The new minister for disabled people is facing criticism over her voting record on disability issues from a user-led organisation that provides support in her own constituency.
The Cornish MP Sarah Newton was appointed as the new minister late last week as a replacement for Penny Mordaunt, who has been promoted to international development secretary.
Newton was previously director of Age Concern England, founder and first director of the International Longevity Centre, and worked in marketing for the hotel group IBIS, the international bank Citibank and credit card giant American Express.
Her website says she has focused as an MP on “speaking up for Cornwall’s public services”, and that she has “campaigned tirelessly for local people feeling the pinch as result of the 2008 financial crash, with a focus on helping the poorest”.
In parliament, the website says, she has “carried forward her passion for helping the most vulnerable in our society, and those who look after them”, including through her former role as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for social care.
Before last week’s appointment, she was a junior Home Office minister.
But Newton, MP for Truro and Falmouth since 2010, is now facing criticism from disAbility Cornwall & Isles of Scilly (DCIS), a disabled people’s organisation (DPO) that provides support for disabled people in her constituency.
The DPO, which said it had corresponded with Newton on issues such as social security reform over several years, congratulated her on her appointment but pointed out that her voting record “does not necessarily reflect well as an ambassador for people affected by illness or disability, or people who may be more reliant on state support”.
Despite her “focus on helping the poorest” in her constituency, her Commons voting record shows Newton consistently voted with her government as it has introduced sweeping cuts to social security since 2010.
DCIS said that this voting record showed she had voted against paying higher benefits to disabled people; in favour of the bedroom tax; and in favour of reducing social security spending.
In a statement, disAbility Cornwall said it would welcome the opportunity to work more closely with the new minister, and “show her the true impact government policy is having on disabled people, who have been hit by a plethora of welfare reforms, cuts to services, and forced into low skill, low pay inaccessible work, and unaffordable housing stock and public transport”.
The statement added: “Disabled people are not just disadvantaged by their impairment, but by the environment and housing they live in, the education and transportation from which they are excluded, the limitations in shopping for food and the additional costs of heating, laundry – those additional costs that disabled people face due to their impairments.
“We should all be mindful it has now been 22 years since disability legislation first came in, and yet life has become much worse for disabled people, with real gains made by the independent living movement now directly threatened and undermined.”
In the first days since her appointment, Newton has already shown that she will mirror her predecessors in hugely controversial areas such as defending cuts to disability benefits.
And she has also shown that she is ready to follow Mordaunt in misleading fellow MPs.
Answering questions in the Commons on her ministerial brief on Monday (pictured), just four days after her appointment, she was asked by SNP’s Deidre Brock about the government’s decision to cut weekly payments to new employment and support allowance claimants placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG) by nearly £30 a week, a measure that was introduced in April by the government.
She replied: “There are no cuts for people on those benefits. Let me be absolutely clear about that.”
What she should have said was that – as she had told another MP earlier – the cuts would only apply to new claimants and not those already claiming ESA in the WRAG.
Newton also repeated Mordaunt’s claim that the UK was “a global leader in disability rights”, despite the humiliation of her government being found by the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities to be responsible for causing a “human catastrophe” to disabled people as a result of its cuts to social security and other support.
But in one area, Newton’s appointment may please the disabled people’s movement.
In contrast to Mordaunt, who was a keen advocate of legalising assisted suicide, Newton is an opponent of a change in the law, a position that is likely to reassure many disabled activists and disabled people’s organisations.
Professor Peter Beresford, co-chair of Shaping Our Lives, the national network of disabled people and service-users, was another to criticise the minister’s past voting record.
He said her appointment was “an interesting statement on the complex nature of modern politics and politicians”.
He said: “She has consistently voted for the bedroom tax, against raising welfare benefits and for reduced welfare benefits spending.
“Hardly sounds like someone with an understanding of disabled people, yet she was formerly Director of Age Concern England and has shown a longstanding interest in ageing.”
But he said he doubted if she would remain in post for long.
She has now become the seventh minister for disabled people to be appointed since the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition took power in 2010, following Maria Miller, Esther McVey, Mike Penning, Mark Harper, Justin Tomlinson and Penny Mordaunt.
Beresford said: “I doubt Ms Newton, who began as a banker, will have much to contribute to disabled people except more out-of-touch grief.”
The new minister declined to respond to questions from Disability News Service about her new role.