Harper is new disability minister, six months after resignation


newslatestThe prime minister has appointed a new minister for disabled people, just six months after he was forced to resign from his previous ministerial post.

Mark Harper, the MP for the Forest of Dean, replaces Mike Penning, who leaves the post to move to the Home Office and Ministry of Justice, just nine months after taking on the role.

Harper only resigned from his previous post as immigration minister in February after it emerged that his cleaner did not have permission to work in the UK.

So far, he has not commented on his appointment on his website or on his Twitter feed.

But one of his first tasks as the new minister was to announce that the government would not be rolling out the Right to Control pilot projects across the country.

The seven pilots across England  brought together different funding streams into a “streamlined process” that allowed disabled people choice and control over their support.

But Harper said an evaluation of the pilots found they did not lead to “any measurable impact on outcomes”, although Right to Control was “popular with those individuals who exercised their right to control and they valued the greater flexibilities it gave them”.

He said that the new Care Act and the planned introduction of personalisation through the disability and health employment strategy – as well as the pilot findings – meant the government had decided not to roll out Right to Control.

Harper’s portfolio as minister will be wider than that of Penning, who was responsible for the much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA), but not its associated benefit, employment and support allowance (ESA), which rested with employment minister Esther McVey.

Asked if he could explain why Harper would be taking on responsibility for ESA, a spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “I will go away and think about it.”

Harper was the Conservative shadow minister for disabled people from 2007 until the 2010 general election, and had been widely expected to take on the role of minister for disabled people in 2010, until the post was handed to Maria Miller.

In 2009, Disability News Service reported Harper’s comments about Conservative plans for ensuring existing claimants of incapacity benefit were reassessed through the WCA, if his party won power at the following year’s general election.

He said: “This is doable. We are not inventing a new process. We want to do it fast because we want to make sure those people get the help.

“It clearly is a challenge. It’s not going to be a walk in the park. But not doing it means saying to those people we are not going to provide you with the help and support you need to get into work.”

In 2009, again as shadow minister, he said his party would be unlikely to scrap disability benefits such as DLA or AA because they were “supposed to be focused on the needs of people with a disability to try and level the playing field”.

He will now be responsible for plans to replace working-age DLA with the new personal independence payment, a programme which has become mired in delays, backlogs and controversy.

Harper tried in opposition to introduce amendments to legislation to repeal section 141 of the Mental Health Act, which said that MPs who were sectioned for at least six months must lose their seats.

He said at the time: “Changing this aspect of the law will be a small but symbolic step in redressing the stigma that people with mental health problems face in the workplace.”

Harper said later that section 141 – which the coalition managed to scrap last year – “sends out entirely the wrong message that if you have mental health problems your contribution is not welcome in public life”.

Disability Rights UK said that working with Harper when he was shadow minister for disabled people had been “a good experience”, and praised his role in scrapping the “archaic” section 141.

17 July 2014