Activists explain why they ‘clashed’ with minister after PIP debate

Sarah Newton speaking in Westminster Hall

By John Pring Disability News Service February 1st 2018

Two disabled activists have explained why they “clashed” with the minister for disabled people at the end of a parliamentary debate on personal independence payment (PIP).

Paula Peters and Keith Walker, from Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), decided to confront Sarah Newton over the government’s record because of the “dismissive” way she had responded to concerns about PIP raised during the debate.

Their decision to challenge the minister as she left the room has been backed by Laura Pidcock, the Labour MP and shadow labour minister, who had secured the debate in Westminster Hall.

Peters told Disability News Service (DNS) that she and Walker had “clashed” with the minister.

She said they had wanted to challenge her over the government’s failure to accept the 11 recommendations made in November 2016 by the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities, which found it guilty of “grave and systematic violations” of disabled people’s rights.

They also wanted to highlight the “tragic human cost of the cuts and the horrendous distress that PIP and employment and support allowance are causing”.

As Newton left the debate, Peters stepped in front of her and confronted her over the government’s record, accusing her of being “in complete denial” of the “tragic human costs” of the cuts.

She said the atmosphere became “really heated” and “tempers got frayed”, with Walker also confronting the minister.

Peters said: “We were just infuriatingly angry at the dismissive way they just denied people’s distress, denied the horrendous process people are subjected to.”

On the official recording of the parliamentary session, Walker can be heard shouting several times “we are dying”.

He pointed his finger at a couple of MPs, and told them that “people are dying, friends of ours, they are dying due to these cuts”.

Peters said that Newton insisted that she did care and would meet with Walker to talk about it, “and then she disappeared down the corridor”.

Two members of House of Commons staff then ushered Walker away from the public gallery.

Soon afterwards, he and Peters were briefly spoken to by police officers about the incident.

Walker said he had asked one of the Conservative MPs who had been “laughing all through the debate on his phone if he thought it was funny that we are losing our friends, who are dying.

“He didn’t answer me and just went off at a fast pace.”

He said he told Newton that disabled people were dying because of her government’s policies and he asked her what she was doing about it.

“She just said, ‘I will sit down with you.’”

He stressed that his behaviour was not threatening, although he said he had raised his voice.

Pidcock told DNS last night that she had been appalled by the minister’s “pathetic” failure to answer a series of questions that had been put to her by opposition MPs during the debate, despite Newton speaking for nine minutes.

She said the minister’s nine-minute response had been “deeply patronising” and had made her “really, really angry”.

She said she also understood the anger of Peters and Walker and could see why they had decided to “heckle” the minister at the end of the debate.

Pidcock said: “I can completely understand that. I was close to tears, I was so angry at [Newton’s] response.”

She said: “It’s kind of a red flag to people. What they are presenting is absolutely the opposite of what all of the people that we know are experiencing.”

She said she had helped guide Walker out of the room because she “didn’t want him to get into trouble for the sake of them. I completely understood his anger. I just wanted to get him out of there as quickly as possible.

“I am certainly not going to judge him for heckling, but I also didn’t want him to get arrested. They are not worth it.

“That heckling is because of the strength of feeling and nothing else. Protest is part of the democratic system.”

She said disabled people were “experiencing a kind of terror across the nation when [they] receive a brown envelope from the DWP”.

“I would have liked [Newton] to show some kind of humility and to show that what she is in charge of is a much bigger beast than she is willing to recognise.”

During the debate, Pidcock had told fellow MPs that she had received more than 600 emails and 1,500 messages on Facebook and Twitter after announcing that she had secured the debate.

She said: “Individually, their stories are shocking; collectively, they shame the government and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). They are testament to a broken and cruel system.”

She also became one of the first MPs to highlight concerns, investigated by DNS over the last year, that many claimants have reported how healthcare assessors have written dishonest PIP assessment reports.

Pidcock said: “Many feel as if they have been lied about in their reports – that is all part of the same inadequacies.

“A whole community out there has been frightened, mistreated and intimidated by the government, the media and the DWP.

“There must be consequences for inaccurate assessment reports about people’s health conditions, and we should redesign the assessment process alongside disabled people so that it accepts a social model of disability, not a medical model.”

Another Labour MP, Sharon Hodgson, told the debate that one of her constituents has been living on biscuits since being found ineligible for PIP six weeks ago, and has been unable to afford to turn her central heating on, despite freezing temperatures.

But rather than answering questions raised by MPs in the debate, Newton accused them of “scaremongering” and said she was concerned that “people who really need support will be put off from going to jobcentres or contacting us to get the benefits that they need and richly deserve”.

She said the government was “working hard” to fix the problems in the system.

Newton said: “Myths have been cited repeatedly that we are cutting spending on supporting people with disabilities or health conditions.

“Independent data shows that that is simply not true. Every single year since 2010, the coalition government and now the Conservative government have spent more and more money, and we are committed to spending more.

“Expenditure on the main disability benefits has increased by more than £4.1 billion in real terms since 2010 and is set to reach a record high of more than £23 billion this year.”

Pidcock had pointed out during the debate that the Conservative-led coalition had brought in PIP with the intention of cutting spending by £1.5 billion.

She pointed to a House of Commons library briefing, which describes how DWP said in December 2012 that, by 2018, around 607,000 fewer people would receive PIP than would have received DLA, a 28 per cent reduction.

Marsha de Cordova, the shadow minister for disabled people, had added: “From the outset in 2010, the government’s fundamental aim for the new benefit was to make savings and to reduce the caseload of disability benefit claimants. That is a fact.

“The expectation was to make a saving of 20 per cent, which equated to around £1.5 billion. It is untrue to say that that was not the case.”

Asked by DNS about the incident at the end of the debate, a House of Commons spokesman said: “Following a minor disturbance in the public gallery, a man was escorted from the gallery by doorkeepers.”

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