Campaigners have reacted furiously to the decision to appoint Esther McVey as the new secretary of state for work and pensions, calling it a “heartsink moment” and a “terrible insult” to disabled people.
McVey (pictured), who served as both minister for disabled people and employment minister between 2012 and 2015, is blamed for many of the welfare reforms that had the harshest impact on disabled people under the coalition government.
In just three years, before she lost her seat at the 2015 general election, McVey faced repeated attacks for her attitude towards disabled people and other benefit claimants.
They included severe criticism from court of appeal judges, being repeatedly shamed for misleading fellow MPs and the public about the impact of her policies on disabled people, and appearing to welcome the increasing use of foodbanks caused by her government’s austerity policies.
Probably the most serious attack on her credibility came in November 2013 when she was heavily criticised by three court of appeal judges over her decision to close the Independent Living Fund 12 months earlier.
They found that the closure decision had been unlawful, and that McVey had breached the Equality Act’s public sector equality duty when making that decision.
One judge said there was no evidence that she had “directed her mind to the need to advance equality of opportunity”.
He had added: “Nor is there evidence she considered the proposals having due regard to the need to minimise the particular disadvantages from which ILF users and other disabled persons suffer or the need to encourage such persons to live independently and to participate in public life and other activities.”
McVey was criticised again over the highly unpopular decision to tighten key eligibility criteria for the higher rate of mobility support from 50 metres to 20 metres under the new personal independence payment (PIP).
McVey’s civil servants had consulted on PIP in 2012 but did not mention her plans to cut the criteria from 50 metres to 20 metres until after the public consultation had closed.
She only avoided another legal defeat by carrying out a second consultation, but only after a disabled activist had launched a judicial review of her decision.
In March 2013, she was shamed – but refused to apologise – after misleading MPs about the impact of the bedroom tax on families with disabled children or disabled people who had family members as carers.
The following month, McVey was accused of using misleading government statistics to “stoke up antagonism” towards disabled benefit claimants, when she told the Mail on Sunday that disability living allowance (DLA) claims had shot up ahead of the introduction of PIP.
The newspaper had described this as “an extraordinary ‘closing-down sale’ effect, with rocketing claims as people rush to get their hands on unchecked ‘welfare for life’”, a description a DWP spokeswoman later said was a fair representation of her interview although she had not used the exact phrases “closing-down sale” or “welfare for life”.
Analysis of the figures used by McVey to justify the claim showed that the number of claimants aged 16-64 – the group who would be affected by the introduction of PIP – had actually fallen by more than 1,600 in the three months she was referring to.
In August 2013, McVey refused to apologise after she was caught again “pulling lies and false information out of thin air” in a bid to justify her government’s cuts to spending on disability benefits and services.
She had claimed that the UK was spending “almost double the OECD average” on disabled people, a claim that was shown to be wrong by OECD statisticians.
Two months later, McVey was facing further claims of using misleading statistics, this time to try to show MPs that her policies were not damaging inclusion and equality for disabled people, after she misreported both the results of an international report on the implementation of the UN disability convention and her own department’s research on disability equality.
The following year, McVey emphasised her belief in the controversial and discredited biopsychosocial model of disability – an approach, favoured by the insurance industry, which puts much of the blame for disability on the disabled person – in a foreword to a paper on the government’s disability employment strategy.
She said then: “A person’s belief about what they can do can be as important as other factors, including their health condition, in determining how likely they are to find a job.”
McVey was also minister for disabled people when the department launched the ill-fated Disability Confident scheme in July 2013.
DNS later revealed that the government had signed up only about 40 mainstream private sector employers in the three years after McVey helped launch the flagship scheme.
Many disabled people also pointed this week to a speech McVey made in December 2013, when minister for employment, in a Commons debate, in which she appeared to suggest that it was “right” that more people were visiting foodbanks.
A recording of her speech shows (about 10 minutes in) that she said: “In the UK it is right that, you know, more people are visiting, which you would expect, going to food banks, because as the time is tough, as we’re all having to pay back this £1.5 trillion debt personally which spiralled under Labour, as we’re all trying to live within our means…”
McVey lost her Wirral West seat at the 2015 general election, a defeat blamed largely on unpopularity caused by her DWP work, but she returned to parliament last year after replacing former chancellor George Osborne as MP for Tatton when he quit parliament.
Soon after McVey’s appointment this week as the new work and pensions secretary, a petition calling on the prime minister to sack her was launched by a disabled campaigner on the website 38 Degrees as a way to “give people hope, a visual representation of numbers of support for those of us who’ve woken to this frightening news today”.
One of those who signed the petition said: “This is a terrible insult to every disabled and sick person.
