Labour poverty taskforce set to target ‘fitness for work’ test


theweeksubThe prospect of Labour calling for the hated “fitness for work” test to be scrapped and for a more “humane” way of assessing entitlement to benefits has moved a step closer, with its appointment of a new disability poverty taskforce. 

Six leading disability experts have been asked by Labour to find ways to “break the link between disability and poverty”.

Their report will feed into an ongoing review of the party’s disability policies, which has been taking evidence from disabled people across the country.

The taskforce will be led by Sir Bert Massie, former chair of the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) and a Labour party member, who hand-picked his five colleagues.

He said they would need to find more “humane” ways to support disabled people than the “nightmare” of the government’s “unprecedented assault”, which had “left millions of disabled people facing greater poverty”.

Sir Bert said they would need to look at the “squeeze points that are making life more difficult for disabled people”, such as the new “bedroom tax”, and the work capability assessment (WCA) – introduced by Labour but enthusiastically embraced by the coalition – which was “driving a lot of people into poverty”.

He said: “If you keep on cutting the way the government is doing, you will end up having higher expenditure in the long term.

“It could be that better support for disabled people could be better for the exchequer in the long term.”

Sir Bert said the taskforce would need to look at the lower incomes of disabled people, but also at the disability-related expenses they faced.

He suggested they could focus on devising a new single benefit that could cover the extra costs faced by disabled people – a disability costs allowance – which might replace the new personal independence payment, access to work payments and the extra costs element of employment and support allowance (ESA).

He said that replacing the WCA “has to be part of the focus”, and that a replacement would need to re-define those disabled people who are unable to work, but in a way that was very different from the WCA, which was “medical”, expensive, “crude” and “tells you nothing”.

Only last week, Labour leader Ed Miliband committed Labour to a cap on social security spending, but also to major reform of the WCA, and better support for disabled people to find jobs.

Sir Bert said that to support disabled people into work “you need a real assessment of your employability” and then the right support, but he said there should also be an examination of the barriers that stop people working, including discrimination.

He said: “If you are going to eliminate discrimination in the workplace, reducing the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) from a potentially powerful organisation to a weakly shadow is not the way to do it.

“The government is saying we expect you to jump over this barrier but we will cut your legs off and tie you down and put a tarpaulin over you. That’s not the way to get you over the barrier.”

He added: “This is what is so offensive about the talk of disabled ‘scroungers’. It is a tough world out there for everybody. It is particularly tough for disabled people.”

But he warned that there was no “pot of gold” to spend on disabled people if Labour won the next election, so the taskforce would also need to address the “waste and inefficiency” in the current system.

“You have to cut some things. Where is the waste and inefficiency, what could we do better? Rather than spending money on ESA for 10 or 20 years, maybe it would be better to spend it on mental health services.”

He also warned that there would be disabled people who would not qualify for a new disability costs allowance, which would probably mean a shift away from those with lower support needs.

He said: “Whatever the criteria is, there will be an assessment, there will be people who will have an impairment who do not qualify, and that is the reality in the future.”

Sir Bert said he approached his new role “with trepidation. It is not going to be easy. It is not going to be possible to meet everyone’s expectations.”

But he said it was an opportunity for some fresh thinking, in contrast to the stale political consensus that has built up around disability and poverty.

He said: “I think a lot has slipped under the net without much examination, and all we can do is see whether we can bring a different perspective and offer another way of doing it.”

The other members of the taskforce are the disabled activist Kaliya Franklin; the former Labour MP and economics lecturer Dr Roger Berry; Agnes Fletcher, an equality consultant and former government adviser; Neil Crowther, the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s former director of human rights; and Ian Greaves, editor of the Disability Rights Handbook.

None of the six are being paid, and Sir Bert said the taskforce would be run “on a shoestring”, and with the intention of completing its work by the end of this year.

He warned that they would not have the resources to put their conclusions out to consultation, run public evidence sessions, or accept input from disabled campaigners, although there would inevitably be a lengthy debate after the report was published.

Although the taskforce has been widely welcomed, there have been concerns about its make-up.

Four members – Sir Bert himself, Dr Berry, Fletcher and Greaves – have direct links to Disability Rights UK (DR UK), or RADAR, one of its predecessor organisations, while Crowther is close to DR UK’s chief executive Liz Sayce and has carried out pro bono work for DR UK. Franklin is the only member with no links to DR UK.

There are also concerns that there are no representatives from the black and minority ethnic community.

Jaspal Dhani, chief executive of UK Disabled People’s Council, said the taskforce was “a really positive move”, but added: “In terms of the representation, I hope Labour will review the make-up of the taskforce and look at a wider representation.

“It would be a concern for me that the names here are very highly linked to DR UK and there is a narrow representation of diversity.”

Sir Bert – who worked with Fletcher and Crowther at the DRC – said he hadn’t thought of the RADAR/DR UK connection.

He said the lack of BME representation was “absolutely an issue” but that it was a small group and he had chosen people “who could help to get the report out quickly”, while “disability benefits by and large aren’t connected to race”.

Anne McGuire, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people and the driving force behind the taskforce, said: “I wanted something led by disabled people and I wanted an independent group to give an honest appraisal, but also to recognize the [financial]constraints that we will face.

“None of these people can be said to be anything other than independent-minded.”

She said the make-up and diversity of the group was not a concern, and added: “We have established a group and done it on the recommendation of Bert in a way that is challenging to us but will come up with some good ideas.”

Sayce, who said Greaves was the only taskforce member actually employed by DR UK, said her organisation had “huge expertise and knowledge on how to break the link between disability and poverty, with expertise in skills and education, employment and the benefits system”.

She said DR UK was “keen to put that at the disposal of all the main political parties. We feed into the government’s plans and the opposition’s plans.”

13 June 2013