Minister’s letter on work test figures was ‘unsatisfactory’, says Dame Anne


An influential disabled MP has heavily criticised the government’s “unsatisfactory” response to concerns about the way it uses statistics on its controversial “fitness to work” tests.

Dame Anne Begg, the Labour chair of the Commons work and pensions committee, wrote to employment minister Chris Grayling in July.

She told the Conservative minister that her committee believed the government needed to take more care with the language it uses when publishing statistics on claimants of employment and support allowance (ESA) and the number of disabled people found “fit to work” after being put through the controversial work capability assessment (WCA).

Her letter also called on Grayling to contact newspaper editors “to ensure that the reports they carry about ESA claims are factually correct and that they avoid pejorative terms such as ‘shirkers’ and ‘scroungers’ which are irresponsible and inaccurate”.

With Grayling on holiday, the letter was answered by Liberal Democrat pensions minister Steve Webb.

But Dame Anne told Disability News Service this week that Webb’s letter failed to address the committee’s criticisms of the government’s language and its presentation of the statistics, or the call to contact newspaper editors.

She said she was disappointed at Webb’s failure to address those two key concerns and said his letter was “not satisfactory”.

She also said that the letter did not reassure her about the messages the government was passing to journalists in press conferences and private briefings on ESA claims.

She added: “It is a very short letter and was overly dismissive. I get the feeling that when you speak to the ministers sometimes they are shrugging their shoulders [as if saying], ‘what can we do?’”

She said she would be discussing her concerns about the letter with the work and pensions committee when parliament returns from recess next month.

Last week, Dame Anne’s concerns were backed by the UK’s official statistics watchdog, which also called on the government to improve the way it publishes information about ESA claimants.

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said he was “not going to get into detailed discussion on the correspondence itself as Dame Anne Begg wrote to Steve and he has responded”.

But he said the government was “absolutely committed to supporting all those who have the potential to work to realise that potential, and help them make the journey back to employment”.

He added: “We very consciously do not use the language of ‘scroungers’ and ‘workshy’ as it’s clear that the system itself has trapped many people in a spiral of welfare dependency.

“That’s why this government is making such a radical overhaul of the benefits system to ensure that everyone who needs help and support receives it.”

25 August 2011