A government minister has been accused by fellow MPs of helping to stigmatise disabled people caught up in the programme to reassess long-term claimants of incapacity benefit (IB).
But Chris Grayling, the Conservative employment minister, blamed the tabloid press – and not himself and his ministerial colleagues – for whipping up hostility towards disabled benefits claimants.
He claimed that he and fellow ministers had done everything they could to “stop the rumour mill”.
Grayling was giving evidence during the final session of an inquiry by the Commons work and pensions committee into the government’s programme to reassess the remaining 1.5 million people on old-style IB.
Labour MP Glenda Jackson told Grayling that the government’s “whole thrust” when it announced the first report from pilot projects of the reassessment programme in Aberdeen and Burnley was that “the majority of people in those schemes were fit and capable for work”.
She said that many disabled people – including those who took part in the Hardest Hit protest in London – clearly regarded the government’s programme as “some kind of punitive action”.
Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP who chairs the committee, said that a phrase in a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) press release detailing initial statistics from the Burnley and Aberdeen trials stated that 70 per cent of people on IB “could work”, which allowed the tabloids and other media to run stories saying that “all these people could be working and therefore they must be workshy”.
She said this had “stigmatised” disabled people who had been told they might be able to work in the future, by suggesting they were fit for work now and were “just trying to avoid work”.
Grayling told the committee that he would “have to check back on the original wording” of the press release, but claimed he had always stressed the difference between those immediately fit for work and those who might be able to do so in the future.
He said he had had a number of discussions with “a number of media outlets” about “the need to be careful about how the issue is presented” and would carry on doing so.
Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Lloyd said he had “real concerns” with the government’s “shocking” failure to communicate the purpose of the reassessment programme and said there had been examples of government ministers using “inappropriate language”.
He said the government had “completely failed” to get the message across to the media that the reassessment programme was a “once in three lifetimes opportunity” to “transform the lives of many disabled people”.
But Grayling said he would “challenge anybody on the committee” to find any quote in which he or work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith had used inappropriate language.
He said he had “not used the language of scroungers” and had been criticised by the tabloids for not doing so.
Grayling said he and other DWP ministers had made a “very determined effort” to promote the message that the reassessment programme was designed to identify the large number of people on IB who had the potential to get back into work, that there would be support available through the new Work Programme and that there were no “financial targets” attached to the reassessment programme.
But he said that ministers did not control “the editorial tone of the newspapers”.
8 June 2011