National Party candidate and ex-television presenter Maggie Barry came under fire at a disability policy meeting for her party's record on welfare reform and special needs cuts.

Representatives from six political parties - Labour, National, Greens, Mana, Maori and Act - laid out their policy on disability before a crowd of 100 in Western Springs yesterday.

Former garden show host Barry received the frostiest reception due her party's proposed welfare reforms and restructuring of education for disabled kids.

The most heated debate was on the issue of paltry pay for caregivers who worked sleepover shifts for dependent people. Until a recent landmark decision, caregivers earned around $4 an hour for overnight shifts.


Barry, in her charming broadcasting tone, pointed out the Government has now backed down, promising a $100 million initiative to gradually raise wages to $13 an hour.

But many were disappointed that the issue had to be fought all the way to the Supreme Court before the Government relented. People in the audience said this case was typical of the Government's single-minded emphasis on the value of paid work - as opposed to the unpaid work of caring for dependents.

The Welfare Working Group's recommendation to reduce long-term benefit dependency was also raised by attendees and other political representatives.

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei said that the Government had to take care not to discriminate against severely disabled people who "through no choice of their own found themselves dependent on a benefit".

Audience members said jobs were harder to come by in a difficult economic climate, and disabled job-seekers still faced discrimination from employers.

Barry repeatedly reminded the audience that National had committed $130 million to special needs services in this year's Budget.

Mother Judy Humphris had a personal axe to grind with the Government, as she was upset that her autistic 5-year-old son, Carlos, was being moved into mainstream education next year. His special needs classroom at Sunnybrae Normal School on the North Shore will close next year.

"I've seen him gain confidence at school, and make friends. We've tried mainstream education for him and it doesn't work. And if my son doesn't get an education, it affects me, in many ways."


Ms Humphris said she had warmed most to Labour MP Carmel Sepuloni's policy. Labour's disability issues spokeswoman accentuated the need for mental health and disability to be covered in transport, housing, and employment portfolios: "This cannot be treated purely as a health issue."

But the biggest cheer of the afternoon was reserved for Mana Party representative, and former Greens MP Sue Bradford, when she suggested anti-discrimination legislation.

* Parity pay for special needs caregivers.
*Improving outcomes for disabled students moving from high school to tertiary education.
*Welfare reform to reduce long-term welfare dependency.
*Ratifying the 2006 United Nations Convention on the Human Rights of Persons with Disabilities.