The minister for disabled people has been forced to apologise to MPs after Disability News Service (DNS) caught her misleading MPs about support for disabled people for the fourth time in less than a year.
The misleading comments by Sarah Newton (pictured) about disability poverty came in December when she was responding to a House of Commons debate on the impact of eight years of cuts to disability support.
But it was only on Tuesday this week, four days after DNS had drawn the attention of her press officers to her misleading comments, that she sent a letter apologising to MPs.
December’s backbench debate was the result of months of lobbying of cross-party MPs by the disabled-led WOWcampaign, which has been pushing for six years for the government to carry out an assessment of the impact of all its cuts to disabled people’s support.
The government has repeatedly refused to carry out a cumulative impact assessment (CIA), even though the organisations that have called for one include the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities, the government’s own social security advice body, and peers on the House of Lords Equality Act 2010 and disability committee.
But in her response to a motion calling on the government to carry out a CIA, Newton told MPs in December that Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures showed that “poverty for people in families with a disabled person has improved since 2010 on three of the four measures, and there was no change in the fourth”.
DNS subsequently submitted a freedom of information request to DWP, asking for the data she relied on in making these claims.
The DWP response, which includes a link to the relevant statistics, has revealed that Newton’s claim was wrong.
Although three measures do show disability poverty has improved between 2009-10 and 2016-17, the fourth measure – showing relative low income after housing costs – shows the proportion of individuals in households with a disabled member who were in poverty rose from 25 per cent to 26 per cent (an increase of four per cent, or 1 percentage point).
A DWP spokesperson said: “Immediately after being made aware she had been provided with incorrect briefing for the debate, the minister sent a letter of apology to MPs that will be published in the House of Commons library.”
In the letter, to Labour’s Debbie Abrahams, who secured the debate, Newton blamed an “inaccurate briefing” for her error.
She said: “I sincerely apologise for the mistake. I will be placing a copy of this letter in the House Library, and making a Ministerial correction to Hansard.
“I will also be providing a copy of this letter to Mr Speaker.”
Ian Jones, from WOW, said: “This government have lied when denying that austerity was targeted at disabled people.
“This government have lied when they say the WCA and austerity have not killed thousands of disabled people.
“WOWcampaign believe this pattern of lying can be extended to show that this government is also lying when they argue their policies are doing no harm to disabled people.”
Michelle Maher, also from WOW, said the campaign had “fought for the truth” about the impact of multiple cuts on disabled children and adults over the last eight years, to demonstrate how they had hit “one section of society harder than any other group”.
She said: “That mistakes have continuously been made around disability cuts statistics to the House of Commons demonstrates that a formal cumulative impact assessment is needed so all parties and the public know the true impact of austerity… and with the aim that our rights as citizens of the UK be protected.”
Abrahams told DNS: “It is extremely disappointing that the minister for disabled people made such an error on the number of disabled people living in relative poverty (after housing costs).
“These are not just abstract numbers; living in poverty for disabled people means living in isolation, unable to properly heat their homes or feed themselves.
“My debate, at which the minister made this error, was on understanding all the factors contributing to disabled people living in poverty and she should heed our calls for an independent cumulative impact assessment of government cuts to disabled people, their families and carers.”
It is the first time that Newton has apologised for the various misleading statements highlighted by DNS over the last year.
In January 2018, she misled MPs about a court of appeal judgment that was highly critical of her new boss, Esther McVey, just a day after McVey’s appointment as the new work and pensions secretary.
Last June, Newton told MPs that there had been “no freeze in the benefits that disabled people receive”, even though the main component of employment and support allowance (ESA) and the top-up paid to those in the ESA work-related activity group, continue to be frozen.
The following month, Newton misled MPs yet again, this time about the origins of the government’s much-criticised Disability Confident employment scheme.
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