All-consuming Brexit debate is making UK a less caring place – Christine Jardine

The Minister for Disabilities resigned over Brexit and a new one won’t be appointed until after its dealt with. So who in the UK Government will fix the writes Christine Jardine.

Alexandra Mitchell, born with a disability, was suddenly told she wasnt entitled to a Motability car (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
Alexandra Mitchell, born with a disability, was suddenly told she wasnt entitled to a Motability car (Picture: Ian Georgeson)

There was a moment this week that made me worry for what we cherish as our caring society.

I have never been in any doubt that we, as a community, are driven to ensure that everyone, wherever they come from, or whatever obstacles are placed in their way, is entitled to the same and the best opportunities in life.

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It is not a party political commitment, but one that I believe is ingrained in our society.

So this week I was disappointed and frustrated that suddenly a gaping hole has appeared in our ability to fulfil that commitment. Even more frustrating is the fact that it could be quickly and easily filled – except for one astonishing statement.

It wasn’t when a National Audit Office (NAO) report said the UK Government had failed to develop detailed proposals for their goal of getting one million more disabled people into work. Nor was it when the latest figures showed that demand on food banks in Scotland had doubled in 18 months. Although both of those are serious causes for concern.

No, it was when the Government announced that it had decided not to appoint a new Minister for Disabilities until after Brexit has been dealt with. And who knows when that might be?

In the two weeks since the most recent minister resigned, ironically over Brexit, there has been nobody in Government dedicated to one of its most important responsibilities: ensuring that the rights, opportunities and welfare of those with disabilities are protected.

It is surely vital to each of us that all of us are equally protected. But this inertia also comes at a time when there is growing concern over the failures in the system of assessments for Personal Independent Payments (PIP) and Employment Support Allowances (ESA).

And the Government is, as the NAO stated, failing to achieve its own goals for supporting disabled people. So surely it has rarely been more important to have that minister in place whose only aim is to address those issues and resolve them?

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Every week, indeed every day, I have people come to me who have been let down by the current system of PIP assessments.

Often they have received results that are confusingly inaccurate or simply inconceivably unaware of the true implications of their condition or disability.

One of those cases, Alexandra Mitchell from Cramond, has already highlighted the shortcomings. Born with a disability and entitled to a Motability car for years, she was mysteriously told she no longer qualified for the support, with no adequate reasoning behind the decision. Although we managed to have the decision overturned on appeal that, in itself, is not good enough. Nor is it an isolated, or even unusual, incident.

Between 2015 and 2016 (the latest figures available), the Government spent £103 million on holding appeal hearings over PIP and ESA assessment decisions.

And that does not include the cost to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) of defending them.

What is worse is that two thirds of those cases were overturned in favour of those who were appealing – individuals who had been put through often months of stress, expense and fear that they might lose vital benefits.

It already costs people with disabilities an estimated £583 a month more on average for basic living expenses than other members of society. One in five can face extra costs of more than £1,000 a month, depending on the condition they are dealing with. And families with a child with a disability can face extra living costs of £581 a month.

To decide that appointing a replacement minister to look after the interests of everyone affected can wait is astounding.

How can the Government justify this dereliction of duty? Why do they think it is acceptable? How are they going to rectify it?

Unfortunately those are questions for which, when he was pressed in the House of Commons this week, the junior minister in the Department for Work and Pensions had no answer.

Nor did the department have an answer when, three weeks ago, I again raised the case of Alexandra Mitchell who has now been told that there is an ‘end date’ of her lifelong disability. Wow, who knew the department had such powers? That they could end disability at the stroke of a pen. They can’t.

And to get to the bottom of why the department thought it could, I was due to have a meeting with the Minister for Disabilities in the very week she decided that she could no longer stomach her own Government’s approach to Brexit. Since then, there has been nobody in Government tasked with addressing those issues, of which there are so many, that myself and other MPs have been keen to raise. Fortunately I had also arranged a meeting with Amber Rudd, the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, to ask if she would consider changes to a Universal Credit system that has proven not fit for purpose.

Again Brexit, as ever, intervened and foreshortened our meeting, but not before I had grasped the opportunity to confront the Secretary of State with the problem.

To be fair, she asked me to send details of Alexandra’s case directly to her and I have.

But it shouldn’t have to be this way.The recognition that special and informed attention needs to be paid to protecting the interests of and promoting the needs of those with disabilities or life-changing conditions is one that we cannot lose sight of. It should not matter what issues the body politic has to deal with, or how serious they might be, there is no excuse for turning its back on, or shirking, any responsibility.

I do not know when Brexit will be “dealt with”. But I do know that people should not be asked to wait until then, whenever it might be, for their Government to pay attention to their needs.