Work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey was accused of an “embarrassing” performance in front of MPs yesterday (Wednesday) after she was repeatedly forced to admit she could not remember key aspects of her government’s disability policies.
Coffey (pictured) was appearing in front of the Commons work and pensions committee to explain what the government was doing to support people facing rising food and energy costs.
Her appearance came two days after one of her ministers presented the annual benefits uprating order before MPs, which confirmed that benefits would rise by just 3.1 per cent in April, despite inflation heading for six per cent.
And new figures released by the Food Foundation, also released on Monday, revealed that disabled people with high support needs have been about five times more likely to be “food insecure” over the past six months than non-disabled people.
Asked by Labour’s Debbie Abrahams yesterday whether DWP had carried out an assessment of the impact of its uprating decision on disabled people, Coffey told her: “Off the top of my head, I can’t remember if an impact assessment was published.”
Abrahams told her that such an assessment had not been carried out, even though evidence to the committee from The Trussell Trust earlier in the day had shown that three-fifths of those being referred to food banks were disabled people.
Citizens Advice had told the committee that three-fifths of the food and fuel debt issues they were dealing with were being raised by disabled people, said Abrahams.
She then asked what action the government had taken to set up a taskforce to investigate the extra impairment-related costs disabled people face.
Coffey told her that she was “not aware of this taskforce you refer to”.
The committee’s chair, Stephen Timms, later told her that setting up the taskforce was one of the commitments made last summer in the government’s National Disability Strategy, a strategy that had been presented to parliament by Coffey herself, and has now been declared unlawful by the high court.
Coffey told him that it was two other departments that were setting up the taskforce, and she added: “I don’t recall every one of the 105 commitments that were made.”
She then told Labour’s Neil Coyle that she could not remember whether her department had promised to restart a trial that was paused during the pandemic, and which handed benefit claimants a “yellow card” written warning instead of a benefit sanction for their first breach of strict benefit conditions.
Ministers had said they were “aiming to restart this activity in due course”, in a response last November to the committee’s report on the disability employment gap.
Asked if the trial would now continue, Coffey said: “I don’t think so, because I think it already happens informally.”
Asked to confirm what DWP had trialled, she said: “I don’t recall. I’ll find out.”
When Coyle again asked for clarity about the yellow card system, she told him: “I’m trying to say to you, Neil, I don’t recall the specific details and I will come back to you.”
Coyle told her: “I have to say that it’s really disappointing that you’ve turned up and you’ve been unable to answer so many questions. It’s embarrassing.”
He then suggested that the reason she had been unable to answer so many questions during the committee session was linked to a rumour that she was about to resign from the government, asking her: “Is that the reason you can’t answer any questions today, because you’ve got one foot out the door?”
She replied: “No, don’t be ridiculous, Neil. If you want to bring up gossip, I could bring up other stuff that happened downstairs.
“I don’t think that’s appropriate for this select committee.”
It is not clear what she was referring to, but Coyle told her: “I’ll discuss that stuff anytime.”
Asked earlier in the meeting by Conservative MP Nigel Mills if people on low incomes were being placed in an “impossible situation” by the uprating order, Coffey told the committee that it was a “reasonable approach” to increase benefits by 3.1 per cent in April, despite predictions that inflation would soon be about twice that level.
She insisted that the £9.1 billion energy bills rebate announced by the chancellor last week would provide “substantial support”.
She added: “I think we have a robust safety net. It balances the needs of low-income households, tax payers… I am confident in what we do.”
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