The voting record of the new minister for disabled people does not bode well for a change in direction on benefit cuts says Peter White, though Justin Tomlinson might be closer to power than he thinks.
I’m sure most people don’t see the job of Minister for Disabled people as a stepping-stone to power. I suspect most of the public see it as one of those minor posts the PM doles out to those he wishes to reward in some way and to indicate that the government of the day has a caring, sharing attitude to ‘vulnerable’ members of the community.
Of course, if you are disabled, and your income depends on the decisions the government makes, then you’re going to view it rather differently; although you might be entitled to ask “just how much influence does that junior minister have on any such decisions”. We’ll come back to that.
But the latest incumbent in the post, Justin Tomlinson, might be relieved to know that the public is wrong if it thinks that Disability Minister is a road to political nowhere. He’s got a very good reason for caring, beyond the naked ambition of just about any politician. He’s got a half-a-million quid riding on it, the potential winnings from a bet he made as a student at odds of 10,000 to one, that he’d be prime minister before 2038, so just 23 years to go.
And the good news for you is, Justin, that from the position you’re in now its been done once and almost twice. Back in 1987 I had the job of hosting a pre-general election radio debate between the disability spokesmen of the then three major parties. “Who’s the conservative?” I asked rather vaguely, ever on the ball. my researcher wasn’t much better. “Oh it’s John…John someone. I hadn’t heard of him before.” It turned out to be John Major, a mild-mannered and, I always thought, rather delightful man who three years later was to oust the apparently unoustable Mrs Thatcher. Three years, Justin. And when did Mr Cameron indicate he might be prepared to give up the reins of office, 2018? You’d be 20 years ahead of the game in terms of winning your bet.
And it almost happened again when Mr Major, by now in office, appointed one William Hague (equally unknown except for his speech as a precocious 16-year-old at a party conference), to the post of Minister for Disabled People. And they might not have been PMs, but Tony Newton and Alastair Burt were two more who from the same position went on to have successful and distinguished ministerial careers.
But it may be that here these exciting parallels end. These were palmy days for disabled people, although we may not have realised it at the time. The Disability Living Allowance, one of the most ground-breaking developments in the field, was introduced with former Minister for Disabled People, John Major’s full support. And it was William Hague who piloted the first Disability Discrimination Act through parliament. Many thought it was a rather timid bill at the time but as the current government dismantles Disability Living Allowance and casts lowering glances at human rights legislation, they may themselves be casting a nostalgic glance backwards in the direction of Major, Hague, Newton and Burt. Because of course, whatever a junior minister may think privately, he or she has no power to shape policy, or go against the leadership.
Not that there’s any sign in Justin Tomlinson’s voting record before becoming minister that he was likely to buck the trend of support for welfare reform. He has consistently voted for every cost-cutting measure, including the proposal that newly-disabled people should be able to stay on the slightly more generous Employment Support Allowance while they are assessed for their ability to work. The queen’s speech gave us no clearer idea of exactly where the 12 billion pounds worth of welfare cuts might come from, but the well-respected Institute of Fiscal Studies says that, despite occasional reassuring noises that cuts to disability benefits aren’t proposed, there’s no way that kind of money can be saved without them.
Of course, there is a way to achieve some of those spending reductions without appearing to have made a cut and that is to make qualification criteria tougher, something which can be achieved almost invisibly at the assessment stage. All based on the idea that while you continue to say that you will provide support for the most disadvantaged, the only way you can think of to find that money is to take it from the slightly less disadvantaged.
It seems unlikely that the current minister will jeopardise his career by opposing such a process, although you might remember, Justin, that’s exactly how you’re predecessors Willie and John did it.