A leading disabled activist has called on the Labour leadership to move away from its “toxic” position on the “fitness for work” test and instead develop policies that support sick and disabled people into work.
The work capability assessment (WCA) was introduced by the Labour government in October 2008 but has come under increasing attack from campaigners who claim it is being used unfairly to force people off disability benefits.
Sue Marsh, an influential blogger and campaigner and a Labour party member, met at this week’s Labour conference in Manchester with the party’s shadow work and pensions secretary, Liam Byrne, and its shadow disabled people’s minister, Anne McGuire.
She had been trying to secure a meeting with Byrne – who has been heavily criticised for not speaking out on the government’s disablist rhetoric on welfare reform and on the unfairness of the test – for two years.
She said afterwards: “There is definitely a keenness to get out of the mess they are in [with the WCA]. I can’t say if they are going to listen, but I truly hope they are.”
Marsh said she believed the party was trying to move “incrementally” away from “a policy that they know is very toxic”, and which “can either sit in their lap in 2015 or it can sit in the Tories’ lap”.
And she encouraged disabled people to engage with the year-long review of the party’s disability policies that Byrne and McGuire are carrying out, which includes a series of round-table discussions across the country with disabled people.
Marsh has been pushing for her party to adopt a more positive, supportive policy towards sick and disabled people on out-of-work disability benefits.
She wants the government to use the money it wastes on the “abysmal” assessment system – designed to force one million disabled people off incapacity benefits – and use it instead to make the system more “kind, compassionate, helpful and enabling”.
She said she wants Labour to focus on “broadening the opportunity, not tightening the gateway”.
Last year, Marsh received more than 250 responses to a consultation, carried out through her blog, which asked disabled people what work they could and would do if there was a “listening government”.
Now she wants the party to work these ideas into its next work and pensions manifesto.
Key suggestions include measures to make the benefits system more open to long-term sick and disabled people to run “micro-businesses”, providing them with the opportunity to work flexibly for as many or as few hours as they could manage. At present, said Marsh, if she earned more than £20 a week she would lose £500 every month in benefits.
Another suggestion from the consultation was to encourage big companies to do more to provide flexible work hours for their disabled employees and allow them to work from home.
And instead of giving hundreds of millions of pounds every year to Atos – which carries out the WCA for the government – this money could be used to provide training budgets for disabled people who have had to stop work, or even to pay part of their salary while they are too sick to do their job.
4 October 2012