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Monday, 1 October 2012

The new minister for disabled people is determined to press ahead with the same old divisive policies says Sunil Peck.

In her first interview with Disability Now, the new minister for disabled people Esther McVey has said that she hopes that she'll become a champion for disabled people.

She's only been in office for a few weeks, but there's already enough evidence to suggest that her tenure could turn out to be as unpopular as that of her predecessor Maria Miller.

McVey talks about the need to engage with disabled people. But rather than the need to heel the rift with disabled people, she seems to see her role as building on the policies initiated under Miller.

'Particularly with the Disability Action Alliance, and the Fulfilling Potential document. So that if we are making policy, we are engaging with people, we make sure that the people that matter are having a key say in it.'

The Disability Action Alliance, led by Disability Rights UK, comprises charities and public and private sector organisations. It will draw up policies as part of the government's disability strategy aimed at promoting independent living.

'What I thought is how we best to engage at the moment? What is coming forward in legislation? What is it that we need our voice in? I think what was coming across loud and clear is the minister for disabled people isn't a little silo, it feeds through absolutely every department. We have to be there right at the beginning. Also, one of the key things coming out is awareness in the media and how people are portrayed, that needed a greater voice. Also work and how to set up in business and engage with employers. I know a lot of bright disabled people with degrees, masters and PHDs, and they are saying how could we set up in business? Could we look to Access to Work? So I am trying to start piecing things together and getting a voice out in the various departments.'

When she was appointed, McVey spoke about the importance of promoting independent living. How does she reconcile that with the fears expressed recently by paralympians who have spoken of the importance of Disability Living Allowance in supporting independence?

'We need to state clearly here that we will continue to spend over £40 billion a year on disabled people and their services. Yes, DLA is changing, but a lot of people are saying we want that changing, people working within the benefits system and people who are trying to get DLA support. When it was set up, it was very much focussed on physical impairments and not taking as much into consideration about sensory needs and other disabilities so I think the whole thing needed to be looked at. But it really is worth emphasising that £40 billion is continuing to be spent, we are just saying how can we spend it better?'

There was a protest outside the DWP at plans to close the Independent Living Fund a few days after McVey took office. But there's little evidence that it'll lead to a change of heart.

'Protest is a very visible way of getting a message across so when people protest you have got to take on board what they are saying. But what I have seen sometimes is people inflaming situations when actually a decision has not come to a conclusion. We have not committed to what we are doing yet, but it is about support and helping people and getting that right. So we thought is it best devolving it to local authorities and Scotland and Wales.'

The minister declines to point the finger at anyone in particular for inflaming the situation, but she does say that disabled people themselves have called for policy changes in the benefit system.

It's certainly true that some of the most vociferous calls for policy change relate to the discredited Work Capability Assessments. But the minister is still committed to them.

'This is something that we took over as a government. There were concerns so what we have said is how do we get to this to work? How do we ensure that it is done as best as possible? So we did bring Professor Harrington on board to conduct a review. We are perfecting an imperfect scheme that was handed to us, but we are getting it right.'

Distrust of government is high among disabled people, so is there anything in particular McVey would like to say as she settles into her new post?

'What everybody has got to do is work together to ensure this works. I'm new and I have said that I want to be a champion for disabled people, I want to make sure the alliance is working and everybody has a say. if there is distrust, The only way you can get rid of it is to build upon something. Have a proper working relationship and get that trust working because we both benefit or get more out of this relationship if there is trust there.'

Disability Now