The Conservative minister Mark Hoban had been told to come to the House of Commons to explain why he refused to meet members of the Spartacus network of disabled campaigners to discuss the much-criticised “fitness for work” test.
But Hoban’s plane was delayed in Glasgow, so his explanation was delivered instead by his party colleague, Esther McVey, the minister for disabled people.
The veteran Labour MP Michael Meacher had secured a short “adjournment debate” in the Commons to discuss Hoban’s refusal to meet the delegation of activists – including two leading members of Spartacus – who wanted to raise continuing concerns over the work capability assessment (WCA).
Meacher told MPs how the minister announced that he was too busy to meet the delegation, so he had approached Hoban in the Commons lobby, to be told repeatedly: “I’m not seeing you,” before adding, and repeating: “I’m not seeing Spartacus.”
Meacher said such a ministerial refusal was “unprecedented” in his 40 years in parliament.
He said Spartacus’s campaigning research was “evidence-based”, had “never been challenged on accuracy” and “aims always to provide a calm, credible and plausible response to the government’s proposals”.
The Spartacus research has been quoted in parliamentary debates, and by both the Commons work and pensions committee and the joint committee on human rights.
Meacher said he found it “inconceivable” that a minister would refuse to meet a group with such a “very powerful case to make” that was supported by hundreds of thousands of sick and disabled people.
He praised the two Spartacus members who were due to join the delegation – Kaliya Franklin and Sue Marsh – both of whom had previously met work and pensions ministers.
Franklin, he said, had had “fruitful”, “productive” and “courteous” discussions with work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith and with McVey herself, while Marsh had frequently debated with ministers.
He said Spartacus set out to “engage with politicians” and for Hoban to deny this engagement was “bizarre”.
He said it was “tragic” that they were discussing the make-up of a delegation rather than “dealing with the real issue that hundreds of thousands of disabled people are being subjected to real hardship, suffering and fear because of the way they have been bitterly mistreated.”
McVey claimed the government was “always open to constructive stakeholder engagement”, while she said Hoban had “engaged with organisations that have been critical of the department”, but “didn’t necessarily feel that it was going to be a constructive dialogue” with Spartacus.
She said Hoban blamed a foreword to one of the Spartacus reports, which it later emerged was written by Professor Peter Beresford, a highly respected disabled activist and academic.
Beresford had compared the WCA to “the medical tribunals that returned shell shocked and badly wounded soldiers to duty in the first world war or the ‘KV-machine’, the medical commission the Nazis used in the second world war to play down wounds so that soldiers could be reclassified ‘fit for the Eastern front’”.
The Labour MP John McDonnell told McVey that he had “never heard such a feeble excuse from a minister” for refusing to meet disabled people.
The disabled campaigner Jane Young (@theyoungjane) tweeted afterwards that McVey had tried to “trash our reputation by quoting a paragraph from a foreword by Prof Peter Beresford OBE”, who she said was not even part of Spartacus.
Another disabled activist, David Gillon (@WTBDavidG), described the minister’s explanation as “extraordinary”, while @Epipsychidion866h tweeted: “The utter chutzpah of the *DWP* complaining about being demonized by disabled people’s organizations. I literally have no words.”
Franklin herself (@bendygirl) tweeted that she was upset that McVey – her own constituency MP – had implied that she was “not constructive”, and also wrote that she had earlier found a letter written by McVey in which she thanks her for a “constructive meeting”.
Sue Marsh tweeted that she was “shocked” by McVey’s excuses – on behalf of Hoban – which were “absolutely ludicrous” because Spartacus had “never done anything BUT positive and constructive debate”.
21 March 2013