Voices: Can anyone name the minister for disabled people?

Disabled people have their backs against a very hard wall (PA)
Disabled people have their backs against a very hard wall (PA)

Prime minister Rishi Sunak allocated his team to their departments last week. He also gave them their ranks. Portfolios, however, remain up in the air (at least, officially). Work is being done in the Department for Work and Pensions, where the minister for disabled people traditionally resides, and there is a secretary of state. That would be Mel Stride, who can sign off on things that need to be signed off on. Beyond that, who knows or dares to dream?

Someone called Mims Davies, one of the department’s three parliamentary under secretaries of state (the lowliest rank), is listed on Wikipedia as minister for disabled people. However, I’m told it has jumped the gun. There’s certainly been no official announcement. This matters.

Disabled people have their backs against a very hard wall. There’s the energy crisis; out of control food price inflation; and all the other stuff we have to shell out for that able-bodied people don’t even think about is also surging in price.

It was already the case that putting “disabled” somewhere in a product’s description would double the cost. As I’ve previously written, for some it’s a case of heat, eat or run the ventilator that keeps you alive. With issues like that, and so many people to look after, the job of minister for disabled people should be one of the busiest and most important in government.

There is a strong case for it to be of cabinet rank, or at the very least for it to be given to a cabinet minister as part of their responsibilities. Women and equalities are, for example, represented in cabinet by Kemi Badenoch – don’t laugh – who also oversees international trade. Talk about a busy life.

But disability doesn’t even come under the equalities brief. It’s been with the DWP for decades, I imagine because of the importance of workplace and benefit issues to those of us living with it, despite the fact that there is a whole bunch of stuff which makes it just as much a part of the equality world.

Want an example? Just imagine what it’s like having someone shout and scream about how “the handicapped ought to be in the slow lane” after a swimming pool collision with a would-be Alf Garnett moving at the pace of a caterpillar. That actually happened to me.

But the DWP is where we need to make a difference; particularly with Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth raising the alarming prospect of benefits like the personal independence payment (PIP), disability living allowance (DLA) for children and carers allowance being made subject to a means test as part of a Tory austerity drive.

If we had a minister in the department, they could lobby against such a disastrous move. But we don’t. The sad fact is that the doors to the minister for disabled people’s office have been revolving at a dizzier pace since the Tories took power.

Under the Blair/Brown governments, occupants were usually given a good run at the job. Remember when the government was run by professionals? Maria Eagle was in post for four years. I had to pinch myself when I saw that. Anne McGuire lasted just over three years. Margaret Hodge was a few weeks shy of celebrating her third anniversary in the role. Thanks to all that pinching I now have a bruise.

Under the Tories, only one minister (Maria Miller) has held the job for more than two years. For most of the others, 12 months has been a major achievement. Usually their only achievement. That’s nowhere near long enough to get to grips with so many huge issues that affect, let’s say it again, 14 million British people.

We ought to be able to get cross about the fact that they haven’t been able to rustle up a disability between them, except that there’s so much to get cross about. A previous minister for disabled people, who I think was at least well intentioned, once told me the portfolio basically involved writing lots of letters and running around banging on doors, getting people around tables. Commendably honest, but also quite telling.

If the government saw the needs of disabled people as a priority, they wouldn’t have to run around. It speaks volumes that the last occupant of the post was a lowly parliamentary under secretary. We need and deserve better than a lowly parly sec who is little more than a PR person with a brief to make it look as if the government is something slightly better than callous, if not actively cruel.

Disability ought to be the concern of every minister in every department. Defence should be considering the shameful treatment of disabled veterans. Education should be looking at the crisis in special needs. Health? Well, it ought to be obvious.

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In the absence of that, it would be nice for a minister to try and do, well, anything? How about making the PIP application process easier so a person with one eye isn’t asked by an assessor if – and this is a true story – it could grow back?

Maybe spell out employers’ responsibilities while making it easier for them to get help? Small asks, really. But at the moment, these very reasonable requests look like implausible fantasies. That’s frankly appalling.

There are, once again, 14 million of us in this most invisible of minority groups (to judge by the average British conversation). We come from all walks of life. Every race, sex and sexuality. What unites us is that we’re all being royally screwed by the government which can’t even get its head out of its arse for long enough to appoint a junior minister to pretend to represent us.