Politics

Lib Dem leader Ed Davey on fighting Tories and stress of benefits system for his disabled son

We put some questions to Lib Dem leader Ed Davey ahead of going to the polls this week. Here's what he had to say

Image: Richard Townshend Photography

Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey has revealed his family wouldn’t be able cope during the general election campaign without extra help for his disabled son, as part of comments in an interview with the Big Issue where he spoke of the “distress” inflicted by the benefits system.

“The real thing for us was more the distress of having to say how disabled he was,” said Davey, recalling the process of helping his son switch disability benefits. “You essentially have to say all the things you can’t do. For a parent, having to set out in hard detail all the things John can’t do, and will never be able to do – quite hard I have to tell you.”

Ed Davey, who was raised by his grandparents after the death of his parents, also denied his party is now more left wing than Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, and said voters stung by the Lib Dems’ previous broken promises should know he has “fought the Conservatives all my life”.

Ahead of polling day on 4 July, the Big Issue spoke to the leaders of Westminster’s four biggest parties, getting answers on poverty and beyond. Here, we quiz Ed Davey.

BIG ISSUE: What would you say to people who might have been turned away from voting Lib Dem by the coalition government; the idea that you voted Lib Dem, and ended up with a Tory government, austerity and tuition fees? 

ED DAVEY: It might not be obvious but I’ve fought the Conservatives all my life and I fought them in coalition – we really were fighting them. What I’ve learned from that is that you’ve got to go into it not making promises you can’t keep. I’m determined that our manifesto is extremely well-costed. We can deliver all those policies.  

The other thing I’ve learned from it is the need to rebuild trust in the Liberal Democrats and politics more broadly actually. When I became leader I said we needed to wake up and smell the coffee, we needed to engage with people, listen to people, communities that we wanted to represent and understand their concerns rather than talking to ourselves. I’d like to think that our manifesto is focused on health and care, focused on cost of living and things like free school meals, with our focus on environmental issues that really worry people like sewage. I’d like to think that we’ve produced a set of priorities and campaigns that almost have come from talking to people.  

You’re in a shop, you see a parent, clearly in extreme need, stealing baby formula to feed their child. What would you do? 

I’d try and try persuade them not to, obviously. Try and find them other help, that’d be the best way of doing it. 

Would you say you’re now more left wing than Keir Starmer’s party?

No. We’re just the Liberal Democrats. We are who we are. I’m really proud that we’ve got these policies on health and care. I don’t necessarily see the NHS and carers on some ideological spectrum. I think wherever you are, you want to see your GP, you want an NHS dentist, you want the ambulance to arrive on time, and you want personal care when you’re elderly or disabled. These seem to me, policies for everybody.

The benefit system, as Big Issue have reported, is punitive, it causes distress for people who can’t work. The DWP assessment process is pretty dehumanising. How would you fix this and make sure help, rather than suspicion, is the motivating drive of Britain’s safety net? 

I think there are many aspects of reforming the assessment system. You’ve got various different things, obviously you’ve got the work capability assessment, I think we want to bring that in-house. Some of the contractors involved, they’re very performance-related to get their payments, they’re not that interested in individuals. I think we’ve got to get away from that, to where people are treated more fairly, and I think probably the only way of doing that is bringing that type of assessment back in-house. 

You’ve then got disability assessments. I’ve got to put my cards on the table – I have a son who has profound disabilities. He’s just switched from [disability living allowance] DLA to [personal independence payment] PIP. Although we haven’t had problems with it, I know lots of constituents who have. Filling in the very long form, it just shows you why people have massive problems. 

The thing that really irritates me, and it’s irritated me for many years now, you get people with conditions that are life-long, that are never going to change, that are only going to get progressively worse, and the DWP knows that but it doesn’t matter. The computer says, no, they’ve got to come in and be reassessed, all from scratch. It’s very unnerving for people, they get very anxious, worried and ill, made ill by the fear around their benefits situation. 

There are completely different ways of doing this. You could have a way where some people are never reassessed, except for additional support, and you could make it clear in other cases that this is just a check in, it’s not going to result in losing any money, we’re just trying to see if they need more help.

