Sarah Newton, a minister at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), was involved in a heated parliamentary debate on Wednesday 20 June. And she made some staggering claims. But how many of them were true?
A heated DWP debate
The debate was about a report by the UN committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). It 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. You can read The Canary‘s full coverage of the debate here, and its coverage of the report here.
During 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, saying:
let’s actually deal with the facts of the situation, and stop this really quite irresponsible talk that we hear in the chamber today…
She seems very keen on dealing with “the facts”. So The Canary has gone through her closing comments and fact-checked them. Unsurprisingly, it’s actually Newton not always dealing with the “facts” of the situation for disabled people.
She started by saying:
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…
The High Court ruled in December 2017 that aspects of the Personal Independence Payment rules were “blatantly discriminatory”. It then ruled again on 14 June that aspects of Universal Credit’s implementation had been ‘discriminatory’. A tribunal even found the DWP had discriminated against one of its own workers who was disabled, awarding him £26,000 in damages.
Aside from 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 went so far as to say that government policies had become “life threatening to many disabled people”.
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.
The UNCRPD report was overarching [doc] in the evidence it took on board. But it condemned the UK government’s attempts to misrepresent the impact of policies through “unanswered questions”, “misused statistics”, and a “smoke screen of statements”.
Newton also claimed:
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…
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 went on to respond to Debbie Abrahams. She asked why the government had not done a cumulative impact assessment of all welfare reforms. 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.
But 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.
She then claimed:
the proportion of people in a family where someone is disabled… in relative poverty has not risen since 2010.
The proportion of people in a family where someone is disabled, who are in absolute poverty, is at a record low…
The government admits [pdf, p12] that changes it made around 2011 to how disabled people are identified could affect poverty measures. Also, the government does not include [pdf, p32] 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 [pdf, p32].
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]:
These allegations that we are driving people to the food banks, and forcing people into destitution, is simply an irresponsible statement.
The government’s own National Audit Office says Universal Credit is driving people to food banks and throwing them into rent arrears.
Newton also claimed:
we’re spending over £50bn a year on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions.
She 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…
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.
There is no freeze on the benefits that people with disabilities have received…
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 [pdf, p6].
Newton summed up by basically accusing Labour and the SNP of fearmongering and not dealing in facts, saying [5:35]:
Who’s going to suffer? Who’s going to suffer from what… we’ve been hearing from the opposition today?
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 DWP and the government: delusional or wilfully ignorant?
Newton either displayed staggering delusional behaviour, or wilful ignorance. Both of which could sum up the Conservative government. It’s not the political opposition causing disabled people and their families to suffer and be frightened, but successive Conservative-led governments. And Newton’s misuse of facts and evidence only compounds this.
The Canary contacted the DWP for comment but received no response by the time of publication.
– Write to your MP, asking them to support the UN and European committees’ findings.