Labour has been accused of blocking attempts at its party conference to discuss the problems caused by the government’s controversial “fitness for work” tests.
Following successful moves by Liberal Democrat campaigners at their conference last week to overturn their party’s policy on incapacity benefit reform and the work capability assessment (WCA), disabled activists had hoped for a similar platform to raise the issue at the Labour conference.
But party managers refused to allow the leading disabled blogger and party activist Sue Marsh to speak during Monday’s “prosperity and work” debate.
The issue was also marginalised during the speeches of the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, and Liam Byrne, the shadow work and pensions secretary.
Miliband referred to the need for the welfare system to reward “the right people with the right values” and said benefits were “too easy to come by for those who don’t deserve them and too low for those who do”, while calling for a system that “works for working people”.
He and Byrne both mentioned the impact of government plans to time-limit the contributory form of employment and support allowance (ESA) – the replacement for incapacity benefit – but only on “cancer patients”.
Byrne mirrored some of the hostile, disablist language used by newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, by telling the conference that voters at the last election “felt that too often we were for shirkers not workers”.
He also claimed that Labour “is and always will be the party of work”, and warned that there were “welfare cuts that we will have to accept”.
Neither mentioned the impact the test – introduced by the Labour government – has had on tens of thousands of disabled people who have been denied the benefits they need after being assessed for the government by the private company Atos Healthcare.
Marsh, who blogs at Diary of a Benefit Scrounger and is political strategist for The Broken of Britain campaign, said she was “desperate to show the people I write for that the party hasn’t given up on them”.
But even though she was mentioned by a speaker during the Liberal Democrat debate on the issue last week, she was not allowed to speak from the platform at her own party’s conference.
She also had a bid rejected by the party for the subject to be voted on as a potential topical “contemporary issue” for debate.
She accused her party of “marginalising the issue” and said she had shown her proposed speech to her regional director in a bid to secure a speaking slot.
She said she wanted to persuade her party to admit that while ESA had been “a good theory that not many disabled people disagreed with, it is not actually working in practice”.
And she warned that disabled people were “getting angrier by the day” over the issue of the WCA and incapacity benefit reform.
Stephen Timms, the shadow work and pensions secretary, told Disability News Service that the party was “very open to discussing it, very open”.
And Margaret Curran, the shadow disabled people’s minister, said there was “absolutely not” any plan to marginalise the issue at the conference, and added: “If there is, they have not told me.”
But Pam Thomas, a disabled Labour member of Liverpool City Council, said the test needed to be scrapped and replaced.
She said: “We may not all agree on many things just because we are disabled people but this is the one thing that probably unites us. The test is causing an awful lot of stress to people who can’t work.
“We have campaigned for the right to work. I feel that even though I have always worked and have been a disabled person, if I cannot work anymore I will be really stuck. I would have liked that to be debated.”
A Labour spokesman said: “Labour’s annual conference discussed welfare, public services and jobs on conference floor, and fringe events covered individual issues in detail.
“Unfortunately it is not possible to cover every issue in five days or for every speaker to be called in debate, so those motions which will be heard are selected by the delegates’ vote on the priorities ballot and speakers are called at the discretion of the chair.”
But when asked again whether the party deliberately sidelined discussion of the WCA issue, he declined to comment further.
29 September 2011