The new work and pensions secretary is an insult to disabled people

As backlashes go, the days following Esther McVey’s appointment as the new work and pensions secretary have seen intense criticism. Between 2012 and 2013, as minister for disabled people and later employment minister, McVey was famed for defending the indefensible, saying it was “right” that people were having to use food banks and claiming that benefit sanctions “teach” jobseekers to take looking for work seriously – going as far as comparing unemployed people to naughty schoolchildren being punished by a teacher – despite the destitution and death that sanctions have since caused. 

Yet this is about more than soundbites. From giving misleading information about the bedroom tax’s impact on disabled people to her decision to close the Independent Living Fund, McVey appeared to relish removing disability support, with campaigners accusing her of distorting the facts to help make that a reality. Worse, she was central in helping the rightwing press stoke up suspicion towards disabled people on benefits – most blatantly as David Cameron’s government began to abolish disability living allowance (DLA) and replace it with personal independence payments (PIP). As the Daily Mail put it at the time, McVey was on a mission to “pursue vast numbers of bogus disabled who carry on claiming the DLA long after they have ‘healed’.” That PIP is now wrongly withdrawing benefits from severely ill and disabled people – with 65% of decisions overturned on appeal – makes this all the more sickening.

The Department for Work and Pensions’ problems do not begin or end with McVey – she is the fifth person to hold the title since 2016 – but for Theresa May to (even reluctantly) promote someone with her track record is emblematic of the Conservatives’ disregard for disabled people.

I’ve spoken to many disabled people who are frightened by McVey’s appointment. That might be hard to understand if you are healthy or on a comfortable wage, but when you rely on social security to eat and pay rent, the DWP minister has power over you. For the families at the sharp end of austerity, McVey represents skipping dinner to pay the bedroom tax or becoming suicidal after losing benefits.

This year, the DWP will continue to oversee major social security changes, including more traumatic transfers from DLA to PIP and the ongoing rollout of the flawed universal credit, which is causing misery and hardship to thousands of families. In her previous ministerial roles, McVey showed herself to be a politician who never cared about the impact of such policies. But DWP decisions affect millions of people’s lives. Largely, for those who are already struggling with poverty and illness. That McVey is now in charge is an insult to them all.

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