You mention making that switch to PIP. I can imagine knowing you’re about to have to interact with the DWP in that way might be quite a source of stress for you and your son.

I’ll confess it’s my wife who did most of the work. I’m not sure if I really want this published, but the real thing for us was more the distress of having to say how disabled he was. You essentially have to say all the things you can’t do. For a parent, having to set out in hard detail all the things John can’t do, and will never be able to do – quite hard I have to tell you.

You know, it’s what the law says, and we did it. But that’s the hard bit for us. To be honest, we weren’t worried about not getting it because John’s so disabled it’s not a question, he was always going to get it. But I’ve worked for constituents who are on the margins, and it’s people who have conditions where they’re bad for one or two days a week and not too bad the rest of the time, but those one or two days a week occur every week. It’s those people who I have to sit down with, my team sit down with, and explain: ‘Look, you’ve got to say how you are on your worst day.’ People have got pride, right? They want to say how well they are. And we have to say: ‘Look, no, you’ve just told us that two, three, four days a week you can’t even get out of bed. You’ve got to set that down.’ I’m really conscious the process doesn’t do that, it’s trying to catch people out the whole time.

BIG ISSUE: General election campaigns look very intense as a leader, and you’re a carer for your son John. What’s it been like balancing that role with a snap-ish general election campaign? 

ED DAVEY: We were preparing for it, and we were thinking how we’re going to cope, and we’ve got some extra support in, to be honest. We’ve got someone who’s living in at home, with my wife, who’s a helper with my son. Because in normal times, outside elections, I do quite a lot of caring alongside my wife, alongside some carers we have. We’ve just had to intensify the help, because we just couldn’t cope without it. We’re very lucky – lots of people can’t do that.

One of the things I’ve been saying is that if you treat carers properly, not only do you get families out of poverty, but you can get decent work at the same time. It’s been a very negative view of people from the likes of the Conservatives.

Going back to the children being in care and making that a protected characteristic – we talked to a guy called Terry Galloway. He was in care and he’s been amazing campaigning for children who’ve come out of care, to stop being discriminated against. It was those sorts of people who I thought need to have a lot more support. 

The Lib Dems are the only party to make care experience a protected characteristic – a first for a major party. You were raised by your grandparents, as kinship carers. How has that shaped both this specific pledge, and your general approach to politics? 

To me, having been a young carer to having a disabled child, you do see the world through a different lens. I like to think I’m seeing it through a not completely different lens to my constituents, because I deal with lots of casework. 

My own personal experience has meant that you do see the value of having people who are going to be there for you. Having lost both my parents, I could have not had a good time. But my Nan and Grandad stepped in, my brother stepped in, and actually, bizarrely, I consider myself quite fortunate for [having] a loving family. 

What I’ve noticed in lots of casework I’ve done over the years, when people fall on tough times, is people who are worst affected are those who don’t have anyone close to them who will be there for them. Whether it’s anyone who’s come from a foster parent, whether it’s a sibling, whether it’s a step-parent, whether it’s a kinship carer in the broadest terms.  

Big Issue vendors’ questions

BIG ISSUE: The NHS is a mess, housing is a mess, where do we start to fix them? Paddi, Waterstones, Sauchiehall St, Glasgow

ED DAVEY: On the NHS, we’ve got to start training GPs, we’ve got to start passing laws to make sure that people can afford care, we’ve got to increase wages for care workers by at least £2 an hour with a new minimum wage. Those are all key first steps for health and care.

On housing, I think you could ban no-fault evictions very, very quickly. That would be a big first step. Obviously building more homes is more challenging, but lots of Liberal Democrats are already building lots of homes. I don’t know if you know, I met my wife at a housing policy working group. She’s a social housing lawyer. She’s done work with Shelter and councils training people, and she’s now housing portfolio in Kingston, in my constituency. She’s now heading up the largest programme of building council homes we’ve had for over 40 years. There are some authorities, including some Liberal Democrat ones, who are really going gangbusters on building social housing. 

When was the last time you bought a Big Issue? What did you like about it? Paul Logan Oxford Circus, London

I think it was one covering Layla Moran’s campaign on the Vagrancy Act. We’ve done a lot of work on trying to get rid of the Vagrancy Act. So I think I must have read this article.

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