Mark Hoban, the Conservative employment minister, met on Tuesday with three leading disabled campaigners, and the Labour MP Michael Meacher, to hear their concerns and suggestions for improvements to the now notorious work capability assessment (WCA).
Sue Marsh, the activist who led the delegation from the We Are Spartacus online network, said she had been pleased by the open approach of the minister and his three civil servants from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Marsh said: “I would say it was a fairly genuine and constructive meeting. We wanted to break down this oppositional, confrontational attitude.”
In preparation for the meeting, she had asked members of the Spartacus network what parts of the WCA most needed to change, and what they most wanted to say about the WCA to Hoban, and received more than 700 responses.
Among the suggestions she believes the minister responded to positively was to include more guidance for claimants in the application form for employment and support allowance (ESA).
Hoban also appeared to welcome the idea that many of the questions on physical activity should also ask whether that activity could be carried out “reliably, repeatedly and safely”, as with the assessment for the new personal independence payment.
Marsh said she was surprised at how receptive Hoban and his DWP colleagues had been to some of their suggestions.
In his blog on the meeting, Meacher said that other demands put to Hoban included the need for mental health champions in every assessment centre; that every assessment should be recorded; that assessment phase ESA payments must continue throughout the new mandatory reconsideration stage; and that new assessment centres must replace those that are still inaccessible.
Hoban was also told that being reassessed for ESA as little as three months after the previous assessment was “absurd”.
Both Meacher and Marsh also reported that Hoban had said that DWP’s current relationship with Atos was “not very good”, several weeks after DWP announced that there had been a reduction in the quality of written reports produced by Atos assessors.
This week’s meeting came six months after Hoban refused to meet with anyone from Spartacus, claiming that it would not be “a constructive dialogue”.
Marsh, who has published a detailed blog on the meeting, said: “I think it was an important step. Anything that breaks down this terrible adversarial situation we got ourselves into, with genuine engagement, has to be valuable, surely.”
But she added: “I am cynical about what will come out of it. I don’t sense a breakthrough. They are just as hard-line as they were.”
There had been concerns raised before the meeting by some of the other campaigning groups, who were worried that suggesting amendments to the WCA would make it harder to call for the test to be scrapped completely.
The groups all eventually decided that Marsh should make it clear that they wanted to abolish the WCA – agreeing with organisations like the British Medical Association that it should be replaced with “a rigorous and safe system that does not cause avoidable harm” – while also bringing some of the test’s most obvious flaws to the minister’s attention.
Marsh said: “I have always been of the opinion that any change is good and brings it closer to scrapping it, not further away.”
The assessment has caused mounting anger since its introduction by the previous Labour government in 2008, due to links with relapses, episodes of self-harm, and even suicides and other deaths, among those who have been assessed.
Hoban’s tentative agreement to consider any constructive and sensible plans for a replacement for WCA has now led to more than 20 user-led groups and disabled activists agreeing to work on an alternative to the test that they can put before the minister.
Marsh said: “It was so impressive how everyone came together and said they would work on an alternative.”
Black Triangle, Disabled People Against Cuts and the WOW petition said in a joint statement: “We are all going to work together and try and unite. We want to work wholeheartedly with everyone. We are going to put our back into it.”
Marsh also welcomed the publication of the latest British Social Attitudes Report, which found support for the view that benefits for unemployed people were “too high and discourage work” falling from 62 per cent in 2011 to 51 per cent in 2012.
It also reported a five percentage point increase since 2011 in the proportion of those believing that cutting benefits “would damage too many people’s lives”, with 47per cent now holding this view.
Marsh said it was absolutely crucial for campaigners to win over public opinion on the issue of welfare reform and cuts to benefits in the run-up to the next general election in 2015.
A DWP spokesman said he could not comment on what was a private meeting with Hoban, but added: “The WCA process remains the right way to assess people’s fitness for work and we have made considerable improvements to the system since 2010.
“However, we have always been clear that we are committed to a system of on-going improvements to ensure the assessment is as fair and as accurate as possible.”
Meanwhile, Bradford council was set today (Thursday) to launch an investigation into the impact of the WCA on disabled people in the city, after noting the concerns of campaigners and politicians who have called it “fundamentally flawed” and “dehumanising, stressful and humiliating”. A report is likely early next year.
12 September 2013