Parliamentary candidates faced some tough questions when they addressed members of the town’s disabled community.
Special educational needs, carers, disability hate crimes and benefits concerns were on the agenda during the meeting at the Civic Hall on Monday (April 13).
Every candidate attended, with the exception of Sarah Osborne (Lib Dem) who was represented by her colleague, Derek Deedman.
One issue which proved particularly emotive was that of benefits, the stress caused by the assessment process and the perception from some quarters that claimants were frauds or scroungers.
Guy Hudson (Green Party) told the meeting: “Claiming benefits is a legal right and if we’re entitled to them according to the law then we’re entitled to them. We shouldn’t feel guilty about it. It’s what the government has set up to help society. People have been very wrongly vilified.”
Chris Oxlade (Labour) said the benefits assessment system had been “a bit of a farce” and added there were 532 people in Crawley who had been waiting for their assessments for more than three months.
He said: “It’s about making the system a lot fairer and a lot more easy to access.”
Chris Brown (UKIP) went one step further, declaring: “We would scrap any kind of assessment for disabled people. There would be no assessments for working, livability or anything else.”
While some applauded his statement, others felt the idea would take the problem from one extreme to the other – making it too easy for people to abuse the system.
There was applause when Henry Smith (Conservative) told the meeting the government had scrapped its contract with Atos, the healthcare firm which has conducted disability assessments on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions.
While stating the government had introduced a benefit cap to ensure no one could claim more than would be earned from the average wage, Mr Smith said Disability Living Allowance and Personal Independence Payments would be protected from that cap.
He added: “It is important disabled people have the assurance that those benefits are there.”
Mr Smith then jumped to the defence of Iain Duncan Smith, secretary of state for work and pensions, who was accused by one member of the public of inflating the belief some benefits claimants were “on the fiddle”
She said Mr Duncan Smith had “sowed the seeds of doubt” in Parliament and added: “You do get the feeling that people do look – they wonder all too much are we strivers or are we scroungers.”
Mr Smith dismissed the claim as “outrageous” and “quite wrong”.
As the meeting, which was organised by the disability support service Independent Lives, was winding up, Mr Oxlade highlighted the fact cuts in social care in West Sussex were nearing £100million.
He added: “It’s a short-term saving for a problem that is practically its own making.”