Sarah Newton, one of two ministers of state at the department for work and pensions (DWP), was in the centre of a heated debate in the House of Commons, this week.
The Canary, a website dedicated to independent campaigning journalism, reported that she made some staggering claims. It went on to question how many of them were true. Those of us with disabilities, resulting from MS and other causes, know that the answer will be ‘very few´.
The debate was about a report by the UN committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). The report said successive UK governments had committed “grave” and “systematic” violations of disabled people’s human rights. The chair of the committee said the government had created a “human catastrophe” for disabled people.
Sarah Newton MP.
In the debate, Labour accused Newton and the government of making disabled people a “forgotten class”; of allowing the DWP to ‘endlessly mistreat’ them, and of creating a “national scandal”.
Newton dismissed Labour’s assertions. She said: “Let’s actually deal with the facts of the situation, and stop this really quite irresponsible talk that we hear in the chamber today…”
But, it seems that Newton and “the facts” don’t go hand in hand. No surprise that DWP politicians are always ready to brush unpleasant, but genuine, facts under the carpet. They are past masters of spouting their own version of the “truth”.
The Canary went through her comments and fact-checked them. Of course, it found that Newton statements were, to put it politely, economical with the truth.
Time to check the genuine facts
So, let’s look at the real truth!
CLAIM: Newton: “I utterly refute the allegations that have been made today: that we are discriminating against disabled people; that we are systematically undermining and violating their human rights, or worst of all that we are targeting their… welfare support…”
FACT: The High Court ruled in December 2017 that aspects of the Personal Independence Payment rules were “blatantly discriminatory”. It then ruled again on June 14 that aspects of Universal Credit’s implementation had been ‘discriminatory’.
Additionally, a tribunal found the DWP had discriminated against one of its own workers, who was disabled, awarding him £26,000 in damages.
The Canary also pointed out that besides the UNCRPD, the UK government has been accused of breaking international treaties and violating disabled people’s rights by the UN Human Rigth Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Affairs and the European Committee of Social Rights (part of the Council of Europe).
Meanwhile, the UNCRPD report said government policies had become “life-threatening to many disabled people”.
CLAIM: Newton said that the government was “very disappointed” that the UNCRPD did not take on board… the evidence that the government gave them. They did not acknowledge the full range of support.
FACT: The UNCRPD report was overarching in the evidence it took on board. However, it condemned the UK government’s attempts to misrepresent the impact of policies through “unanswered questions”, “misused statistics”, and a “smoke screen of statements”.
Equality Act fails disabled people
CLAIM: Newton said: “I want to reassure everyone that we have very strong legislation… on our statute book to protect disabled people – that’s through the public sector equality duty in the Equality Act 2010…”
FACT: Just one example of the implementation of the Equality Act 2010 failing disabled people is the UK rail network. Disabled people’s organisations, trade unions, and commuter groups have argued that the train operator’s policies breach the act. Their claims have been largely ignored.
Newton then had to answer a question from Labour’s shadow secretary for work and pensions, Debbie Abrahams. Abrahams asked why the government had not done a cumulative impact assessment of all welfare reforms.
CLAIM: Newton said: “We do undertake a cumulative assessment of reforms, each fiscal event. This is because we want to be as transparent as possible regarding the cumulative distributional impacts of government policies, including welfare reforms, tax changes – direct and indirect – and public spending changes.”
FACT: This is not the same as doing an impact assessment of the combined effect of every cut, reform, and change on disabled people. The government is merely giving itself individual snapshots.
Poverty level figures not all they seem
CLAIM: Newton said that the proportion of people in a family where someone is disabled… in relative poverty has not risen since 2010.
And that the proportion of people in a family where someone is disabled, who are in absolute poverty, is at a record low…
FACT: The government admits that changes it made around 2011, to how disabled people are identified, could affect poverty measures. Also, the government does not include in its poverty figures the average additional £570 a month costs disabled people face because of their impairments. Moreover, the government’s measure for absolute poverty is different to that of the UN, and different again to a measure the House of Commons Library used in a briefing paper.
Newton’s claim of no rise in poverty is even different to the DWP’s own figures, which show the number of disabled people in relative poverty has risen since 2010 [source: the Joseph Rowntree Foundation].
CLAIM: Newton said: “These allegations, that we are driving people to the food banks and forcing people into destitution, is simply an irresponsible statement.
FACT: The government’s National Audit Office says Universal Credit is driving people to food banks and throwing them into rent arrears.
CLAIM: Newton said: “We’re spending over £50bn a year on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions.”
FACT: The amount the government spends on disability benefits is actually £39bn. Full Fact says the £50bn figure is from 2012, and includes adult social care, free travel, and home adaptations
UK actually fifth in G7, not second
CLAIM: Newton said that the £50bn was: “up by £7bn since 2010, and it’s around 2.5% of GDP – over 6% of the government’s spending. Now as a share of our GDP, our public spending on disability and incapacity is the second highest in the G7…”
FACT: This is a selective use of statistics, as it also includes some NHS spending. The Office for National Statistics reported on EU “social protection” figures. The UK actually spends less than Norway, Germany, Spain and France on disability benefits.
CLAIM: Newton said: “There is no freeze on the benefits that people with disabilities have received…”
FACT: Tax-free disability benefits like the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) have been rising. But the “work-related activity” part of Employment and Support Allowance has been frozen since 2015. 391,000 people, many of them sick and disabled, are in this group.
CLAIM: In closing Newton summed up by accusing Labour and the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) of fearmongering and not dealing in facts.
She said: Who’s going to suffer? Who’s going to suffer from what… we’ve been hearing from the opposition today?
FACT: It is going to be disabled people and their families, who are going to be frightened – frightened to come forward and get the benefits that are there for them; frightened to come forward and get the support that’s available to them.
The Canary said: “Newton either displayed staggering delusional behaviour or wilful ignorance.” I agree but would describe both as shameful. Worse, the same descriptions can be applied equally to the government as a whole.
Interestingly, but unsurprisingly, The Canary says it contacted the DWP for comment but received no response by the time of publication.
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50shadesofsun.com is the personal website of Ian Franks, a freelance medical writer and editor for various health information sites. He enjoyed a successful career as a journalist, from reporter to editor in the print media. He gained a Journalist of the Year award in his native UK. Ian received a diagnosis of MS in 2002 and now lives in the south of Spain. He uses a wheelchair and advocates on mobility and accessibility issues.
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