Peer challenges new minister on austerity impact


newslatestA leading disabled peer has delivered her most outspoken attack yet on the government’s austerity programme, in a direct challenge to the new minister for disabled people.

Baroness [Jane] Campbell was chairing a meeting of the all party parliamentary disability group, at which the new Conservative minister Mike Penning was appearing for the first time.

Introducing Penning to a packed meeting of disabled activists and campaigners, the crossbench peer said disabled people were experiencing “more than their fair share of the current austerity measures” and were feeling that their “hard-won rights are slipping away in the name of economic austerity”.

She said: “We want to know that our independence and our freedoms will not disappear as the government pursues its current reforms of welfare benefits, social care, education and political engagement.”

Penning told the meeting that he had been on a “very steep learning curve” in his new role.

He accepted that austerity “has been a major part of the government’s plans… and that has had massive effects”.

But he argued that some benefits had been “abused”, a theme he returned to frequently during the meeting.

Penning said that his position as a minister of state meant that he had more influence across government as a minister for disabled people than his coalition predecessors in the role, who had been junior ministers.

Baroness Campbell warned him later in the meeting that disabled people were extremely concerned at government plans to close the Independent Living Fund (ILF) and pass the resources to local authorities, without ring-fencing them, and faced the possibility of “reinstitutionalisation”.

She appealed to Penning to make it his job to ensure the money was “retained for independent living and not squandered on local authorities mis-planning, mis-spending or just mis-understanding what disabled people need to live independently”.

But Penning refused to talk about the ILF closure decision because of the ongoing court case being taken by five claimants against the government.

10 December 2013