Addressing a packed meeting of the all party parliamentary disability group, Mike Penning repeatedly returned to the subject of abuse of social security and other disability support.
Penning, who appeared to make little attempt to win over his audience – made up largely of disabled campaigners and disability charity lobbyists – said he accepted that the government’s austerity programme had had “massive effects”, particularly on welfare, but he added: “At the same time, I would argue that some of the benefits have been abused.”
He described how he regularly saw “deserving” people in his constituency surgery who were not receiving the support they needed, while “people that are not deserving are getting it”.
These comments are likely to anger disabled activists who have repeatedly raised concerns that the Tory-led government has been trying to divide welfare recipients into the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, a concept dating back to the Elizabethan Poor Laws of the sixteenth century.
Penning also said that the emphasis on face-to-face assessments with the coalition’s controversial new personal independence payment (PIP) was intended to replace a disability living allowance (DLA) system in which, he claimed, “abuse may well have been taking place where it was some form-filling exercise”.
His first comment about the Access to Work (AtW) scheme – one of the few successful programmes to have helped disabled people find and stay in work – was that it “must not be abused”.
He referred to complaints about AtW abuse made to him by “the deaf lobby”, and claimed that one recipient was having daily return taxi fares from his home in Cardiff to his workplace in London funded by AtW.
He said: “We must make sure we spend the money we have correctly.”
But David Buxton, chief executive of the British Deaf Association, told Penning that abuse of AtW by deaf people was just 0.3 per cent of spending on the scheme, and that he knew of a deaf teaching assistant who had been turned down by AtW for 14 hours a week support.
Jacqueline Winstanley, diversity and inclusion director of Speed of Sight, who claims AtW herself, said it was “quite sad” for AtW claimants to hear the minister use the word “abuse”.
She said: “Please listen to people like myself who are in receipt [of AtW] about what we do and what we need and not start with the assumption that there is abuse.”
Penning returned to his key theme later in the meeting, and said that a “tiny amount of people get disproportionately huge amounts of money… I have real concerns about this and that abuse will spoil it for others.
“I used the word abuse because that was the word used to me by a member of the deaf lobby that came to me and told me last week of some of the abuse.
“It is a tiny minority and that spoils it for everybody, but they are taking a disproportionately higher amount of money from the system.”
He agreed that AtW was “a great success story” but said he could not ask for more funding until he was “confident the money is being spent wisely, and that is a polite way of putting it”.
A Department for Work and Pensions spokeswoman later declined to comment on what Penning had said about the deaf campaigner’s allegations.
She said: “We wouldn’t comment on the detail of fraud allegations while they are being investigated.”
Buxton told DNS after the meeting that there were concerns about the way some agencies and organisations managed their staff’s AtW budgets.
He said: “Incidents have occurred but there have been no consequences. DWP need to sort it out themselves, they need to expose it.”
Penning did tell the meeting that his position as a minister of state meant that he had more influence across government than his coalition predecessors in the role, who were junior ministers.
He said: “Do I kick? Yes, I do. You may not see me kick sometimes and perhaps I do not kick as hard as some people would like me to do.”
He refused to talk about the closure of the Independent Living Fund, or the tightening of the PIP mobility “moving about” criteria from 50 metres to 20 metres, because of ongoing court cases.
In answer to the disabled activist Maria Nash, Penning also said that the government was looking for a way to provide protection under employment laws for disabled volunteers.
And in reply to a question from the disabled Labour peer Baroness Wilkins about the need for a cumulative impact assessment of all of the government’s benefit cuts on disabled people, Penning said: “There are no plans to do a cumulative assessment. I asked the question myself. The cost implications will be very, very difficult.”
He added: “Whether it is true that people with disabilities have been disproportionately [affected], I have not seen the evidence for that, but I will continue to look.”
The following day, members of the Commons backbench business committee agreed that a debate on the WOW petition would be held in the main Commons chamber in the new year, rather than in the smaller, lower-profile Westminster Hall.
The committee agreed to the debate after the disabled-led petition – which calls for a cumulative impact assessment on the cuts and other reforms affecting disabled people, an immediate end to the work capability assessment, and an independent inquiry into welfare reform – was backed by more than 100,000 people.
10 December 2013