A disabled Liberal Democrat MP has insisted that the government is “moving in the right direction” with its programme of welfare reforms.
Stephen Lloyd, a member of the Commons work and pensions committee, said he believed measures to improve the much-criticised “fitness for work” test were making the assessments “less blunt”.
Disabled activists have repeatedly warned of fundamental problems with the work capability assessment (WCA), pointing to links between the test and health relapses, episodes of self-harm and even suicides and other premature deaths, among those being assessed.
These concerns have been highlighted by the death of Colin Traynor, who had epilepsy, and whose case was raised in the Commons earlier this month by his MP, Michael Meacher.
Traynor’s parents told Meacher that they blamed their son’s death in April on the stress of being found “fit for work”. His family only learned that his appeal against being found fit for work had been successful five weeks after he died.
This month, the mental health charity Rethink published a survey which found that more than eight in ten GPs said they had patients who had developed mental health problems because of the WCA. And in June, the British Medical Association voted to “demand” an end to the WCA.
But Lloyd said the changes made to the test were ensuring many more disabled people were placed in the “support group” of employment and support allowance, for those with the highest support needs.
And he suggested that government figures due to be published this autumn would show that the number of successful appeals against being found fit for work was falling.
He told Disability News Service (DNS) that this would show that changes recommended by the independent reviews of the WCA by Professor Malcolm Harrington – and implemented by the Department for Work and Pensions – were working.
But he accepted that government statistics published this month, which showed that one in five of the decisions to find people “fit for work” by the government WCA contractor Atos Healthcare were later found to be wrong, were “shocking”.
He said he had challenged Chris Grayling – until this month the Conservative employment minister – on whether there was anything in the Atos contract with the government that was encouraging Atos assessors to find people “fit for work”, but said he had “flatly denied it”.
He added: “I still fundamentally believe we are going in the right direction. Harrington has made the WCA fairer. I am not going to get rid of Atos. That is not ever going to happen. I want Atos to be constantly watched closer.”
Despite his support for the government’s direction on welfare reform, Lloyd spoke in favour of a conference motion this week that demanded that any further cuts to welfare spending would not fall “disproportionately” on disabled people, and which called for an independent review of the Welfare Reform Act’s impact upon them.
Party members also demanded – with only one person voting against – a public consultation on the current assessment procedures for determining eligibility for disability benefits, including the WCA.
Lloyd told DNS that Iain Duncan Smith’s refusal to be moved from his post as work and pensions secretary was “very significant”, because if he had not stayed it “would have been that much easier for the Treasury to swing the axe” on welfare spending.
He said: “IDS staying means I think that he will fight tooth and nail to resist further cuts to welfare. The Liberal Democrats certainly will.”
He later told a fringe meeting organised by the Employment Related Services Association that he admired Duncan Smith, who he said had formerly belonged to the “demented, right-wing, Daily Mail wing” of the Conservative party but had had a “genuine epiphany” and was now “passionate about breaking benefit dependency”.
26 September 2012