Able Magazine editor, Tom Jamison, discusses the Government’s response to the pandemic with the Minister for Disabled People.

Lots of disabled people would’ve been surprised that you didn’t have any involvement in the BBC’s daily coronavirus briefings…
The press conferences were for Secretaries of State and I’m a Minister of State. So, I’m number two at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). I’ve spent a considerable amount of time meeting with disability charities, organisations and stakeholders around the country.

Disabled people were struggling in the early lockdown days. They really needed somebody to bat for them, and be visible…
That is exactly why you had the most senior people representing the Government at the daily press conferences. I have two roles as the Minister for Disabled People; one is to make sure that we kept disability benefits open, so that new claimants, those with changing conditions or those who were terminally ill could still access vital financial support (and so) we did the automatic renewals. The other part is to talk to the stakeholders and feed that in across government. With our Disability Unit, that is the eyes
and ears of the Prime Minister, who personally has made it very clear to every department that disability issues have to be embedded into policymaking. So, for example, with access to food, we would engage directly with DEFRA and the supermarkets, and providing the real, lived knowledge and experience into those meetings, which helped rapidly improve that situation. The UK is going to need to pay for the systems applied during the pandemic.

Will disability benefits be protected or can we expect further austerity?
The Prime Minister has made it crystal clear that austerity will not be the policy going forward. We will be seeking to grow the economy quickly to restore public finances. We are currently spending £55 billion a year supporting people with disabilities and long-term health conditions, which is up £10 billion in real terms since we came to office. We are committed to spending more money every single year between now and the next general election in this area.

Will you consider further payments or support for people that are shielding who are actually advised by their healthcare professionals to stay isolated?
This is an ever-changing position and it’s under constant review. As easements continue, then wherever it is deemed safe to do so, we would hope that people are able to return to work. We also expect businesses to do the right thing and I’ve been feeding in to both to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Health and Safety Executive, to make sure that there is sufficient advice, guidelines and support for businesses as they look to adapt to the new normal.

I’ve talked to a lot of disabled people and stakeholders; they actually think that there is now a greater willingness for employers to look at working from home as part of the new norm, which can remove some of the barriers that some disabled people face. To go further and support that, Access to Work will also support changes within the home environment, if that is part of your working week.

Do you think it’s time that we actually had a disabled person in the post of Minister for Disabled People?
I think lived experiences are vital in any role. It’s important that Society also understands that includes not just physical disabilities, but hidden disabilities and actually, I have a huge amount of experience of disabilities as an employer… Whoever is Minister, it’s vital that they engage, they listen, and that they are willing to be challenged.

A lot of my thinking is very much shaped by those who tell me as it is; particularly around disability employment. I’ll never forget a group of really inspirational young disabled people; I said to them, “Look, if you were the Minister, what would be the one thing you’d do?” They said to me, “We want exactly the same opportunities as all of our other friends.” That guides me. Whenever I do the cross-government work I make it very clear;
people are not looking for favours, they just want to be judged on their ability, not their disability.

We can rightly celebrate record disability employment but we are ambitious to go further. We are committed to a further million jobs for disabled people by 2027 and once we’ve reached that, we want to go further still.