The recently appointed Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Disabled People, Justin Tomlinson, fills us in on what he hopes to achieve in the role…
As Minister for Disabled People, what do you see as your main priorities?
A big priority for me is to reduce the disability employment gap. The latest figures show a year-on-year increase of 238,000 disabled people in work – the equivalent of more than 650 more for every day of the year. This is a fantastic achievement, but there is still more that can be done to support disabled people in to employment.
Over the past two years the fantastic Disability Confident campaign has attracted more than 60 partners, including major businesses like Barclays Bank and EDF Energy, and has reached thousands of employers. Through this campaign, they have been working with us to spread the word about what disabled people can offer in the workplace and share best practice in supporting disabled employees. We have a wealth of talent ready, and I am determined to encourage businesses of all sizes to become Disability Confident.
What have been your own experiences of disability, be it in your personal life or in the course of your constituency work?
When I became an MP in 2010, my first meeting was with the National Autistic Society. Since then I’ve had opportunities to meet with a broad range of disability charities and groups at both a local and national level.
Part of my role is supporting those with mental health conditions, something I feel passionately about. In my constituency of North Swindon we have the excellent Olive Tree Café, which provides a working environment for people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness. It gives individuals an opportunity to develop the confidence and skills they need in order to equip them for mainstream employment. I’ve been a supporter and regular customer of the café for a number of years, and it really does change lives.
Can you comment on the current status of the Access to Work scheme, and confirm whether there will be further changes to the scheme before the year’s end?
In the course of the previous Parliament the support available under Access to Work was expanded, in an effort to ensure those with mental health conditions are not left behind and that it reaches as many people as possible.
In fact, since 2012 an extra £15 million has been invested in the scheme and user numbers are rising steadily. From 2013 to 2014 alone, Access to Work spent £108 million to help 35,540 disabled people enter or remain in work – over 4000 more than in 2012 to 2013, and I want to see this growth continue. The introduction of Personal Budgets will give many Access to Work users more freedom over how they use the money allocated to them, helping them manage their support in a more tailored, efficient and cost-effective way.
There is still more to do, and I am committed during my time in this post to overseeing a large increase in the numbers being helped by Access to Work to not only get, but crucially, stay in a job.
How do you plan to tackle the widespread perception that disabled people have been disproportionately affected by government cuts and austerity initiatives over the past five years?
This Government is absolutely committed to supporting disabled people, and we continue to spend around £50bn on disabled people and their services. Our reforms have modernised the system and helped ensure that support is targeted towards those who need it the most. How many people realise, for example, that 21% of claimants of Personal Independence Payments (PIP) have been awarded the highest rate, compared to 16% under Disability Living Allowance?
In your view, were there any particular failings in the area of disability policy under the Coalition Government?
I’m very proud of what we achieved as part of the Coalition Government, but of course there is still much more to be done. In our manifesto we outlined the ambitious target of halving the disabled employment gap, and whilst in office I will make this my mission.
One of the biggest shifts for disabled people in recent years has been in public attitudes and our understanding of what disabled people can achieve. The Paralympic legacy is a high profile example, but in everyday life we are seeing more and more examples of what disabled people can do rather than what they can’t. We need to push this agenda forward and make sure that there are improvements in all aspects of disabled people’s lives – accessibility, tackling disability hate crime and ensuring that the right support is available are all essential.
I am early into my new role as Minister for Disabled People and there is an incredible amount to learn about the role and the issues that affect disabled people’s lives. I look forward to updating Access readers on our progress in the future.