The arrival of Penny Mordaunt as Minister for Disabled People at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been greeted with more trepidation than joy, says Ruth Patrick.
After her seamless if sudden arrival at No 10 Downing Street, we can perhaps forgive Theresa May for taking a little time to finalise her cabinet and ministerial team. One week after her accession to the top job, May announced that Penny Mordaunt would join Secretary of State Damian Green at the DWP as Minister for Disabled People. In accepting this role, Mordaunt becomes a Minister of State, with May reversing Cameron’s downgrading of the position last year to the rank of junior minister.
Mordaunt’s appointment has been greeted with some trepidation by the disability rights community, with many flagging up her high-profile backing of legally assisted dying as making her something other than well-qualified for the role. As with many of the new DWP ministers, Mordaunt’s voting record shows a readiness to usher in welfare reform and tough benefit changes, reforms which as we know only too well so often see disabled people amongst the hardest hit.
Speaking exclusively to Disability Now, Mordaunt explained that as Minister for Disabled People: “My priorities will be driven by the needs and ambitions of disabled people.”
If this is indeed the case, she had perhaps move quickly to reverse the plans for a £30 cut in the rate of Employment and Support Allowance for those in the Work-related activity group, as well as trying to somehow fix the Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) debacle.
Sarcasm aside, Mordaunt will certainly have a lot on her ministerial plate. As well as the Disability Living Allowance / PIPs migration and the Disability Confident campaign, she will need to think through how best to support disabled people into employment, particularly in the light of the long-trailed but now apparently shelved disability and employment white paper.
Mordaunt promises to reveal more about her priorities and plans soon: “I am delighted not only to be in the role but that the brief has been elevated to Minister of State and has cross Government reach and cross-cutting portfolio. This is significant and reflects the Prime Minister’s focus on these issues and what it will take to deliver against them. I hope to soon be able to say more about our plans.”
It is – of course – far too early to rush to assessments regarding what sort of Minister for Disabled People Mordaunt will be, but there is a broader issue with the appointment of yet another non-disabled individual to this role. Since Tony Blair’s time in office, we have had a Minister for Women and – of course – she (for it has always been a she) has been a woman! The idea of a man having this post would be laughable, and yet in the disability brief we seem to accept that this role is handed out to any junior ranking MP, with lived experiences of impairment, disability and/or long-term sickness not seen as an essential requirement. This is perhaps unavoidable, given the dearth of disabled people in parliament, but it means we inevitably must accept someone less well qualified than they might be if they had direct experiences of the issues on which they are expected to legislate. As there is a growing recognition of the particular value of ‘expertise by experience’, it is perhaps time to call once more for improved representation of disabled people in our political system so that – before too long – a Minister for Disabled People – might actually be a disabled person. Imagine that!