The hottest day of the year so far was a fitting backdrop to a debate that had the potential to be one of the most heated of the election campaign.
The Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC) hosted senior representatives of the five major national parties to answer questions about the benefits that millions of disabled people rely on every day. Rather than looking back on the past, the panellists were asked to look forward to what their party would change, what they would like to achieve, and how they envisage getting there.
The Chair, the Guardian's David Brindle, opened by discussing the extra costs that disabled people are forced to pay, £550 per month on average. One in ten disabled people have to pay over £1,000 in extra costs per month.
The first question from the audience asked what the parties would do to improve the way that society talks about disability and welfare, citing research showing that 13% of disabled people had been victims of hate crime because they were on benefits.
There was cross-party agreement that politicians need to lead by example with the language they use when they speak about disabled people, and that the 'skivers vs strivers' debate was harmful. There was lively discussion and debate on how helpful bringing in new legislation would be to reduce disability hate crime. Stephen Timms, Labour's Shadow Employment Minister, suggested that specific disability hate crime legislation might be helpful, while Conservative representative Kwasi Kwarteng said that new legislation is not always the answer.
Attendees then talked passionately about how vital Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and its successor Personal Independence Payments (PIP) are to helping with the extra costs they face. Without this lifeline, many disabled people would be unable to go to their hospital appointments, heat their homes or even leave the house to meet friends.
The panellists all recognised the vital importance of these benefits, and recognised that the current delays when applying for PIP must be tackled. There was disagreement regarding whether PIP should be reformed, however. Baroness Thomas (Liberal Democrats) and Star Etheridge (UKIP) would push for the eligibility criteria to be relaxed, Marion Turner-Hawes said that the Greens would invest an extra £1bn into DLA and PIP, while Timms and Kwarteng said that their priority would be to reduce the delays, as they recognise that they are unacceptable.
Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), another lifeline to many, was also debated. ESA is there to provide support for disabled people looking for work, and security for those who cannot. Many disabled people can work, and the question asked whether the system itself works, and whether the £108 per week ESA is enough to live on.
Unsurprisingly, the majority of panellists went straight to the workings of ESA and the work capability assessment (WCA) was quickly raised. The WCA is used to assess whether people are able to work. Like for PIP, people felt that the next government must tackle the delays in being assessed; something that the panel agreed with. The next government will see first-hand whether the new provider of this assessment, Maximus, will be able to tackle these delays.
The parties disagree on the WCA itself, with the Conservatives and Labour agreeing in principle to keep the assessment, with Timms promoting reform, while UKIP and the Greens promise its abolition and Baroness Thomas will push for a review. Whatever its future, the audience were clear that people making decisions about benefits must understand disability and how it can affect someone.
More than anything, this debate showed how passionate disabled people, their families and carers are about these issues, and how the next government's policies in this area will have a profound effect on their lives. Their asks of the parties were listened to, with the party representatives informed and receptive. The future of disability benefits is in the hands of the next government and, while this was just one event, the audience certainly made a lasting impression on the party representatives.
A video of the discussion is available at: https://www.youtube.com/user/MencapDirector
The DBC's key asks for the next government : https://disabilitybenefitsconsortium.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/dbc-manifesto-a5-booklet-170215.pdf