Monday 22nd February 2016
Justin Tomlinson, Minister of State for Disabled People, discusses with Marcus Papadopoulos the moral and economic imperatives of improving the lives of disabled people
Britain has a proud reputation in the world for being a leader in the provision for disability rights. Along with the National Health Service, state support for people with disabilities is something that Britons cherish most and constitutes a shining example to the rest of the world in caring and providing for people who are physically and mentally impaired. Indeed, such provision is an integral British value.
All political parties at Westminster are committed to the well-being of disabled people and all understand the moral case of this – and unreservedly subscribe to it. But there is also the economic case for ensuring that people with disabilities are able to embrace and enjoy the same education and work opportunities which are available to able-bodied people.
Despite the high-level of disability rights in the UK, there remain many challenges to people with physical and mental disabilities. Disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty compared to their fellow citizens, while approximately a third of disabled people will live in poverty at some point in their lives. Further to that, last year alone, nearly 300,000 disabled people fell out of employment.
While the UK economy is showing signs of recovery and, indeed, growth, it remains in a precarious condition. With more disabled people becoming unemployed and thereby reliant on welfare even further, this will continue to take a toll on the economy.
Determined and undaunted by the task ahead of him, Justin Tomlinson, Minister of State for Disabled People, has already forged deep ties with the disabled community and its stakeholders. After ten months in the job, Justin has made a very favourable impression on disabled people, which has much to do with his own personal commitment to improving the lives of one of the most vulnerable groups in society.
A very likeable person and politician, who is genuinely committed to achieving justice and equality for disabled people, Justin gives us an exclusive interview about how he came to be in politics, how having run businesses prior to parliament enables him today to understand the challenges to disabled people, what the government is doing to safeguard and increase provision for disability rights and what his aims and objectives are as Minister of State for Disabled People.
Q When and how did you become interested in politics?
My parents instilled their view to myself and my siblings that being part of society meant engaging in politics and casting a vote. So I have a brother who is a Scottish National Party supporter, a brother who is a Socialist Worker Party supporter and a sister who is a Conservative Party supporter – a very broad church family! However, my first ever entry into politics arose during the 1992 General Election when my school in Kidderminster held a mock election because the dad of one of my class friends was the local Labour Party candidate. I volunteered to be the Conservative candidate in the ‘election’ and secured two votes! After that, I told my careers teacher that I wanted to consider becoming a Member of Parliament but he told me that I stood no chance at all.
During my time at university, in which I studied business and marketing, I joined the Conservative Students and was very active in this group. Following my graduation, I moved to Swindon and, shortly after arriving there, I complained to my local Conservative councillor about an overgrown bush close to my property, to which he politely replied that the bush was actually on my property! However, he very much liked my passion and suggested that I stand as a councillor, which I did and I served on the council for ten years. I was then elected as MP for North Swindon at the 2010 General Election. I would like to say that I always maintained I would only represent the town I lived in. As the MP for my local town, I am very active, very positive, very enthusiastic and very approachable, and I have achieved the biggest swing in the south-west in the last two general elections.
Q What drove you to stand as an MP?
My parents’ view that we all, collectively speaking, have a duty to engage in society, is something that I wholeheartedly subscribe to. For the first two and a half years after I graduated from university, I was a nightclub manager and then, following on from this, I set up my own printing and marketing company for, predominantly, the leisure industry. I very much enjoyed the experiences of having face-to-face contact with people of all different backgrounds and this spurned me on to stand as an MP in my local town because I wanted to increase my engagement with society, for the benefit of all of its people.
Q Does your business background help you in your work as an MP and as Minister of State for Disabled People?
Without a doubt, yes – hugely. My business background has given me invaluable skills in my role today as a politician. As an MP, I am able to contribute to debates in the House of Commons about, for instance, the pressures which small businesses face and the challenges faced by people who are forced to live their lives on a day-to-day basis due to financial constraints. And as a Minister, I have to deal with a lot of figures at the Department for Work and Pensions – something that I did during my time in business, albeit to a much smaller level in comparison to the DWP. Furthermore, concerning the Prime Minister’s personal commitment to halving the disability employment gap, I once employed people with disabilities when I was in business so I can relate to the need to increase the amount of disabled people in the employment sector because it is good for the overall UK economy. All governments try to do good things but some of these go over the head of the business sector so it is very important that there are Ministers, like myself, who were once businesspeople themselves and who can, today, effectively communicate with businesses about what government is doing.
Q Disabled people are some of the most vulnerable people in the UK. Do politicians understand the problems which they face, such as in employment?
Yes, I believe they do – and this is across all political parties. All 650 MPs, especially since the advent of email and social media, frequently get lobbied and contacted by disabled people and we regularly meet with them during our surgery hours. So our understanding of the challenges to and obstacles faced by disabled people is better today than at any time previously. Also, in my role as the Minister of State for Disabled People, a huge amount of time is spent working with stakeholder groups as I prefer to have meetings with disabled people, to visit them and engage with them. That is the best way to take things forward for the disabled community and it shapes the way I make decisions because listening to and engaging with people is the best and most effective way to make informed decisions.
I would say that, overall, and this comes straight down from the Prime Minister, the money which we, as a country, spend on disability benefits and services has increased year-on-year since 2010 – and will continue to do so through this parliament. While this government has had to make some difficult decisions, there have always been protections in place for the most vulnerable people in our society – and this is something I absolutely support.
Q A lot of disabled people believe they are victims of the austerity measures. What do you say to that?
The reality is that, today, the government is spending more money. So, for example, when we announced that we would freeze benefits, we exempted disability benefits from these so that they actually continue to rise by CPI and will not be frozen. Further to that, as we develop policies, we are very mindful of impacts on the most vulnerable through working closely alongside stakeholder groups.
As the Minister of State for Disabled People, I am responsible for the day-to-day operations delivery of disability benefits, such as the Disability Living Allowance or Personal Independence Payment, so my job is to make sure that these payments are processed and that the systems and communications are correct. Today, it is well recognised by all stakeholders that the payments journey is how it should be.
Q Many parents of disabled children say they are being impacted by the austerity measures, such as going without specialist equipment for their children. Are they wrong in their view?
First of all, we have made absolutely no changes to the child DLA, apart from the fact that money has continued to increase in line with CPI. Secondly, parents of disabled children are still able to access funding from their local authorities or health care providers. What we, as a government, have done, is created the Joint Health and Work Unit, which has secured more money from the Treasury and has localised support to people who need it. So benefits have been supported and protected by this government, while the additional areas of support which we have introduced will not only be protected but also increased.
This government has significantly increased funding for young disabled people so that they have more support, especially preparing them for as much independent living as possible. Also, there is today a lot more direct support for parents of disabled children from an early stage so that they are aware of all the channels of support which are available to them.
Q What are your ambitions as Minister for Disabled People?
Firstly, halving the disability employment gap and then enabling disabled people in employment to have the same opportunities as able-bodied people have, such as career progression; and secondly, increasing access to facilities and services; for instance, all 20 football clubs in the Premier League will make their grounds completely access-friendly to disabled people over the next two years due to my discussions with them.
I, as the Minister, will continue to remind businesses that the combined spending power of people with disabilities is £212 billion so for commercial reasons, businesses need to look to improve their own provisions for employing disabled people. Further to that, I will keep on reminding businesses of best practice in regard to employing people with disabilities.
Q Do you have any final words for disabled and non-disabled people reading this interview?
I will continue to engage with disabled people and stakeholders across the UK and be challenged by them so that the overall lives of people with disabilities can continue to improve. That is my overriding objective and the overriding objective, too, of this government.