Justin Tomlinson returned to his role as Minister for Disabled People in April, a post he’d held during 2015-2016. In his first full interview since his re-appointment, he discusses a range of disability issues with Able Magazine editor, Tom Jamison.

How did you feel about your reappointment?

Genuinely thrilled. My background has given me a real passion. When I first graduated, I was a nightclub manager, a bit different to most MPs, and we had a fully accessible nightclub. I learnt a very valuable lesson that there are a lot of people with disabilities, particularly hidden disabilities, and by us, as a business, having made a few changes, we did very well.

Because we were the only venue that was accessible, and people go out in groups, therefore, if one person in that group had a disability, we were the only place they could come to.

I went to Foxes Hotel, down in Bridgewater, this is a working college to help young adults with learning disabilities. Nationally, there are 6% of people with learning disabilities in work. That is a dreadful statistic that hasn’t changed for generations, which governments of all political persuasions have tried to change but have made no serious impact.

At Foxes Hotel 80% of students end up in work. Within the hotel, they build skills in catering, housekeeping and front of house, etc. But the clever bit was that they just looked at the town and said, “Where are the job skills shortages?” and they are in the care homes, the hotels, and the restaurants.

So, they’ve sat down with all the employers who’ve got the skills gaps and said, “We want you to buy into this.”

You’ve got the pledge to put a million disabled people into work but there is research that suggests you’ll struggle to get halfway in 40 years, let alone by the year 2027 target.

Well, I disagree. Because, first of all, since 2014, we’ve got 947,000 more disabled people into work and, for the first time ever, there are now more disabled people in work than not in work. Our ambition to get a further million in work started two years ago, and we’re already up to 440,000, so, actually, I think we will get to that million ahead of 2027.

You are right to say it’s not just about simply getting people into work, it’s allowing that in-work progression, and that’s where schemes such as Access to Work become very, very important.

Last year, we had record numbers using it. We have been doing a huge amount of work on how we can increase awareness of schemes like Access to Work and our Disability Confident scheme which is, again, about sharing best practices and making sure that everybody’s got access to that huge talent that is often overlooked.

Are disabled people better off in 2019 than they were when the current government came to power in 2019?

Yes but it’s fair to challenge. First of all, funding reflects the numbers of people who are seeking work. Obviously, with record employment, there are fewer people seeking work. That said, what we’ve done is increasingly specialise how we spend that funding. We’re not complacent and we are grateful for all of those businesses who are proactively engaging. Nearly 12,000 businesses have signed up to Disability Confident.

We spend about £55 billion a year on supporting disabled people and longterm health conditions, which is up £10 billion since we came into office. So, all these things go hand-in-hand.

You said in your last Able Magazine column:

“There are no excuses.” But businesses aren’t doing enough and disabled people are bearing the brunt. #

But they’re not bearing the brunt in the sense that there are 47,000 more disabled people in work in the last five years. We are absolutely heading in the right direction. Everybody has their own opportunities and challenges, and what we have to do is make sure that disability doesn’t create a barrier.

Do you think that the Work Capability Assessments are fit for purpose?

We’ve taken over 100 different suggestions, and implemented those changes. It continues to improve, but we will continue to work with stakeholders, charities, and disabled people to see what more can be done. So, for example, we are looking, going forward, at how we can better share evidence.

One of the challenges for people is actually getting hold of the supporting evidence. You could have a situation where you apply for a Work Capability Assessment and you get the highest rate of support. Yet, three months later, you then go through a PIP assessment, which is relatively similar, and you have to go and gather the evidence again. Actually, if the claimant was happy, we could just use the same evidence again. It might be, if they were at the highest rate of support, then they wouldn’t need to go through a second assessment, because we’d be able to do a paper-based review.

Under DLA 70% of claimants were on a lifetime award, yet for one in three, their condition changed so much within 12 months that they would have been eligible for a different rate. We know, as a government, £2.4 billion worth of support goes unclaimed, and often it’s the most vulnerable people, because the systems are complex, because they’re fearful to ask for reviews. Under DLA, only 16% of claimants got the highest rate of support. Under PIP, it’s 32%.

In 2016, as an example, the amount of money raised for wheelchairs went up from £365,000 to £1.8 million on the Just Giving website. Are you comfortable with that?

I do think we need to do a hell of a lot more in this area and I do think there is an opportunity for us, as a government, to do a lot more. Actually, a wheelchair and other assistive technology could be the bit that breaks that barrier and I do think it is right, to highlight that. It’s something I am very passionate about, and I have already started to have conversations.

What’s your biggest ambition as Minister for Disabled People?

I’m really enthusiastic about this role, because there are lots of government roles that are very amiable, but you don’t necessarily have the leadership to be able to change things. So, for me, my main priorities are to continue removing the barrier to employment, so the maximum number of people can benefit from it. To make sure that where we are providing financial support that the process is as helpful, as clear, and as quick as can be and that where there are mistakes, that they are rectified as quickly as possible.

And, thirdly, to make sure we just link up the wide range of support, above and beyond what the Government does, so that everybody, regardless of their own unique challenges or opportunities has got somebody to guide them through, so it’s more tailored to that particular individual and supporting successful local initiatives.

And that we’re just more responsive and more proactive.