that looming cuts to housing benefit could limit the opportunities for disabled people to live independently.

Bill Scott, of disability rights group Inclusion Scotland, said half the £2bn benefit cuts in Scotland would fall on disabled people.

“The number of disabled people being plunged into relative or extreme poverty could be staggering. There is fear and anger out there,” he said.

“Even people given lifetime allowance awards because their conditions will never improve will be reassessed. The Government is redefining what it is to be a disabled person.”

Dave Moxham, of the STUC, which is backing the campaign, said: “We are concentrating on the LibDems’ conference because they have enough Scottish MPs to matter and we expect Nick Clegg to be in town.

“The planned cuts will impact on the rights of disabled people. Every MP should be against these proposals.”

The conference, on March 4 and 5, is threatening to turn into a financial headache for the party, because it must pay for a share of policing the extra demonstrators drawn by Clegg.

A large turnout is expected because Perth will be the first LibDems’ conference since the December vote in the Commons allowing tuition fees of up to £9000 in England. It could also prove a dry-run for protests at the UK LibDems’ conference in Sheffield on March 11.

It is understood the costs for Perth are being debated between Tayside Police, the Home Office, Scottish LibDems and UK LibDem headquarters.

The Scottish Conservatives also face paying for extra police costs when they hold their conference in Perth on March 18 and 19.

Tayside Police said it would have “intelligence-led” policing for both conferences – code for tracking and targeting potential troublemakers in advance.

MSP Mike Rumbles, the LibDems’ chief whip, said his party was in the Coalition Government to ensure difficult decisions were made fairly. He said: “It is right to engage with people who are facing difficult circumstances because of Labour’s legacy of debt.”