The minister for disabled people pulled out of a meeting with MPs, peers and disabled campaigners, days after agreeing to be questioned about her government’s disability employment strategy.
Sarah Newton had promised to attend this week’s meeting of the all-party parliamentary group for disability (APPGD) to discuss Improving Lives, her government’s new work, health and disability strategy, which aims to see one million more disabled people in work over the next 10 years.
She had originally refused to answer questions at the meeting, and then said last week that she would answer questions if they were submitted in advance.
But two days before the meeting was due to take place, Newton pulled out completely and decided to send two civil servants in her place.
As well as being questioned about the strategy, Newton was likely to have been asked about the highly critical report produced last autumn by the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities (UNCRPD) on her government’s implementation of the UN disability convention.
Disability News Service had submitted a question asking if Newton was concerned about figures from an NHS survey which suggest a possible link between the introduction of the discredited “fitness for work” test and a “shocking” rise in the proportion of claimants of out-of-work disability benefits who said they had attempted to take their own lives.
Newton could also have been asked about cuts to personal independence payment, allegations of dishonesty among many of the healthcare professionals who carry out disability benefit assessments, and problems with the rollout of universal credit.
Tabitha Jay, director of the government’s work and health unit and one of the two civil servants Newton sent in her place, told the meeting the minister had been forced to withdraw “due to parliamentary business and her very challenging diary”.
But Philip Connolly, policy and development manager for Disability Rights UK, which runs the secretariat for the all-party group, told DNS before the meeting that the APPGD was a “constructive environment” for a minister to answer questions about government policy.
He said: “One would hope that someone who has been in post for seven weeks would be very happy to speak to a plan for getting a million disabled people into work.
“The minister said she was coming early last week. Then she had some anxieties over the agenda.
“She appeared unwilling to answer questions, then she said she would answer questions if she could see them in advance, so we offered to do this, and then she was suddenly too busy.
“When you’re the minister, you would expect to answer questions wherever you go.
“You should not become the government’s chief spokesperson if you’re not happy to answer questions wherever you go.”
Sue Bott, DR UK’s deputy chief executive, had said earlier: “The APPG had an expectation that she would come and she had undertaken to answer questions, and then all of a sudden it appears that she has a conflict in her diary.”
She said the minister’s decision to withdraw was “very disappointing”.
Bott said: “There are many issues that disabled people and people concerned about disability want to raise, not least of them being the government’s response to the UNCRPD report.”
It is just the latest in a series of embarrassments for Newton since she replaced Penny Mordaunt as minister for disabled people in November.
Following her appointment, Newton was criticised by a disabled people’s organisation in her own constituency over her voting record on disability issues.
She then failed to attend or organise any events – or even post a message of support on social media – on the UN’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) last month.
And last week, DNS reported how she misled MPs who were debating the Independent Living Fund about how her newly-appointed boss, Esther McVey, had been severely criticised by three court of appeal judges over her decision to close the fund.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “We would not comment on details of the minister’s diary arrangements.”