The hard-right Tory minister should know that however weakened communities may be after seven years of harsh austerity, solidarity endures, and her return will be met with deep resistance
I find it impossible to think about Esther McVey , the newly promoted Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, without thinking of David Clapson, the former soldier who died after being sanctioned for missing a Job Centre meeting.
A diabetic, David died with an out-of-date tin of sardines in his cupboards and no money to keep the fridge running where his insulin was stored.
In February 2015, I was at the meeting of the Work and Pensions Select Committee where David’s sister Gill Thompson bravely confronted McVey.
She tried to get her to look at a photograph of David in his British Army uniform – an attempt to get her to see him as a real person, not just a benefit claimant.
“My brother is dead, and he wasn’t a criminal,” Gill told McVey, as she hurried out of the session. She told me McVey had said quickly, “it’s a complex case, I’m sorry”.
“I told her ‘there’s nothing complex about it’,” Gill says. “He was a diabetic and starving.”
What was truly shocking about that day was the way McVey had sat and defended the broken welfare system. It seemed to go way beyond the call of duty, as if she relished the job. But, then, this was how McVey regularly behaved as an Employment Minister and Minister for Disabled People within the DWP.
Former soldier David Clapson died after being sanctioned for missing a Job Centre meeting (Image: Daily Mirror)
Today, Downing Street rightly demanded that the tirade of abuse directed at McVey since her promotion must stop. Abuse is always wrong. But there is a difference between abuse and justified anger, and genuine fear about what serious damage a politician so committed to benefit cuts and sanctions can do at the helm of the DWP.
This week I have been deluged with calls and letters about it. A disabled man rang in to say that with McVey back he saw no option but to take his own life because there was no hope any more that things would get better. We spoke for a long time.
Like her former long-term flatmate Philip Davies MP, who likes to filibuster women’s domestic violence debates, McVey is on the hard right of her party.
Her belief in a punitive form of social insecurity can only bring harm to hard-pressed families.
This is a politician who believes that foodbanks are “positive”. That sanctions “teach” job seekers to look for work, even comparing them with detentions.
“What does a teacher do in a school? A teacher would tell you off or give you lines or whatever it is, detentions, but at the same time they are wanting your best interests at heart,” she said.
“They are teaching you, they are educating you but at the same time they will also have the ability to sanction you.”
Against all evidence, she kept on with the hard-sell of Personal Independence Payments – the launch of which has brought poverty and misery to millions.
But it’s not just what she says. McVey’s willingness to go out and bat for Iain Duncan Smith when she worked in his department set her apart from other ministers.
Clapson’s sister Gill Thompson appealed to McVey (Image: Ian Vogler/Daily Mirror)
Just watch her in action at the foodbank debate on December 18, 2013, in Parliament. I’d brought some families who had used foodbanks to see the debate from the Strangers Gallery and I watched as one by one they left in tears.
McVey left early after giving what Labour MP Gerald Kaufman called “one of the nastiest frontbench speeches I’ve heard in more than 43 years”.
Watching her 18 months later in that select committee, refusing to accept, against a blistering bombardment of evidence, that any deaths or even visits to foodbanks had been caused by the sanctions regime, was staggering.
She said there were no targets for sanctions even when the Job Centre workers’ union PCS said there were. It was like being in a parallel universe.
When Labour MP Debbie Abrahams – now her opposite as the Shadow Secretary of State – asked McVey specifically about welfare-related deaths, the minister accused her of “inflaming things”.
Far from stopping sanctions, McVey’s department admitted they were now extending them further to include “in-work conditionality”. This was all to be part of Universal Credit, IDS and McVey’s vanity project. We’ve all seen how that turned out.
When Wirral West voted McVey out in 2015, I spoke to campaigners who were in tears of relief, feeling that at least the ballot box had brought some justice.
But then George Osborne , the architect of all that terror – the man whose austerity addiction gave us the packed foodbank and the return of cardboard cities across the UK – gifted her his safe seat .
Just as she has with Brexit , now at the Department for Work and Pensions , Theresa May has let the ideologues take over the asylum.
But Esther McVey should know that however weakened communities may be after seven years of harsh austerity, solidarity endures, and her return will be met with deep resistance.