Labour’s new shadow minister for disabled people has spoken about her new role, and the access problems she faces as a disabled MP during prime minister’s questions.
Marie Rimmer, one of parliament’s few disabled MPs, was appointed to the role on 1 February, less than two years after she was elected for the first time as MP for St Helens South and Whiston.
Born in St Helens, she is a former trade union shop steward and became a Labour councillor in 1978. She led St Helens Council for a total of nearly 20 years over three spells.
She told Disability News Service that she does not under-estimate the importance of her new position as shadow minister, or “the magnitude of the role”.
“We have got a government that since 2010 has systematically burdened [disabled people], taken away from [their] finances, affected their housing, their independence…
“They seem to have very little understanding of disabled people, and the fact that they are human beings,” she says.
Although she did not speak out frequently in the Commons on disability issues before her appointment as shadow minister, there were some interventions on social security policy, including concerns about the new universal credit, the welfare cap, and the government’s “incompetent and brutal” sanctions regime.
She also joined many of her colleagues in speaking out, in February 2016, about the “cruel and utterly devastating cuts” of nearly £30-a-week to payments made to new claimants of employment and support allowance (ESA) placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG), set to be implemented next week.
And in June 2015, she pushed work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith and the prime minister over the government’s failure to publish updated statistics on the number of disabled people who had died shortly after being found fit for work.
Profoundly deaf – she has a cochlear implant that allows her to hear – Rimmer (pictured) says that prime minister’s questions causes her “dreadful” problems, so much so that she can hear the proceedings better through speakers outside the chamber, away from the “heckling and the cackling” of fellow MPs.
“It’s very stressful, you have to focus,” she says. “It does have its difficulties, but I manage.
“I do hear, but I could do without the heckling and the cackling. Of course everybody could do without that.
“I think it would make it easier for everybody if we stopped all the barracking in the chamber, it would make it easier for everybody.”
Despite her own impairment, Rimmer admitted during her interview with DNS – more than six weeks after her appointment as shadow minister for disabled people – that she had no idea what the social model of disability was, despite its huge significance to the disabled people’s movement.
Her priority as the party’s new shadow minister for disabled people is to build relationships with disability groups, she says, as the party continues with the national Disability Equality Roadshow (DER) launched late last year by her predecessor Debbie Abrahams.
She and colleagues are visiting 32 different areas of England, Scotland and Wales, listening to disabled people’s views and experiences, in a process the party says will help it develop its disability policies for the next election.
Rimmer says the roadshow has been “a tremendous help” as she settles into her new role, allowing her to “meet disabled people, consulting them, asking them what their priorities are”.
Asked what she has been hearing from disabled people at the three roadshows she has attended so far, she says: “Basically they want to be treated as human beings… with rights, they don’t want patronising, they don’t necessarily want things done for them, they want support to help them to ‘do’, when that is needed.”
After the roadshows are finished, according to her office, the information will be collected and analysed by “independent social policy academics”, who will identify “key policy themes”.
“Emerging themes will be discussed with disabled people and disabled people’s organisations, including through the DER planning group,” her spokesman said. “These will then feed into the Labour Party’s policy-making process.”
But while this process continues, Rimmer is left with few if any recognisable policies on disability, and the only one she refers to is a pledge to scrap the much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA).
She says: “We have said straight off we will get rid of the WCA and that we will start off afresh and it will be a holistic viewpoint around the individual about what they want to do and how to help them achieve that.
“They want to be involved in society, they want to work, they want meaningful work.”
Rimmer was appointed as shadow minister on 1 February to fill the role left empty last June when Abrahams was promoted to be the party’s shadow work and pensions secretary.
During those seven months, the party repeatedly caused alarm with its attitude towards disability rights, including the lengthy delay in appointing Abrahams’ successor.
Asked why it had taken so long to appoint her, Rimmer says: “I can’t answer that. I know that I am here now.”
Asked whether she had been offered the post previously, and had turned it down, she admitted that she had, but had been unable to accept it at that point because of an accident, although she could not remember exactly when the first job offer had come.
Asked if the party had been waiting for her to recover from that accident before offering it to her again, she says: “I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you that.”
Her office later explained that the accident had led to “a complex hand and wrist fracture that took a number of months to recover from”.
After the interview, when DNS attempted to clarify the situation, her spokesman said that she had first been offered the post “between the leader’s re-election [in late September] and Christmas”.
He said: “She was delighted to be offered the post again in the New Year when she had recovered and was able to accept.”
It was not until early November last year that Rimmer was finally cleared of all charges relating to allegations that she had kicked a ‘Yes’ campaigner outside a polling station in Scotland on the day of the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014.
Her spokesman said the delay in clearing her name was because she was “actually cleared twice: the first charge was dismissed at trial by the sheriff, and the second trial was brought on a technicality but she was acquitted at that second trial by a second sheriff – hence why it took so long”.
The sheriff who heard the second trial referred to the allegations as “a storm in a tea cup”.
Rimmer’s spokesman dismissed suggestions that the party had been waiting to appoint her until her name had finally been cleared.
Another of the areas of criticism levelled at the party during its seven months without a shadow minister has been its failure so far to keep its promise – made to DNS by shadow chancellor John McDonnell in November – that it would ensure there was a debate on the report by the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities.
The report, published in November, found the UK government’s social security reforms had led to “grave or systematic violations” of the UN disability convention.
Rimmer insists that the debate has been delayed by Brexit and this month’s budget, but that “it will happen”.
She adds: “John McDonnell and Debbie Abrahams are both very committed to making sure it does happen. It is just about timing.”
But in other areas she appears less well briefed.
In December, the disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell attacked Labour’s “lazy indifference” to disability equality, after it abstained on a vote in the House of Lords that would have forced bars, shops and restaurants to ensure their premises obeyed laws on accessibility when renewing their alcohol licences.
Rimmer says she was “not aware of that”, even though the issue has been raised repeatedly with the party.
And despite weeks of coverage by DNS on the scandal of dishonest PIP assessments by healthcare professionals working for government outsourcing contractors Atos and Capita, an investigation which began just before she took on her new post, Rimmer says she was not aware of any of those stories, although she says she has heard other MPs raise concerns about PIP assessments in the House of Commons chamber.
Although Rimmer has asked questions about DWP statistics on the deaths of benefit claimants, she also did not appear well-briefed on the individual cases of disabled people whose deaths have been linked to the WCA, although she said she had heard of Stephen Carré – whose death in January 2010 was the first to be linked by a coroner to flaws in the WCA – when his name was mentioned by DNS.
She has come into her post just as the WRAG cuts are about to be implemented, and as the government has introduced new personal independence payment (PIP) regulations which will make it more difficult for people with severe mental distress to secure the mobility-related support they need through PIP, following two upper tribunal rulings that found against the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Rimmer believes the new regulations have only been brought in because of the government’s failure to secure the savings targeted from DWP spending.
She said: “They have put the blocks on because they are not bringing in the savings or the cuts that were required.”
She says Labour will “do our best” to overturn the regulations with a vote in the Commons or the Lords, but she says it is vital to secure support from the public on this issue, the WRAG reduction and cuts to housing benefit for unemployed 18-21-year-olds.
But she admits this will not be easy.
She says: “It seems to me they have done such a job on people who are sick and disabled, when they talk about ‘strivers and skivers’.
“They have dehumanised and scared them and disabled people tell you how they suffer from hate crime, which they never did and they do now.
“It’s all because of the language used by this government and the past government.”