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22 February 2019updated 24 Jul 2021 2:57am

Why does this disability minister keep getting away with misleading MPs?

“There has been no freeze in the benefits that disabled people receive”, apparently. Plus three other dubious statements.

By Anoosh Chakelian

You may have missed it during the Brexit fray, but the minister for disabled people Sarah Newton was forced to apologise after misleading MPs earlier this month.

In December, during a Westminster Hall debate on the cumulative impact of changes to disability support, Newton told MPs that Department for Work & Pensions figures show 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.”

That last part is wrong. After housing costs, relative low income among families that contain someone with a disability has actually increased by 1 percentage point, as revealed by the Disability News Service – the only place to report on this story.

In February, four days after the website pointed out the error to her press officers, Newton sent a letter apologising to MPs, addressed to Labour’s former shadow work & pensions secretary Debbie Abrahams:

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Newton called it a mistake and blamed an inaccurate briefing. But, according to reports by Disability News Service and My Disability Matters, this isn’t the first time.

Last June, Newton told MPs in another Westminster Hall debate – on the support provided to disabled people – that “there has been no freeze in the benefits that disabled people receive, and those benefits are not subject to the benefit cap”.

This is also misleading. Yes, Personal Independence Payments and income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) support group payments are both exempt from the benefits freeze (which stops benefits being uprated in line with inflation from 2016 until 2020). But the main element of ESA, and ESA claimants in the work-related activity group (WRAG), are subject to the benefits freeze.

Ok, these benefits might relate to work, but they are still for people with disabilities – so it’s not accurate to say there’s been “no freeze in the benefits that disabled people receive”.

Then there was the time a month later when Newton insisted in response to the Work & Pensions Select Committee chair Frank Field that the government’s “Disability Confident” employment scheme, announced in 2013, had simply been a comms campaign before its November 2016 launch, with no “sign-ups” of employers to the scheme:

Actually, as DNS points out, the former work & pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith boasted in a speech to Conservative Party Conference in 2014 of “over 1,000 employers signed up to our ‘Disability Confident’ campaign”. In reality, by September 2015, 376 organisations had signed up, with 68 “active partners”. These included Marks & Spencer, as the DWP boasted at the time.

But the DWP backed Newton’s interpretation that there was “no formal scheme” before the November 2016 launch.

Back in January last year, during a Westminster Hall debate, Newton again refused to apologise after a rather misleading defence of the government’s decision to close the Independent Living Fund in 2012:

“The government’s decision to close the independent living fund was challenged in a judicial review, and throughout the process the DWP won on all points. It was judged that the consultation was fair and that it had paid due regard and proper attention to the public sector equality duty.”

In reality, the Court of Appeal found that the DWP’s decision to close the Independent Living Fund was not lawful, overturning the High Court’s decision of April 2013 after the DWP was challenged.

This was because Esther McVey, then a previous disabilities minister, hadn’t received the “true flavour” of the potential impact from her officials. Yet, in the damning words of one of the judges, she “was not in ignorance of the material facts”:

“As Minister for Disabled People she would have known and understood the objectives of the fund which, as its name indicates, was to foster independent living. Losing the fund would be bound to have an impact on that objective… The Minister was sufficiently aware of the very real adverse consequences which closing the fund would have on the lives of many of the more severely disabled.”

The DWP denied that Newton gave a misleading view of the outcome of the appeal.

How have ministers started getting away with this so freely? Is it because no mainstream outlets have been following these stories? Or because those who suffer from such pronouncements in real life, ie people with disabilities, have so little power?

Let’s not forget that McVey herself clung on as secretary of state after misleading parliament: last July, she claimed the National Audit Office wanted Universal Credit’s roll-out to be accelerated, when it had actually suggested a “pause”. She apologised to the Commons for this, but not for her other two “mega-Trumpisms” (as Work & Pensions Select Committee chair Frank Field described them): that the NAO believed Universal Credit was working when it said this wasn’t proven, and that its report hadn’t taken recent welfare improvements into account when these were only signed off by the DWP days earlier.

Somehow, despite this apparent breach of the ministerial code (which states ministers must give accurate and truthful information to parliament) – and despite facing calls to resign – McVey stayed in the job, until resigning voluntarily over Theresa May’s Brexit withdrawal agreement last November.

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