It’s been a bizarre day in politics, even by this government’s standards. At lunchtime, after a week of uncertainty, Downing Street confirmed they have scrapped the Minister for Disabled People role. Then, after intense backlash from campaigners, the media and opposition, at 4pm the government announced that Mims Davies had been appointed in the role - although the role has been downgraded, from minister of state to the most junior ministerial level possible.
To try to make sense of how we ended up here, let me take you back to last Thursday. In his effort to whip up support for his horrific Rwanda plan and off the back of Robert Jennrick’s resignation, Rishi Sunak created two new ministerial roles. As the Minister for Illegal Migration, he appointed former solicitor general Michael Tomlinson, with Robert Courts replacing him. And in the role of Minister for Legal Migration he anointed Tom Pursglove, formerly Minister for Disabled People.
Pursglove's oprhaned portfolio then lay vacant for a full week, until the government this afternoon confirmed that, for the first time in 30 years, disabled people would no longer have anyone representing them in government.
This led to an uproar on social media from every disabled campaigner, charity, writer and even members of the opposition, with Shadow Minister for Disabled People VIcky Voxcroft tweeting "After 13 years of Tory austerity, pandemic and cost of living crisis, disabled people feel their voices aren’t being heard and represented in Government. This confirms it."
Arguably, disabled people didn’t have anyone representing them before, either. Pursglove spent far more time caring about “cracking down” on benefit fraudsters, turning up to raids in his little stab vest and doing his bit to reinforce the stigma of disabled people being scroungers. His only other legacy is the terribly conceived Ask Don’t Assume campaign, which encouraged non-disabled people to as the name suggests ask disabled people about their disabilities. Many campaigners, myself included, feared this would give non-disabled people even more licence to ask invasive questions.
He never tried to stop the government’s plans to take away the assessment that allows disabled people to be declared unfit for work, or tried to intervene while those on unemployment benefits are forced into work. But then I suppose Pursglove would have had to actually disagree with these policies in order to take action. And let’s not forget how the former minister triggered the hashtag #WheresTom when he refused to attend the UN Commission on the Rights of Disabled People.
You’d think that removing a minister who’s done for disabled people so little would at least preclude the government from us even further: what could be less than zero? Any yet, Sunak has managed to defy our lowest expectations yet again by scrapping the ministry altogether.
Defending the decision, a Number 10 spokesperson said: “It will be an existing minister taking on the brief,” though they haven’t confirmed who, or how they will fit it in with their current workload. They also said: ‘Actions matter. You will continue to see a government showing strong support for disabled people and disabled issues.’
“Continue” does a lot of heavy lifting in that statement. It’s laughable to think that our government could actually believe this is true when they are currently doing everything in their power to turn the public against us, especially in the way ministers speak about us - such as Hunt calling us “workshy shirkers” - contributing to the culture of hatred towards disabled people.
But in the later announcement of the appointment of Mims Davies—a u-turn carried out in a potentially record-breaking three hours—there’s no mention of this alleged continued support, with messaging focusing on on welfare reforms and work. The official Twitter for the DWP tweeted “We're delighted @MimsDavies has been appointed as the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work @DWPgovuk, taking forward our next generation of welfare reforms to tear down barriers to work for disabled people across the UK and continuing to protect those most in need.”
On the Gov.UK website, Davies’ role is Parliamentary Undersecretary, not Minister, meaning a downgrade in the role. According to her Twitter bio she is also still carrying on in her role of Parliamentary Undersecretary for Social Mobility and Youth Police and Crime Commissioner. So, not only has the title been downgraded, but it’s been squished together with Davies’ current roles. You have to wonder where she’s going to find the time to do all these jobs. This move also shows just how much of an afterthought disabled people are to the government. The role was previously already downgraded under Truss, and was only reinstated after pushback from myself, Foxcroft and others.
The Tories have spent the last 13 years destroying the lives of disabled people. Austerity and benefits changes, including tougher assessments, cuts, and sanctions killed an untold amount of disabled people and made many of us fearful of appearing too nondisabled. The government has all but admitted that disabled people were left to die during COVID because they didn’t see us worthy of saving, with 6 in 10 deaths being disabled people.
The cost of living crisis is hitting disabled people the hardest. According to the Trussell Trust 69% of people referred to their food banks are disabled, three times the rate of non-disabled people. 62% of disabled people referred to Trussell Trust food banks are also not receiving any disability benefits. And finally, there’s the disdainful narrative the Tories have manufactured about disabled people—that we’re all either faking or just refusing to work—further fuelling the rising hate for disabled people in this country.
When people’s rights are being stripped away through successive government policies and attitudes, it’s more important than ever that disabled people have representation in government. But then, isn’t the easiest way to take a community’s rights away to ensure they don’t have a voice?
Rachel Charlton-Dailey is an award-winning disabled editor, journalist, and activist.