Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people has attacked the government’s “reprehensible” failure to carry out an assessment of the overall impact of its cuts and reforms on disabled people.
Anne McGuire said the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had “refused point blank” to carry out such an assessment, despite the wide range of reforms and reductions in disabled people’s benefits and services over the last two years, such as cuts to social care, employment and support allowance (ESA), disability living allowance (DLA) and housing benefit.
Speaking at this week’s Labour party conference in Manchester, she said: “They are sitting there with more expertise in the DWP than you can shake a stick at.
“We are not the only ones who have asked for it. Disabled people have asked for it. And they are totally ignoring it. I just think that is reprehensible.”
In June, the disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell asked Maria Miller, at the time the minister for disabled people, why the government had still not carried out an assessment.
That followed a similar call in a report on disabled people’s right to independent living, by the joint committee on human rights.
McGuire also suggested this week that her party would not scrap the government’s “fitness for work” test if it regained power, despite repeated claims by disabled campaigners that it had caused lasting and serious damage to thousands of disabled benefits claimants.
The work capability assessment (WCA) was introduced in the last 18 months of the Labour government, but disabled activists say it is still fundamentally flawed, pointing to links between the test and health relapses, episodes of self-harm and even suicides and other premature deaths, among those being assessed.
Last month, the mental health charity Rethink published a survey which found that more than eight in ten GPs said they had patients who had developed mental health problems because of the WCA. And in June, the British Medical Association voted to “demand” an end to the WCA because of concerns over its impact on patients.
McGuire said most disabled people accepted that there needed to be an assessment of some kind to determine eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits.
She said that “the principle of an arms-length assessment is not wrong” but that it needed to be managed properly, and her party was “quite clear” that the WCA “isn’t working”.
She said the government had failed to implement many of the recommendations of the independent reviews of the WCA carried out by Professor Malcolm Harrington.
McGuire is helping to lead a year-long review of the party’s disability policies, which is including a series of round-table discussions across the country – they have taken place so far in Glasgow and Manchester – and “trying to engage with as many disabled people as possible”.
She said there was no point pre-empting the conclusions and recommendations of the review on the WCA. “We have to talk to disabled people and their organisations because they are the ones in the front line on this.”
She said disabled people had “no confidence” in the way the assessments were being carried out by Atos, the government’s private sector contractor, and said there had been “some horror stories” from disabled people assessed by Atos.
But she said that she and her colleagues wanted to receive “concrete” and “chapter and verse” evidence of what was happening with the WCA and Atos.
But McGuire said she did not want to let DWP ministers “off the hook”, because they were responsible for deciding the detailed content of the WCA and the new assessment for personal independence payment, the planned replacement for DLA.
And she said there was a “real, genuine fear out there about what is happening,” with an “across-the-board undermining of the financial support for disabled people”.
She said: “You could be in a position of losing disability living allowance, living in a house that is too big for you [for housing benefit purposes], being taken off ESA [the new out-of-work disability benefit]after a year, the impact [of cuts]on your social care package…”
She said MPs were beginning to see a “significant rise” in the number of disabled people attending their advice surgeries with financial problems.
And she said there was “anecdotal” evidence to suggest that “very few people” were being awarded DLA, six months before the government begins to replace it with the new personal independence payment.
She said: “People are saying it is almost impossible to get DLA at the moment. That has to be challenged with the government, whether or not that is a fact.”
3 October 2012