I’m delighted to have been appointed Shadow Minister for Disabled People in the Work and Pensions shadow ministerial team. I’m thrilled to be working on such an important issue and one which I feel passionately about.
I have been a member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee since June 2011, where I held the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to account through my effective questioning of Iain Duncan Smith and his fellow Ministers in the Commons and at select committee hearings.
I have also repeatedly warned Ministers that their Work Capability Assessments are not working fairly for disabled people
and that the Access to Work programme which is meant to help disabled people into work is performing woefully.
I raised these issues, along with the rollout of the Personal Independence Payment (PIP), government cuts in disability support and the disability employment gap in my Westminster Hall debate on the effects of Government welfare changes on disabled people on 30th June.
In February this year, I introduced a 10 Minute Rule Bill, Employment of People with
Disabilities, to try and address this growing inequality as well as being instrumental in the campaign to force the Government to release data on the people on Incapacity Benefit (IB) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) who have died including those who have been found ‘fit for work’ following a Work Capability Assessment, after the DWP tried to appeal the Information Commissioner’s instruction to do so.
The data, which received widespread media coverage, showed that people who were on IB or ESA are dying at more than four times the rate of the general population which, as I said at the time, blows out of the water the Government’s rhetoric that they are scroungers and shirkers.
I have also campaigned for an independent Inquiry into sanctions used by DWP for two years, successfully instigating a Work & Pensions Select Committee inquiry, Benefit Sanctions Policy beyond Oakley, on this issue which reported in March. This followed a former JCP whistle-blower contacting me revealing sanctions targets and their inappropriate use, and the tragic deaths of claimants after sanctions, including former soldier David Clapson.
Disabled people and their carers continue to face many barriers in our society, in accessing work and receiving appropriate support. Here in Oldham, for instance, my Oldham Fairness Commission showed that the disability employment gap stands at 34.7%, higher than the UK average. Yet in the UK last year just 35,000 people with disabilities receive assistance from the DWP’s flagship Access to Work programme.
Across the country disabled people are twice as likely to be living in persistent poverty compared with non-disabled people. This has implications for disabled people’s families as well; families with one disabled member make up one third of all families living in poverty.
Owen Smith, the new Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, said: “I am absolutely over the moon that Debbie has joined the Labour DWP team, as Shadow Minister for Disabled People.
“Debbie has a fantastic reputation in Parliament, standing up with passion on the issues that affect Oldham East and Saddleworth and people across the rest of the country.
“She has won great respect campaigning on issues like improved health services across the country and tackling late payments to small businesses.
“Debbie is also not afraid to roll up her sleeves’ and works incredibly hard, as she showed through her work on the Dementia Friendly Oldham campaign.
“I’ve no doubt that Debbie will provide as strong a voice for disabled people in Parliament as she already does for her constituents. We’re lucky to have her.”
In my new role I will continue to hold the Government to account for all the public spending changes they have made since 2010 and the devastating effect those cuts are having on millions of disabled people, their families and carers.