A Liberal Democrat minister has joined other influential party figures in cautiously backing efforts by user-led campaign groups to design a replacement for the government’s hated “fitness for work” test.
Disabled activists from various user-led organisations announced last week that they were going to work together to design an alternative to the work capability assessment (WCA), following a meeting with Mark Hoban, the Conservative employment minister.
But now Steve Webb, the pensions minister and the only Liberal Democrat MP in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), said he believed the government should look at any “alternative models” to the WCA.
He told Disability News Service (DNS) there had to be a test to assess eligibility for out-of-work sickness and disability benefits, and it needed “to be seen to be fair”.
He accepted that the WCA was still flawed, and added: “We wouldn’t have had an annual review process if we didn’t think it needed to be looked at.”
Webb said that any improved test had to be able to be applied across the country, but he warned: “If there was a quick fix that would satisfy people we would probably have done it already.
“People like Malcolm Harrington [the government’s independent reviewer of the WCA until this year]have looked at it for years, and have recommended incremental [changes]but have not found a silver bullet.
“It’s going to be tough, but we should certainly look at alternative models if people can come up with them.”
Lord German, the Liberal Democrat work and pensions spokesman in the Lords, told DNS that he also would not rule out the idea of replacing the WCA, although he was “a bit sceptical”.
He said Harrington himself had never suggested the WCA should be abolished. “His belief was that it was all about the process, the manner in which it was carried out and executed.
“Let’s just wait and see what the evidence is to have [a replacement test]as the changed approach to the one I am suggesting, or rather that many of the people who have talked to me have suggested, which is the preferred approach.”
Lord German said he believed the focus should be on “empowering” the DWP officials who make decisions on eligibility for employment and support allowance after receiving recommendations from Atos Healthcare assessors.
He said these DWP decision-makers should be able to “make judgments based upon the information they have got and haven’t got and go back to [Atos] and say, ‘I want this, I want that, I want more evidence of this.’”
He said that because of the flaws in the assessment process, many people were advised to “not do very much” in preparation for their WCA, but “to do more on appeal because you get more of a hearing”.
He said: “Who would want a system where the appeal could give you more of a hearing than the original assessment? This sounds bizarre to me.”
The disabled Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Lloyd was more supportive, and said: “I would welcome sight of [the test being drawn up by the user-led groups].
“If it’s a serious attempt by people who know the score, putting something together, then that is something that I would encourage the government to look at.”
It also drew support from the Liberal Democrat Disability Association (LDDA).
George Potter, the LDDA’s policy lead, said: “I wholeheartedly support that, absolutely.
“If they could come up with a workable alternative, regardless of whether Mark Hoban accepts it, it is certainly something I would push very strongly for the party to accept as party policy.”
18 September 2013