Disabled Conservatives are considering tearing up their party memberships in protest at the decision to downgrade the importance of the role of minister for disabled people.
They spoke out after a chaotic day last Thursday (14 December) saw the government originally brief a journalist that the post would be scrapped altogether, before appointing a new minister for disabled people, Mims Davies, just hours later.
It soon emerged that Davies would be combining her new role with her existing job as the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) minister responsible for young people and social mobility.
The government also confirmed that Davies would continue to be a junior minister – a parliamentary under-secretary of state – in contrast to Tom Pursglove, her predecessor as disability minister, who had been a minister of state.
The downgrading of the role came just one day after the Covid public inquiry heard how disabled people were left without protection, written out of key investigations and proper consultation, and had their rights ignored by the UK government during the pandemic.
Following the decision to downgrade the role, Barry Ginley, chair of the Conservative Disability Group (CDG), wrote to prime minister Rishi Sunak to express his concerns.
He said he was “extremely angered and disappointed”, and he urged Sunak to reverse the decision “to ensure that our rights as the largest minority group in the UK are championed in parliament and Westminster”.
He said it was a “retrograde step diminishing the rights of disabled people to be effectively represented”.
He later told Disability News Service (DNS) the decision showed “the government does not hold disabled people’s interests at the heart of policy” and that it meant disabled people would now “not believe the government” when it announces any future policy which aims to improve their lives.
He added: “Feedback from some CDG members is that they are considering not renewing their membership in annoyance with the prime minister’s decision last week.”
There was further embarrassment for the government after DWP announced the appointment of Mims Davies through an inaccessible post on social media that failed to include “alt text”, which allows disabled people using screen-reading software to listen to a description of a picture.
Despite the downgrading of the role, Davies has been given the title of minister for disabled people, health and work, the same title held by Pursglove.
There was also criticism of the delay of seven days in appointing a successor to Pursglove, with the disability charity Scope suggesting this was the longest period between disability ministers in 30 years.
In fact, the gap between Chloe Smith (who was promoted to work and pensions secretary on 6 September 2022) leaving the post and the appointment of Claire Coutinho on 21 September 2022 was even longer, at 15 days, during the short-lived leadership of Liz Truss.
Commenting on Twitter, Davies said she was “honoured” by her appointment and would “work as hard as I can to ensure disabled people’s voices are heard loud and clear”.
But she said she would also have a “continued focus on social mobility – both reflecting the voice and needs of young people in DWP and all across Govt”.
She said later: “My Dad lived with head injury for over 25 years, as a result we were on benefits.
“I was the Charities Minister and have co chaired the [all-party parliamentary group] for carers and this has been a passion of mine, I’ve been at DWP since July 2019 and I know the teams, policymakers and [jobcentres]. Be assured I get it.”
She later told Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, Vicky Foxcroft, that her lower seniority as a junior minister “makes no material difference” to disabled people.
There was also criticism of the decision to again appoint a non-disabled person to the post, even though the same ministerial reshuffle saw one of parliament’s few disabled MPs, Paul Maynard, appointed as DWP’s pensions minister.
When DNS asked if Maynard had turned down the position of disability minister, his spokesperson referred all questions to DWP.
The government this week refused to say why Sunak changed his mind about scrapping the role of minister for disabled people; whether DWP would apologise for failing to add alt text to the social media post; whether Maynard was offered the post of minister for disabled people; why the post had been downgraded; and how it justified handing Davies the role in addition to her existing duties, when it now had two immigration ministers.
DWP said the role of minister for disabled people had delivered for disabled people at both minister of state and parliamentary under-secretary of state level in the past, and pointed to Davies’ extensive experience within the department and with the issues disabled people face.
A DWP spokesperson said in a statement: “Minister Davies will build upon this government’s track record of supporting disabled people, having delivered millions of cost-of-living payments and helping over one million more disabled people into work five years earlier than planned*.
“The minister will help ensure there is always a strong safety net for the most vulnerable in our society, while tearing down barriers so that every disabled person can realise their potential and thrive.”
*Previous DNS stories have exposed this claim as deeply misleading, pointing to mounting evidence that suggests years of government employment policies have had little or no impact on reducing the discrimination disabled people face in the jobs market
Picture: Mims Davies (left) and Barry Ginley
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