Theresa May’s belated attempts to engage directly with members of the public ran into difficulties when she was berated during a walkabout in Abingdon in Oxfordshire by a voter with a learning disability who has suffered from benefit cuts.
Kathy Mohan told the prime minister, who has been accused of hiding from the electorate, that she was forced to live on £100 a month in benefits after being denied help with the extra costs of coping with a learning disability.
“Do you know what I want? I want my disability living allowance to come back … I can’t live on £100 a month. They just took it all away from me,” Mohan said in a confrontation that was captured on camera.
It occurred after May’s campaign shifted strategy to allow more contact with voters. Her team changed tack after becoming acutely sensitive to claims the prime minister was avoiding ordinary people by holding invitation-only events for Conservative party activists and employees in their workplaces.
May tried to defend her record, saying that the government had “a lot of plans for people with mental health [problems] in particular” but Mohan continued to challenge her, reminding her that people with learning disabilities needed more help, too.
“I’ve got mild learning disabilities and I haven’t got a carer at the moment and I’m angry. And I would like somebody to help me, because I can’t do everything I want to do,” Mohan said.
“I’m talking about everybody, not just me. I’m talking about everybody who’s got mental health and learning disabilities. I want them not to have their money taken away from them and being crippled. The fat cats keep all the money and us lot get nothing.”
May tried to interject but the voter continued to question her over the highly controversial switch from the disability living allowance (DLA) to personal independence payment (PIP) under the Conservatives.
Under these changes, disability living allowance, which provided for the extra cost of coping with a disability, is being replaced by PIP. The criteria for receiving it have been tightened, leading to more than 160,000 vulnerable people being denied additional financial help they once received.
Afterwards, charities including Mencap said it was worrying that May seemed “unclear on the difference between a learning disability and mental health”.
The confrontation prompted a stream of questions about disability benefits when May answered voters on ITV’s Facebook live page, hosted by political editor Robert Peston.
May told Peston that disability benefit reforms were “part of trying to ensure that we focus payments on those who most need it, those who are most vulnerable”.
She added: “There are a number of issue people raise around PIPs. One is about the assessment process and we have been making changes in that to make that a better process for people. We want to try to help those disabled people able to get into the workplace to do so.”
The prime minister was also ambushed by a question from the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who wrote in to ask why she was refusing to take part in television debates head-to-head with him.
“What I think is more important is actually that I and he take questions directly from the voters. I don’t think people get much out of seeing politicians having a go at each other; I think people want to hear directly,” she said.
ITV will host a live election debate in Salford on Thursday and has said that an invitation to the leaders of the seven biggest parties will remain open. However, May is refusing to attend and Corbyn will not participate if she does not turn up.
May’s tightly controlled campaign is being run by her co-chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, advised by the Australian election strategist Lynton Crosby. The party is understood to be planning to publish its manifesto on Thursday, although there has been no official confirmation of the date.
The prime minister has agreed to take part in a televised interview in which she will be questioned by Jeremy Paxman and a studio audience on a programme jointly aired by Channel 4 and Sky, with Corbyn appearing on the same show either immediately before or after.
Earlier on Monday, May unveiled a new policy that would require companies to publish details of the gap between pay levels for staff of different ethnic backgrounds – and extension of proposed new rules on gender pay gap reporting.
It comes after Trades Union Congress (TUC) research found ethnic minority workers educated to A-level earned 17% less than white colleagues, while the salaries of those with degrees are 10% lower. The disparity was even greater for black university graduates, who earn 23% less than their white counterparts, while black people with A-levels were paid 14% less.
It forms part of what the Conservatives claim will be a “new deal for workers” promising the greatest ever expansion of rights and protections – claims dismissed by Labour as nonsense.
May said: “The fact that different ethnic groups are being paid less for doing the same jobs is an injustice which cannot be allowed in 21st-century Britain. My plan will deliver a fairer deal for all workers, by extending rights and protections, guaranteeing rises in the national living wage and delivering a strong and stable economy. There is only one leader at this election who will put rights and opportunities for ordinary working families first.”