Government records have shown that the minister for disabled people significantly misled fellow MPs about his supposed engagement with a network he and his fellow ministers set up to hear disabled people’s “real lived experiences”.
The newly-published records of ministerial meetings show that Justin Tomlinson had not attended a single meeting of a new network set up to hear from disabled people across England, even though he told a Commons committee how “rewarding” he found those meetings.
Tomlinson (pictured) told members of the Commons women and equalities committee last September how much he enjoyed “stakeholder engagement” and said he must have been “lonely in a former life” because he spent a “significant proportion of [his] working week” meeting with disability organisations.
He then told the committee that ministers had set up the regional stakeholder network, which began work last April.
He told them the network was set up “so that all voices, particularly of all sizes of disability organisations, can share their real lived experience and help us improve our policies and our communications and I find it a very, very rewarding part of my role”.
The first meeting of one of the nine regional networks was on 11 June 2020 and over the next three months there were five such meetings.
But the new records of external meetings attended by work and pensions ministers show that Tomlinson had not attended a single network meeting by the time he spoke to MPs on the committee, despite his comments.
Although he did not explicitly state that he had attended any of these meetings, his comments strongly suggested that he did so regularly and that he enjoyed doing so.
He has already faced questions over his praise for the network’s contribution because, at the time he was speaking to the committee, only two of the nine networks had even held their first meeting.
But the new records now provide even stronger evidence of how he misled the committee.
Caroline Nokes, the Conservative chair of the committee, and herself a former work and pensions minister, refused to comment on the new evidence.
But Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, said: “This is yet more evidence that the government appears to prefer to spend time and energy pretending to engage with disabled people and DDPOs* than actually doing it for real.
“As the disproportionate impact of COVID on disabled people hits the headlines again, it is nothing less than shocking that we have a minister for disabled people and a government who at every turn appear to choose cynical window-dressing exercises over real consultation. This is simply not acceptable.”
Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “There doesn’t really seem much else to say about Justin Tomlinson other than he appears to be either a liar or a fantasist. Either way he is a disgrace as minister for disabled people.”
Mark Harrison, of the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance (ROFA), said Tomlinson’s actions did not surprise him in what was now “a post-truth world”.
He said: “I suppose nothing surprises me in relation to Tomlinson. He is first and foremost a Tory employment minister, and secondly a minister for or against disabled people.”
When there is any chance of him being held to account, he cancels meetings, as he did with the last two meetings of the government’s new Disabled People’s Organisations Forum, said Harrison.
He added: “He’s the archetypal smooth operator. He’s Teflon. Any criticism just slides off. He’s not bothered by it.”
The evidence of Tomlinson’s misleading comments to the committee have emerged as his Disability Unit is putting the finishing touches to the government’s new disability strategy, amid widespread concerns about the repeated failure to engage with disabled people’s organisations in line with its obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (see separate story).
The new records also show that, in the three months from the beginning of July to the end of September – while disabled people were bearing the brunt of the coronavirus crisis (see separate story) – Tomlinson attended only 15 virtual meetings with “external organisations”.
Only six of those meetings included any disabled people’s organisations.
The records also show that Tomlinson did not attend a single meeting with an external organisation between 22 July and 7 September, presumably while he was on an extended holiday.
In the previous three months – April, May and June 2020 – he only attended 13 virtual meetings with external organisations.
A spokesperson for Tomlinson refused to comment.
*Deaf and disabled people’s organisations
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