The minister for disabled people has invited ridicule after giving his first major interview since his appointment to a senior civil servant in his own department.
Justin Tomlinson was appointed as minister in mid-May, but in three months he does not appear to have submitted himself to a single serious interview with a journalist about disability issues.
Disability News Service first submitted a request to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) press office in May to interview Tomlinson about issues such as the much-mocked Disability Confident campaign, personal independence payment reforms and cuts, and the troubled Access to Work scheme.
Another interview request was submitted on 26 June, through the department’s ministerial correspondence email address, but so far there has been no response from Tomlinson’s office.
An internet search suggests that Tomlinson has not yet carried out a single interview about his role as minister for disabled people, other than with his local paper and a representative of the charity United Response.
But now his department has posted an interview in which Tomlinson answers questions put to him by Pat Russell, head of the Office for Disability Issues (ODI), which is part of DWP and his own ministerial portfolio.
Russell asks a series of questions which include inviting Tomlinson to comment on his ministerial role, his appreciation of the ODI, and his priorities as minister for disabled people.
The interview was posted on 6 August on the website of DWP’s own Disability Action Alliance – a network of mainly, but not solely, non-user-led organisations with an interest in disability issues – but does not appear to have been publicised via social media, or by the minister’s public relations team.
In the interview, Tomlinson says one of his priorities is to halve the disability employment gap, partly by raising the profile of the Disability Confident campaign, particularly with small businesses.
He says: “It’s getting to those smaller businesses, like when I used to have my own business, giving them the confidence to take somebody on.
“I know for those employers actually the opportunity it’s for them because there is a shortage of willing and skilled staff out there and actually there are lots and lots of disabled people who have the skills, who want to work, who want to contribute.
“All the evidence shows you give them that chance, you overcome what often are very, very small barriers, they will be very loyal, very good members of staff, and it’s a real opportunity for employers.”
He said much of his role as minister would be “looking at how I can influence other departments to make a real difference”.
And he said he could make the greatest difference to disabled people by “directly engaging with them, and with stakeholder groups, so that they can shape what my priorities are, what the government’s priorities are, and how we can change attitudes in society”.
He adds: “I am going to be as accessible as I can be, I am going to engage as often as I can.”
Other than brief comments about access and the built environment, the only other major area of concern he is asked about by his civil servant is disability hate crime, which he says is an “incredibly important and incredibly serious issue”, requires cross-government working with Robert Buckland, the solicitor general, and will be “a real key priority”.