Esther McVey, the Conservative minister, had been due to deliver a key-note speech to the conference on her Fulfilling Potential disability strategy, the latest stage of which she had announced just two days earlier.
McVey had confirmed that she would speak at the National Disabilities Conference – which was sponsored by her own department – at 9.30am today (Thursday).
But she pulled out of the conference at some stage in the last few weeks, pleading the excuse of “parliamentary business”.
It emerged today that the reason she could not attend was that she was to deliver a statement in the House of Commons on the latest factory closures and job losses at Remploy.
But McVey’s Commons speech did not start until 11.41am, more than two hours after she was due to speak at the conference, being held just a mile away in Pimlico.
Anne McGuire, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, cancelled her appearance at the conference several hours before she was due to deliver her own keynote speech, so that she could question McVey in parliament over the Remploy announcement.
Delegates to the conference suggested that McVey could easily have delivered her speech at 9.30am before travelling less than a mile to the House of Commons to deliver her written statement at 11.41am.
One disabled delegate, Eleanor Lisney, representing the NUJ disabled members council, said she was “stunned” that the two politicians had pulled out, and that neither of them had suggested attending later in the day instead.
Another disabled delegate, Claire Whittingham, said: “As minister for disabled people, she has some sort of responsibility to face people who the cuts she is supporting are going to affect and are affecting.”
She said she was worried by the cuts and reforms to disability living allowance, and added: “I think she should have come to defend them and at least explain them, or at least explain the policies.”
Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, who chaired the conference, said there had been some “discontent” among delegates.
She said: “There was real disappointment in the conference that both the minister and the shadow minister pulled out.
“We understand there was parliamentary business but perhaps they could have come later.”
She said there would be delegations to both McVey and McGuire to pass on issues raised during the conference, including the need for peer support for disabled people, concerns about “scrounger” rhetoric and the constant use of the adjective “vulnerable” to describe disabled people, and the need for decent care and support.
Another issue raised was that disabled people were afraid to speak out about the lack of dignity in their social care for “fear of being seen as trouble-making” and having their support cut.
One delegate was less critical of the MPs’ withdrawal from the conference.
The disabled consultant and activist Simon Stevens said he was not concerned by McVey pulling out.
He said that ministers “make a lot of commitments” that they are not always able to keep, and that the event was organised by a profit-making business and was “not a big user-led conference”.
4 July 2013