Able Magazine editor, Tom Jamison, spoke with Ms Smith the day before the autumn budget was announced.
I know you don’t identify as a disabled person. Is that a disadvantage?
I think having come directly from a period of dealing with and recovering from cancer, I do have a major piece of life experience that will colour how I see this work. And that will fire up my determination day after day to do the right thing by people with disabilities or facing poor health. Because as the Minister for Disability, Health and Work, you do need to be able to bring those things together.
Does it surprise you that there aren’t too many other disabled ministers at the moment given that, life as a disabled person is about finding solutions, finding answers, and problem solving?
The point about problem solving is something I’ve also heard very clearly already from disabled people talking to me in this role. I would add that the foundation I’m going to put underneath this work is to listen to disabled people.
That is where I think the most value will come, of course, and that should be obvious shouldn’t it, that all of us in this space know that we achieve the best outcome for disabled people by listening to disabled people’s organisations and being able to work effectively with them. So that is how I want to work in this role. I will, of course, be holding other ministers across the Government to account in delivering the commitments in the National Disability Strategy
According to disability charity, Leonard Cheshire, disability hate crime is up 16% and only one in 62 cases received a charge in the last year, with around 7,200 people getting away with crimes against disabled people. There’s a way to go…
(Those are) really important points you make about hate crime, and about how disabled people deserve to get the best through the criminal justice system.
These are some of the very significant commitments in the National Disability Strategy, which is absolutely clear that it’s wrong that, for example, disabled people are twice as likely to become victims of crime. And the strategy goes on to hold the Ministry of Justice and others to account for changes that will make a difference to people’s everyday lives. And that to me is where the real action is, the commitments in that strategy span across the things that really do make a difference in people’s everyday lives.
Additionally, there are commitments to children and to young people in terms of education and in terms of how we can better support disabled kids’ needs through schools and colleges, that is critically important and alongside the criminal justice points in that strategy, I hope will give disabled people much greater confidence in their rights and their protections and in the opportunities that they have in this country.
We can expect those crime figures to improve over the next year, then?
Yes, I’d certainly like to see improvement there.
Speaking of ‘held to account’, who should be held to account regarding the way that the pandemic has been handled? Should disabled people be worried about the latest Covid figures, keeping in mind that 60% of Covid related deaths, have been disabled people?
I do acknowledge that disabled people will have been anxious at many times throughout the pandemic. I am confident that we’ve got measures in place through this winter and beyond to keep people safe against coronavirus. I think key to this is vaccination, of course, and I would really encourage people to come forward for booster jabs because that’s how we all get our best protection.
Do comments by disability charity, Sense, calling for urgent additional funding in light of the most recent CQC reports surprise you?
Well, I was very glad to have the chance to talk to some of the major disability charities and indeed to disabled people’s organisations about social care. I think it’s going to be very important to make sure that as we now hammer out the details of social care reform that, of course, disabled people are considered every step of the way. So that is a piece of work I’m taking very , very seriously. And I would like to work with Sense and with others to make sure we get this right for disabled people.