In a series of interviews, Able Magazine is speaking to the major political parties about disability issues and the forthcoming General Election.
Penny Mordaunt, is the Minister for Disabled People. She was interviewed by Able Magazine editor, Tom Jamison.
Do you accept that some disabled people still regard the Tories as the ‘nasty party’?
I obviously understand the frustration people have, particularly with the benefits system. The reason why we do this job is to try to make things better. Labour introduced the work capability assessment which I think is fundamentally flawed, but they didn’t do it to be rotten to people, they did it because they thought it was going to be an improvement.
Obviously, we’re the party in government at the time of an election and have to defend our record. But I think that we have taken a comprehensive approach, not just to the benefits system but with consumer issues, accessibility issues and all of those other things.
I can only speak for myself, that literally, every day that I have spent in this office, my goals have been driven by disabled people and I have done my absolute best to try to improve things – whether it’s how ESA and PIP works or introducing consumer champions across the economy.
Do you think it’s been done in the most compassionate way? A lot of disabled people are literally sitting at home, right now – because they don’t have a Motability vehicle any more…
I completely understand that. Clearly all of the reforms that we’ve brought in over the past seven years have been to try to ensure that people with the most need, get the most support – and also widening out that support, although I recognise there are many things that need to be addressed within PIP, it clearly and undoubtedly is delivering health and support to people that previously would not have received it. Particularly, to give one example, in mental health
I think that there have been good things that have happened and we’re certainly trying to improve different parts of the system which haven’t necessarily worked as hand-in-glove as they might have. I’m thinking of the department changes and the re-organisation of Motability and the reforms that I’ve been able to bring in. We want to do more on that front.
I would say that my own motivation for getting involved in politics and the motivation and the drive that I see in our civil servants and the people that are working in Jobcentre Plus – they are very motivated, very focussed and very compassionate people. So I do reject that. That’s not to say that there aren’t things that need to be criticised and improved. Nobody, whatever their political view, does this job – not to try to make this world a better place.
What do you look back on as the achievements or reforms you’re most proud of?
I’ve had 10 months (in the office). Although there are some things that I’ve already managed to get over the line like the Motability reforms, there are things that I’ve set to change which will deliver really game-changing things. The green paper which I managed to get out – and we had a really good consultation on that – will, if we are returned (to government) yield a white paper which will enable us to have a benefits and support system that is truly tailored to the individual set of circumstances, really bringing what we do in DWP into healthcare which is where it should fit – and be absolutely focused on not just what an individual’s condition requires and their ambitions to be fulfilled – but also the psychological pathway that they’ve been on. It has always struck me that we have so much knowledge about these things which fits in healthcare and if we can just really enable that to inform what we do in the DWP and in local government…
The ’20 metre’ criteria isn’t at all personalised and a great number of people have a problem with it… Do you understand that the psychological impact of stress and anxiety as disabled people look at their re-assessment forms, not knowing if they are going to lose their benefits, is gut-churning?
Yes I do and I also understand that where things are not right, you end up making the situation worse. We have some organisations now that advise people not to submit healthcare information at the early stages of assessment, whether it’s PIP or ESA – and that then creates a worse situation. It is very important (for people to have) confidence in the system and it’s not just about getting it to run on rails and trying to make the right decisions every time – we do in the vast majority of cases – but where we don’t we have to understand why that is happening. We have been trialling an intervention to try to build peoples’ confidence in the system and ensure that they put the healthcare information that they need to make their case in early – and to really ensure that if these things have to go to a mandatory review that that is the end of it – that is where the correct decision is taken, if not before.
There are lots of tweaks we can make to PIP. I have great respect for the Social Security Advisory Committee and their recommendations but I also think we need to look at the bigger picture as well and how this fits in with ESA and really try to reduce the bureaucratic burden and the complexity on the individual.
What would give disabled people ‘confidence’ is a similar guarantee to that enjoyed by pensioners through the ‘double lock’. Pensioners don’t get younger, disabled people rarely get ‘better’, so why not?
Well, I think we have to, whether it’s PIP, whether it’s ESA or other support that the State provides, ensure it’s going to people that need it and that it’s adequate for them to achieve the ambitions that they want, and that we would have for them – to work, for example.
Clearly, there are some benefits such as those for older people which have that guarantee – the ‘double lock’, but if you’re going to have a system that really does what is required, it would be very hard to design something like that on disability. The exception is clearly where people have conditions that aren’t going to change or which are degenerative. I think the direction of travel which we’re in now is very much to, where assessments are a waste of everyone’s time, that we’ll stop doing them. Common sense has been prevailing on that front: we’ve been working to stop re-testing on ESA, in designing that I’ve asked for that information to be ‘passported’ to local government so that they can stop people having to fill out the same forms every three years. I think that is sensible but it would be hard to design a system that is like that for everyone.
What would you say to a person who receives benefits and whose doctors push them to try to improve their situation and get fitter? That person won’t be able to afford to lose their benefits. Haven’t you trapped them into being disabled or over-medicalised despite their ambitions to improve their wellbeing?
I do recognise that situation and I recognise that in the way that we have been running certain aspects of the benefits system, they’re being asked to think of their ambitions and think of the positives about what they can do, but at the same time we’re also asking them to demonstrate what they can’t do. I completely understand that which is why things like the work capability assessment need to be not just tinkered with, but completely reformed.
We have got to really start to tailor support because, ultimately, what we’re trying to do is enable people to try, enable people to achieve their ambitions – and if we have well intended support which is actually, as you describe, counter to that, then that has to change. I recognise that which is why we’re starting with the work capability assessment.
Did you see Sir Andrew Dilnot with head in hands as the proposed changes to social care were discussed recently? Is that why your lead in the polls has shrunk?
My view is that the social care proposals that we’ve put forward are tough things (where it would be) much easier to say: we have the Better Care Fund and we’re going to allow local authorities more flexibility… It would be an easy thing to play it safe on that front but actually that isn’t going to do the job. Putting a penny on income tax yields about the same amount of money as has been put in previously to the Better Care Fund – and its treading water in that sector.
I’ve been involved in the Health and Work Joint Unit, particularly looking at social care and support for people of working age. Clearly, a lot of the focus from in the manifesto for a whole variety of reasons, has been about older people so the sector needs something more than has been previously offered by any party. I think if we are taking a hit for it – that isn’t necessarily a reason not to do it. I think we have got to really enable the system not just to meet the growing need but also to provide a service of quality that we would want for ourselves and that we would want for our loved ones and we’re not going to do that unless we do something quite radical – such as what we’ve proposed.
There have been six ministers for disabled people in the last seven years and I rarely hear the Prime Minister even mention disability? Are Theresa May and the Conservative Party invested in disabled people?
She is. What I would point to, as well as policies in our manifesto, is the fact that at the manifesto launch she explicitly mentioned disability in her speech. She has elevated the role that I currently occupy to Minister of State, which from my point of view (has meant) that we’ve been able, with the Office for Disability Issues across government; to really get into every government department and challenge colleagues on the legislation that they’re bringing in or the projects that they’re working on. That has enabled us to really raise this agenda. That’s been exhibited in the relaunched Disability Confident scheme – and we now have preferred procurement for our Disability Confident employers across every government department and agencies, right through to the appointment of the sector champions.
I think that I as a minister have had more opportunities to move this agenda on than my predecessors did. Those are the things that the current Prime Minister has personally done.