Labour conference: Labour ‘will not match Liberal Democrats on welfare reform’


A shadow minister has pledged that her party will continue to push for changes to the coalition’s welfare reform bill, but has suggested that Labour will still back key parts of the government agenda.

Margaret Curran, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said it was vital to “get people back to work, because we have got to start growing the economy”.

She told Disability News Service that the changes to Liberal Democrat party policy that were voted through last week – thanks to the support of disabled activists – were signs of “progress”.

But she hinted that the Labour party would not back all of the policy changes approved through the Liberal Democrat motion in Birmingham.

Curran said concerns with the work of Atos Healthcare, the company that carries out “fitness for work” tests on disabled people – assessments introduced by the Labour government – were “real”.

But she said she had not researched details of the plan approved by Liberal Democrat members to replace Atos with a public or voluntary sector organisation once its contract expired, so she did not know “how feasible that would be”.

But she did say that there were “certainly enough complaints about Atos for that to be thought about”.

She said Labour supported the review of the WCA by Professor Malcolm Harrington, and believed that his recommendations should be “fully implemented”, but she also accepted the need to “look at the performance of Atos”.

Curran said she believed Labour peers would concentrate on several key issues as the welfare reform bill passes through the Lords.

These will include calls for the government to drop plans to remove the mobility component of disability living allowance (DLA) from disabled people in state-funded residential care.

Other priorities will be to persuade the government not to extend the length of time it takes to qualify for personal independence payment – the proposed replacement for DLA – from three months (as it is with DLA) to six months, and for it to abandon plans to subject every disabled person to new assessments.

But Curran said her party would not support calls for the government to drop completely its plans to time-limit the “contributory” form of ESA for those found able to work in the future, and she said that Labour’s suggestion of replacing the one-year limit with two years would be “a very reasonable amendment” to the bill.

She said: “Labour have taken the view that we think a two-year limit, given the times that we are in and given that we do have to manage rising budgets and such like, we do get that, we do have to cut the deficit.”

But she added: “There is a very substantial argument that there should not be any limit and I understand that. I am sure some of that will be at the heart of the Lords debate.

“In an ideal world of course we would want to make sure we could perhaps spend more on it, but we are not in an ideal world, and we have also got to get people back to work.”

28 September 2011