The former Conservative minister who laid the groundwork nearly 20 years ago for the much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA) has defended the role he played in developing the “fitness for work” system.
Peter Lilley MP, who was social security secretary in John Major’s government from 1992 to 1997, said he had “no objection in principle” to the WCA, despite almost universal acceptance that it has caused significant harm to thousands of disabled people.
He also denied that parts of the insurance industry had spent two decades lobbying the government to ensure that eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits would be tightened.
Lilley introduced incapacity benefit in 1995 – to replace invalidity benefit – and alongside it the all work test, a medical assessment that was supposedly more objective than its predecessor and rooted in occupational health, as were its two successors, the personal capability assessment and the WCA.
He said the all work test had been “politically dynamite” at the time, although he claimed that it quickly won support from the public, but added: “I don’t think we envisaged this being a sort of signal that everybody should get private insurance. I don’t remember thinking about that. It shouldn’t be a signal.”
Disability News Service (DNS) also asked if he remembered bringing in a senior executive from the notorious US insurance giant Unum to advise the government on testing disabled people for their benefits.
He said: “When I was secretary of state? Maybe, I’m not denying it, but I certainly don’t remember.
“If you tell me it happened, it happened, but I have absolutely no recollection. If there had been a rumpus about it at the time I would have thought I would remember.”
He also insisted that he had “no objection in principle” to the WCA, which has been heavily criticised by claimants, disabled activists, charities, MPs and peers of all parties, and even the British Medical Association, which last year said the computer-based assessments had “little regard to the nature or complexity of the needs of long-term sick and disabled persons”.
One GP said last year that the “insensitive” test had left many patients “in a state of high distress”, and was “simply not capable of assessing ability to work in any meaningful way”.
The assessment has caused mounting anger among activists and disabled benefit claimants since its introduction by the Labour government in 2008, because of links with relapses, episodes of self-harm, and even suicides and other deaths, among those who have been assessed.
But Lilley said he had “no objection in principle” to the WCA, and did not believe that it was significantly different from his own all work test, but added: “If they have improved it, so much the better.”
He said it was “perfectly true” that the WCA could be traced back to his introduction of IB in 1995, and his all work test.
He said: “Generally they built on what I did rather than scrapped it. Generally I take it as a degree of endorsement.”
Unum has repeatedly denied attempting to influence IB reform over the last two decades, despite mounting evidence that it has done so.
It is the largest provider of “income protection insurance” (IPI) in the UK, and tougher welfare rules are likely to persuade more people to take out IPI, boosting the company’s profits.
Unum even launched a major media campaign in 2011 just as the coalition began a three-year programme to reassess about 1.5 million existing IB claimants through the new, stricter WCA.
Earlier this year, DNS secured a copy of a Unum document, which was published in 2005, and which brags that government policy was “to a large extent being driven by our thinking and that of our close associates, both in the UK and overseas”.
Unum has admitted there has been widespread criticism of its past actions in the US, mainly over its refusal to pay out on large numbers of genuine insurance claims by disabled people, a record mentioned in a Commons debate in January.
But it continues to dismiss claims that it pushed successive governments to tighten eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits.
2 October 2013