Disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) have responded warily to a string of new appointments to key posts in the coalition’s first ministerial reshuffle.
Maria Miller, the much-criticised minister for disabled people, who has become the new culture secretary, will be replaced by her fellow Conservative Esther McVey.
McVey, a former television presenter, founded an organisation that helps women set up businesses, and was previously parliamentary private secretary to Chris Grayling in his role as employment minister.
McVey said that “supporting disabled people to live fulfilling lives and restoring fairness to the welfare system” was “vital” and that she was joining the Department for Work and Pensions at a “crucial time”.
Grayling, who was responsible for the issue that has enraged many disabled activists – the controversial “fitness for work” assessment and the government’s contract with Paralympic sponsor Atos Healthcare – becomes justice secretary, and is replaced by fellow Conservative Mark Hoban.
The care services minister, Liberal Democrat Paul Burstow, who led work on the coalition’s crucial care and support white paper and draft bill, both published in July, also lost his post, to be replaced by another Liberal Democrat, Norman Lamb, a close ally of the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg.
And Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrat children and families minister – responsible for the government’s special educational needs (SEN) reform programme – has also lost her job.
She has been replaced by her party colleague David Laws – who resigned two years ago as chief secretary to the treasury after breaking rules on MPs’ expenses – although it has not yet been decided whether he will take on the SEN brief.
DPOs have so far reacted cautiously to the reshuffle.
Richard Currie, an executive member of Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People, said he was concerned about the apparent shift to the right in the Department of Health, with former culture secretary Jeremy Hunt replacing Andrew Lansley as health secretary.
Currie said he feared McVey’s appointment would see a continuation of the government’s focus on the individual disabled person as the “problem” rather than on addressing the barriers in society and the economy.
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, said she had become “frustrated” with how Miller constantly referred to working closely with DPOs “in such a way that it implied that we agreed with government policy and plans when the overwhelming majority of DPOs passionately disagree with the government’s approach”.
She said: “We hope the opportunity for a new minister will produce an opportunity to create a more balanced relationship.
“Any new minister is an opportunity to try and make contact and establish and communicate our concerns.”
Tara Flood, director of the Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), said she was “really looking forward to working with David Laws [if he is given the SEN brief] and very much looking forward to meeting him next month”, an engagement previously set up with Teather.
Flood said: “I hope to persuade him about the merits and lasting benefits of inclusive education.”
Following Miller’s appointment, the government refused to say if she would present any medals to Paralympic athletes over the final days of London 2012.
She has presided over massively unpopular cuts and reforms to disability living allowance (DLA), announced the closure of the Independent Living Fund, and failed to ensure an assessment of the cumulative impact of a raft of welfare reforms and cuts to services on disabled people.
After the chancellor, George Osborne, was loudly booed when presenting medals in the Olympic Stadium, there were likely to be fears in Miller’s new department of a similar reaction – particularly from disabled people – if she was asked to present any medals.
As the new secretary of state for culture, media and sport, Miller would have been an obvious choice to hand out medals for a high-profile event in the last few days of the games.
But she has become a deeply divisive figure for many activists and has several times been the victim of angry heckling when speaking at events attended by disabled people.
A spokeswoman for the Government Olympic Communication office said: “As has been the case over the last days, ministerial involvement in the medal ceremonies is fairly fluid so we are not publishing or giving advance notice of who is giving out medals when and where.”
6 September 2012