Last night in the Lords saw a fierce debate about the government’s welfare reforms. A week ago, the government lost three separate votes on employment support allowance. This week, it was their changes to disability living allowance (DLA) that came under scrutiny.
A good deal of that scrutiny came from Baroness Grey-Thompson. Britain’s most successful Paralympian has kept a relatively low profile in Parliament since her introduction to the Lords in 2010 as a crossbencher, but last night she demonstrated why she’s such an asset to the upper house.
One of her amendment to the Bill, which would have required the replacement for DLA to be trialled first, was narrowly defeated (229 votes to 213). An earlier amendment, which called for doctor’s reports to be a mandatory part of the new assessment process, was withdrawn after the government made concessions.
If you read through her contributions to the debate, she remains at all times very focused on the detail of the issue at hand, resisting the urge to become personal or partisan. It’s a fascinating example of a legislator using her own background to inform their work, without feeling the need to project their own ego in the attempt.
I interviewed Baroness Grey-Thompson last year about the preparations for the Olympics and Paralympics. During the course of that conversation, she did allow herself to be a little more personal on the topic of welfare reform. Her major concern, she said, was that we shouldn’t allow disabled people to become ‘ghettoised’. She said:
“I’m the same every day, I don't change, but there are a lot of disabled people who are different every day and it’s making sure we have a fair system that doesn’t ghettoise disabled people. I’ve been in a chair since I was seven – I’m 41 now – and when I was growing up you didn’t see disabled people on the streets, and it wasn’t because there weren’t lots of disabled people, it’s because they were locked away from society.
“ My dad, who was an architect, refused to make our house wheelchair-accessible – I mean, he designed the inaccessible environment, because he realised that if he made the house completely wheelchair accessible I’d never live anywhere else, and I’d never do anything. It’s really important that we don't keep locking disabled people up. I think one of the challenges of the welfare system is that you have to prove what you can’t do to get support and actually for me it should be about what support you need to be able to do things, so you can get a job, you can contribute, and you can pay tax, and you can be in society in a different way.”
She might not have succeeded in passing her amendment, but she’s definitely done a brilliant job of bringing the real-world implications of a very technical issue to a wider audience. She may have arrived in the Lords because of her sporting prowess, but she definitely does far more than “bang on about the Olympics and Paralympics”, as she puts it.