Duncan Smith’s former spin doctor is new disabled people’s minister


theweeksubThe new minister for disabled people – a former spin doctor who idolised Margaret Thatcher – has received a mixed welcome from disability campaigners.

Mike Penning, the Conservative MP for Hemel Hempstead, was until this week the minister responsible for trying to persuade politicians in Northern Ireland to accept the coalition’s controversial programme of welfare cuts and reforms.

But he has now replaced Esther McVey, who after just a year in the post is promoted to employment minister, another key role for disabled people and one which includes responsibility for the much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA). She replaces her Tory colleague Mark Hoban, who has been sacked.

Only last week, McVey told Disability News Service (DNS) that she would not rule out scrapping the WCA if there was proof that it had fallen below a certain standard.

In Labour’s reshuffle, Anne McGuire – whose resignation was revealed by DNS last week – has been replaced as shadow minister for disabled people by Kate Green, former chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, a long-standing campaigner on employment and social justice, and a former member of the Commons work and pensions committee.

Liam Byrne, who was disliked by many disabled activists for seeming to mirror the hard-line coalition stance on social security, has been replaced as shadow work and pensions secretary by Leeds West MP Rachel Reeves, a former economist and one of the party’s rising stars, who was only elected for the first time in 2010.

Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) welcomed Byrne’s demotion to the shadow higher education role.

A DPAC spokeswoman said: “Byrne may latterly have started raising the devastating impact of so-called welfare reforms on disabled people, but it was too little too late.

“Byrne represented a New Labour approach barely distinguishable from the Tories in being tough on welfare when what we need is an opposition that defends social security and challenges rather than reinforces myths about shirkers and workers.”

Meanwhile, McVey’s promotion drew a mixed reaction from disabled campaigners.

Sir Bert Massie, a fellow Liverpudlian, was scathing.

He said he had heard her described as an extremely good minister for disabled people on Radio Four’s Woman’s Hour. “I am just wondering what the evidence for that was. How many disabled people have been consulted on this one?

“It is remarkable. Apparently the prime minister wanted more women and more northern accents. That is a very strange way to run the country.”

Sir Bert, currently leading a disability poverty taskforce for Labour, said McVey had been “robust” and “determined” and “didn’t give away anything at all”, no matter how damaging the policy was.

He said: “If that is what gets you promoted these days, that’s what gets you promoted. As for understanding disabled people and understanding disability, and understanding her brief properly, she wasn’t in the park.”

The disabled blogger and campaigner Kaliya Franklin, another Merseysider, who met and lobbied McVey on several occasions, said that it was “really good that they have got a strong northern woman on the front bench”.

She said: “McVey will engage [with disabled people], that is the crucial difference between her and Hoban.”

By moving to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Penning will be linking up again with work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, for whom he was deputy head of media during his ill-fated spell as leader of the Tory party between 2001 and 2003.

Penning appears to come from the right wing of the party: he voted against the gay marriage bill earlier this year, and in the early 1990s was media adviser to the Tory rebels who had the Conservative whip removed by prime minister John Major during the so-called “Maastricht rebellion”.

But he also achieved the largest swing from Labour to the Conservatives at the last election, and has shown an interest in disability employment and access issues in his constituency.

A Northern Ireland Office spokeswoman said it had been Penning’s job as a minister of state to represent the UK government in welfare reform discussions with members of the Northern Ireland assembly and executive.

The executive is currently trying to negotiate a Northern Ireland version of the changes introduced through the Welfare Reform Act – including cuts and reforms to disability living allowance and the introduction of universal credit – that have proved so controversial among disabled activists in the rest of the UK.

In a statement, Penning said: “It’s great to be back working with Iain Duncan Smith at this crucial time delivering important welfare reforms.”

He added: “Making this a senior ministerial post shows the government’s commitment to disabled people and ensuring everyone can get on in life.”

Nick Goss, a leading disabled equality consultant, whose business is based on the edge of Penning’s constituency, said the MP had taken an interest in local disability issues, particularly around transport, employment and improving access.

He said: “Hopefully he will transfer that to a bigger stage. He’s a really down-to-earth guy, a former fireman, not a career politician.”

Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, said she hoped Penning would work cross-government “to make sure that skills, employment, education, social care and equality are pulled together to make a difference to disabled people’s lives”.

She added: “I hope the new minister will meet disabled people and disabled people’s organisations and grasp the really important agenda which is about independent living and participation and not letting the clock turn back.”

But Linda Burnip, co-founder of DPAC, said: “Penning seems to be yet another minister for disabled people foisted onto us who has very limited experience of disability issues and of having shown interest in them.

“His opposition to same-sex marriages will serve to add to the concerns of the LGBT [lesbian gay bisexual transgender]disability community.”

There was also disappointment with the reshuffle from the British Deaf Association (BDA), which had been due to meet with McVey to discuss a private member’s bill that would give British Sign Language (BSL) legal recognition.

BDA had been encouraged by comments McVey made to DNS earlier this month in which she hinted that she could be in favour of granting BSL legal status.

David Buxton, chief executive of the BDA, said: “We hope the new minister will be equally as willing to talk about a legal recognition of BSL as Esther McVey was.”

10 October 2013