“She didn’t show any understanding of the struggles people endure on a daily basis and I doubt she learned anything from her past experiences.”
Another pointed out that the UN had criticised the government for causing a “human catastrophe” with its disability policies, with the appointment showing Theresa May “returning one of the very ministers who has been at the heart of this ‘conscious cruelty’ meted out by the Tories to society’s disabled, sickest and poorest citizens”.
Disabled researcher and campaigner Catherine Hale said McVey’s appointment had been “a heartsink moment”, and that she felt “anguished on behalf of people on employment and support allowance especially”.
She said: “The appointment of McVey as secretary of state for work and pensions must be the Tories’ darkest hour yet.
“We can’t give her the benefit of the doubt in her intentions towards us, given her record as minister for disabled people.
“She and her morally bankrupt party have to be unseated urgently if disabled people are to survive and thrive.”
Anne McGuire, a former Labour minister for disabled people, said: “This is an unbelievably worrying decision.
“Esther McVey will be treated with justifiable suspicion after her tough, uncompromising and insensitive approach when last a DWP minister.
“Her lack of understanding of the severe problems facing those at the sharp end of benefit cuts means her appointment will fuel the fear that disabled people and other benefit recipients will continue to bear the brunt of government’s austerity policies.”
But McGuire also condemned the “vile abuse being thrown at Esther McVey” by some critics on social media.
She said: “It is totally unacceptable and should not be tolerated.”
Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “The appointment of the much-hated Esther McVey as secretary of state for DWP has provoked a massive backlash from disabled people and their organisations against Theresa May and her government.
“People see this as a deliberately provocative appointment which they feel will lead to the further abuse and denial of rights for disabled people.”
She said that neither McVey nor Jeremy Hunt – who was re-appointed as health secretary, with his role renamed as health and social care secretary – were “fit to be MPs, let alone hold any office”.
Disability rights activist Alice Kirby said: “In Esther McVey, the prime minister has selected someone whose actions had already caused considerable harm to disabled people to oversee a department already renowned for abusing our rights.
“In the past she has championed sanctions, the bedroom tax, and reducing the number of people being awarded disability benefits by replacing DLA with PIP.
“She also stated that it was ‘right’ and to be expected that people needed food banks as well. McVey’s record speaks for itself, she is not to be trusted.”
John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said: “The fact that Theresa May has appointed someone with such an infamous reputation for defending policies that the chair of the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities (UNCRPD), Theresia Degener, has described as a ‘human catastrophe’ reveals in stark relief the utter contempt with which this government holds the human rights and welfare of disabled people.
“We can now expect an intensification of the government’s campaign of violations against the fundamental human rights of the UK’s disabled population.
“We urge everyone to protest vigorously by signing the petition on 38 Degrees calling for McVey to be sacked and urge a campaign of peaceful direct action against Conservative members of parliament to highlight this grave injustice at local, national and international level.
“Along with other organisations we will be keeping the UNCRPD informed of developments as they occur and will seek by every means at our disposal to hold the government to account in the courts and in the court of public opinion at home and abroad.”
Sue Bott, deputy chief executive of Disability Rights UK, said McVey had “a very full in-tray when it comes to disabled people”.
She said: “We hope she’ll work with us to come up with practical responses to some of the critical issues around disabled people’s ability to live as full and equal citizens in the UK.
“High on the list are the assessment process for disability benefits such as employment and support allowance and personal independence payment; these assessments were a growing problem during her earlier tenure as minister for disabled people, and that remains the case.
“The injustices around the bedroom tax and the burgeoning problems with universal credit are also things that disabled people are worried about.
“We want to see concrete proposals to support disabled people coming out of the previously announced industrial strategy, and the health and work discussion paper – that is the only way we might start making progress on the stated aim to get more disabled people into paid work.
“If the new secretary of state really wants to make a difference to disabled people’s lives, she’ll have to do more than promote the Disability Confident initiative and encourage employers to be more disability friendly.
“Actions, not words, need to be the order of the day.”
McVey was one of the few high-profile appointments in this week’s ministerial reshuffle, and becomes the fifth work and pensions secretary in less than two years.
But she was reportedly only appointed after education secretary Justine Greening turned down the job and decided instead to leave the government after being sacked.
The reshuffle also saw employment minister Damian Hinds replaced by Alok Sharma, and family support, housing and child maintenance minister Caroline Dinenage replaced by Kit Malthouse, although his duties have yet to be confirmed.
Sarah Newton, the minister for disabled people, has kept her job.
Hinds has become the new education secretary and Dinenage a minister of state in the newly-renamed Department of Health and Social Care.