The minister for disabled people has misled a Commons committee for the second time about his engagement with disabled people during the pandemic.
The actions of Justin Tomlinson emerged as the Commons women and equalities committee published its report into the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on disabled people (see separate story).
The Conservative chair of the committee, Caroline Nokes, failed to address the concerns this week, despite having them drawn to her attention by Disability News Service (DNS).
They emerged in a letter Tomlinson wrote to Nokes about concerns that had been raised by DNS earlier this year following evidence he gave to the committee on 2 September.
Tomlinson (pictured) had told the committee, in response to criticism of his lack of engagement with disabled people and their organisations during the pandemic, about the success of the nine regional networks created by ministers to “amplify” the voices of disabled people.
He told the committee that the network allows “all voices, particularly of all sizes of disability organisation, [to] share their real lived experience and help us improve our policies and our communications”, adding: “I find it a very rewarding part of my role.”
But what Tomlinson failed to tell the committee was that at that point – nearly a year after he had named their chairs – only two of the nine networks had held their first meeting.
Concerns about his comments were passed to Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) press officers, and to the women and equalities committee.
Nokes wrote to the minister to ask him to respond to those concerns.
But in his reply, Tomlinson again misled the committee.
He claims in the letter that he was referring in his evidence to a different disability forum set up by the government, and not the regional network.
He refers in the letter to a different comment he made to the committee about engagement, and not to the comment that led to DNS passing on the concerns.
The transcript and audio recording of the 2 September meeting clearly show Tomlinson made the comments about the regional network.
Nokes had refused to comment on the concerns by noon today (Wednesday), other than claiming that Tomlinson had “further explained his comments” in the letter.
Despite her silence, the report does highlight the “very clear divergence of opinion” about the government’s engagement with disabled people during the pandemic.
The report says: “Ministers [including Tomlinson] described a very positive, inclusive approach with open lines of communication.”
But it adds: “Most witnesses had a very different perspective.
“A disabled individual told us he had seen ‘no evidence’ of the Government listening to disabled people’s concerns during the pandemic.
“A group of disability law academics believed that ‘the voices of disabled people have been largely excluded’.”
It is just the latest in a series of concerns that have been raised about Tomlinson’s conduct as an MP and minister.
In July 2019, he misled Labour MP Debbie Abrahams about DWP’s cover-up of links between its “fitness for work” test and the deaths of disabled people.
Earlier that year, he was caught misleading the Commons work and pensions committee about the impact of the government’s social security cuts on disabled people.
And in October 2016, Tomlinson had to apologise to MPs and was suspended from the Commons for two days after leaking a confidential Commons report to payday lender Wonga.
DWP refused to comment.
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