The new minister for disabled people has admitted that spending on a key disability benefit will be cut next year.
Mike Penning was talking to Disability News Service (DNS) in one of his first interviews since being appointed to the position last week.
Just two weeks after his predecessor Esther McVey declined on 21 occasions to say if spending on working-age disability living allowance (DLA) and its replacement personal independence payment (PIP) would fall next year, Penning admitted almost immediately that it would be cut from £14 billion (2013-14) to £13.9 billion (2014-15).
When DNS told him that McVey had refused to answer the same question 21 times, he said: “You’ve asked me once and I’ve read them out to you.”
But he also differed from McVey in his views about the much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA).
Whereas she said – before her promotion to employment minister – that she would not rule out scrapping the “fitness for work” test if there was proof it had caused enough damage to disabled people, Penning told DNS that “scrapping it would be a disaster at this stage”.
He said: “What we must make sure is we have the best quality in the assessment and at the same time because we are having some quality does not mean we increase the backlog. It is very, very important that people have the opportunity to be assessed correctly.”
He also said that it was “very important” that DLA and PIP claimants have face-to-face assessments rather than trying to “assess themselves” by filling in a form, one of the chief reasons the coalition has given for scrapping DLA and replacing it with PIP.
Penning denied that the proportion of claimants receiving face-to-face assessments for PIP would eventually be little higher than it was for DLA.
But he said he did not know “off the top of my head” what proportion of claimants on PIP would be assessed face-to-face, compared with DLA.
Penning also confirmed that part of his previous job – as minister of state in the Northern Ireland Office – was trying to persuade the devolved government and assembly in Northern Ireland to accept the same reforms that had been introduced in Westminster through the Welfare Reform Act.
He said: “They are a devolved administration, it is entirely up to them. At the same time, and I did say this in public… if they do not bring welfare reforms through, they cannot expect the same amount of money to be coming from the UK parliament and the UK Treasury.
“I have had discussions for instance with Sammy Wilson, who was the finance minister, and I was pushing that administration to accept the fact that they can’t just sit back and continue to take money from the UK exchequer and not have welfare reforms.”
He also claimed that he was not worried by the National Audit Office’s major “value for money” study into PIP, which will include an investigation into the government’s award of a £184 million assessment contract to Atos Healthcare.
The decision to examine the award of the contract to Atos followed an investigation by DNS and concerns raised by the crossbench peer Lord Alton.
But Penning said he was not concerned about the investigation, which will look at how Atos won the contract by boasting that it had arranged a network of 740 assessment sites across London and the south of England, before later confessing that it had only secured 96 centres, including not a single one covering a vast sweep of north London, and only one in Suffolk.
He said: “From what I have seen so far, and I will continue to keep my eyes on it and continue to review it, I think they are going to deliver. If I didn’t think they could I would tell you.”
When asked why he was not concerned about the sharp drop in Atos PIP assessment centres, he said: “Because from what I have seen so far they can deliver.”
Penning, who has been MP for Hemel Hempstead since 2005, said he had asked the prime minister to give him the disability portfolio in last week’s ministerial reshuffle, because it was “something I have been passionate about for a long time”.
He said: “I have some really good friends, people that served with me in the army, people like Simon Weston, who was really badly injured in the Falklands.
“I’m a rugby nut, so I’ve met lots of guys over the years who have been injured at rugby.”
He also said that he had grown up with carers, including his grandfather, who cared for his grandmother for nearly 30 years after she had a stroke at the age of 52.
But despite his “passion” for disability, Penning admitted that he did not yet know what the social model of disability was.
“I’m not into that yet, but I will be,” he said. “I’ve only been here 10 days.”
He also insisted that he did not like to be labelled as coming from the “right wing” of the party, preferring to be described as a “working-class Tory”.
He said: “I am not from any wing of any party. Don’t label me. Give me a chance.”
He added: “The press label me as a flat cap, working-class Tory. Well, I am a working-class Tory but I don’t have a flat cap.”