The attitude of the former disability minister to engagement with disabled people during the early months of the pandemic has been described as “scandalous” and “tokenistic”, days after he gave evidence about it to the Covid inquiry.
Justin Tomlinson, who was minister for disabled people from the start of the pandemic until September 2021, told the inquiry last week (pictured) that it would be “hard pressed to find a minister who probably did more stakeholder meetings”.
He also told the inquiry (PDF): “I’ve always enjoyed stakeholder engagement; I’ve found it makes for better policy development, it provides you with insight that even the most academic policymakers, unless they’ve got that lived experience, would not necessarily appreciate.”
And he said engagement was something he “passionately wanted to see not just for myself as a minister, but to be embedded as a given across government”.
But figures from his own former department show that Tomlinson took part in an average of fewer than five meetings a month with “stakeholders” in the first six months of the pandemic, at a time when tens of thousands of disabled people were dying from Covid.
He told the inquiry there had been “an absolute understanding across government that those with underlying health conditions and disabilities were the most likely to be impacted by Covid”.
But Department for Work and Pensions figures show that Tomlinson only carried out 27 meetings (either face-to-face or online) with external organisations from the beginning of March until the end of August 2020.
Of those meetings, just 18 – across six months – were with disability organisations, and only eight involved a disabled people’s organisation (DPO).
Throughout August 2020, he carried out no external meetings at all.
The DWP records also suggest that only about 15 of his meetings with stakeholders in the first six months of the pandemic were focused on Covid, and only about six of those meetings involved a DPO.
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, said: “Tomlinson’s comments at the Covid inquiry about the frequency and importance he put on stakeholder engagement in the pandemic bears no resemblance to our experience as a DPO.
“We had no contact with him for the first three months of the pandemic and when we did manage to engage him it was about specific issues relating to Access to Work in the summer of 2020.
“The only engagement with Tomlinson after that were the three DPO forum meetings starting on 22 July 2020 and unilaterally ended by Tomlinson on 12 Nov 2020.
“The three forum meetings were characterized by a lack of any strategic approach, including a failure to provide any written information, briefings or presentations that left us as forum participants unable to have any meaningful input on either pandemic issues or the National Disability Strategy.
“Such a casual, tokenistic and dismissive approach to engagement with DPOs is not acceptable at any time but it’s simply scandalous at the very time that thousands of disabled people were dying as a direct result of our needs being overlooked or ignored.”
Nuala Toman, head of innovation and impact for Disability Action Northern Ireland, one of the four national DPOs that have been given core participant status in the current Covid inquiry module, said: “Publicly available meeting records show that the former minster for disabled people did not effectively engage with disabled people at a time when disabled people were dying as a result of the pandemic.
“There is little evidence to even suggest that the former minister made any significant or credible attempt to involve disabled people in decisions at a time when deaths of disabled people were soaring.
“Instead, public records indicate a very limited and cosmetic approach to engaging with disabled people, which was more about looks than actual action.”
She added: “It is absolutely essential that lessons are learned from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This will not be achieved unless ministers and those making decisions are open and honest about the extent to which disabled people were locked out from decision-making, and the extent of avoidable harm which disabled people experienced at this time, including loss of life.
“Now is the time for honesty, not fudge.”
Tomlinson did not respond to questions emailed to his parliamentary office this week about his record on engagement during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the disabled Conservative MP Paul Maynard – who has previously held posts in the Department for Transport and Ministry of Justice – has been appointed as a junior DWP minister in this week’s government reshuffle.
He appears to have been given responsibility for pensions policy, although that has not yet been confirmed.
Tom Pursglove remains the minister for disabled people.
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