Labour squashes hope of u-turn on ‘fitness for work’ test


Key Labour figures have squashed hopes that the party might call for the controversial “fitness for work” test to be scrapped, despite GPs demanding that it “end with immediate effect”.

GPs at a British Medical Association (BMA) conference voted unanimously last week for the work capability assessment (WCA) to be replaced with a “rigorous and safe system that does not cause avoidable harm” to their patients.

But senior Labour politicians have this week made it clear that they do not agree with the GPs.

The assessment – which tests eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits – was introduced by the Labour government in 2008, and is now a centrepiece of the coalition’s welfare reforms.

But there is mounting evidence that the WCA fails to test accurately disabled people’s ability to work, and has even contributed to or caused the deaths of some of those who have been assessed.

Stephen Timms, Labour’s shadow employment minister, told Disability News Service that the test should be “reformed” rather than scrapped.

He said: “I can well understand why the doctors feel very, very strongly about this but what their motion says is not a practical proposition because the job still has to be done. But they are absolutely right: this system has to be fixed.”

Timms said it was not “practical” to scrap the WCA without considering how to decide “who receives benefits and who doesn’t”.

And he said there were “very clear proposals” on the table to improve how people with mental health and fluctuating conditions were assessed through the WCA, but the government was “sitting on its hands” and refusing to introduce them.

Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP who chairs the Commons work and pensions committee, raised similar concerns about scrapping the WCA.

She said there was “clearly a knock-on effect” on both the costs faced by the government and the health of disabled people put through the assessment process.

But she said problems were caused not simply by the test itself, but also by the stress caused to large numbers of people on old-style incapacity benefit who were now being reassessed.

She said: “I am not 100 per cent sure that a different assessment would not be causing a lot of the stresses and strains that have been caused by the WCA.”

The motion passed at the GPs’ conference said that the computer-based WCA had “little regard to the nature or complexity of the needs of long term sick and disabled persons”.

31 May 2012