The minister for disabled people is refusing to apologise to MPs for misleading them about a report by a UN human rights expert on the UK’s record on causing and addressing extreme poverty.
Professor Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, finished a 12-day fact-finding visit to the UK last week, concluding that the government’s policies and “drastic cuts to social support” were “entrenching” high levels of poverty and inflicting unnecessary misery.
He was highly critical of the benefits system, and highlighted claimants’ concerns about the system of “mandatory reconsiderations” (MR), in which DWP civil servants review decisions on eligibility for benefits such as personal independence payment and employment and support allowance.
Claimants must go through an MR before they can appeal to an independent tribunal.
But Alston concluded, in the preliminary report he published on Friday: “When claimants contest assessments that they consider to be wrong, there is a clear sense that the Orwellian named anonymous ‘decision-maker’ rarely varies the approach.
“Similarly the requirement that before appealing a disability assessment to a tribunal a phase of mandatory reconsideration must take place is considered by many observers to be little more than a delaying tactic.”
But when asked by Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, Marsha de Cordova, whether she would commission an independent review of how benefit sanctions and conditionality affect disabled people – after Alston had described the sanctions regime as “debilitating”, “draconian”, “harsh” and “arbitrary” – Newton (pictured) instead claimed that there had been “factual errors” in the UN rapporteur’s report.
She said: “For example, on mandatory reconsiderations, he absolutely denied the fact that decisions were overturned, yet 19 per cent of mandatory reconsiderations found in favour of disabled people.”
She also told MPs that the benefit system was “there to provide personalised and tailored support for its recipients”, and she added: “We have undertaken a huge number of independent reviews of our benefit system and we do not hesitate in making improvements when they are identified.”
A DWP spokeswoman refused to say if Newton would apologise for misrepresenting what Alston had said in his report.
She also refused to say if Newton would point to the other “factual errors” she referred to in the House of Commons.
But she said, in a general statement about the report: “We completely disagree with this analysis.
“With this government’s changes, household incomes have never been higher, income inequality has fallen, the number of children living in workless households is at a record low and there are now one million fewer people living in absolute poverty compared with 2010.”
She added: “We are absolutely committed to helping people improve their lives while providing the right support for those who need it.”
It is the fourth time in less than a year that Newton has been accused of misleading MPs.
In July, she denied misleading the Commons work and pensions committee about the early years of the government’s much-criticised disability employment scheme Disability Confident.
In June, as she tried to defend her government’s repeated breaches of the UN disability convention, she misled MPs in the House of Commons by stating that there had been “no freeze in the benefits that disabled people receive”, even though every part of employment and support allowance – apart from the support group top-up – is caught in the freeze on working-age benefits that is set to last until 2020.
And in January, Newton had refused to apologise for misleading MPs about a court of appeal judgment that was highly critical of her new boss, Esther McVey, just a day after her appointment as the new work and pensions secretary.
A note from the editor:
Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.
Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…