Two government departments are at the centre of a growing row over claims a minister ignored the advice of his own independent reviewer so he could begin the reassessment of 1.6 million incapacity benefit (IB) claimants.
Professor Malcolm Harrington says he told Chris Grayling in the summer of 2010 that the controversial “fitness for work” test was not ready to be rolled out.
But he says that Grayling – at the time the minister of state for employment – ignored his advice and gave the go-ahead for the reassessment process to begin in February 2011, even earlier than originally planned.
That decision, say activists, led to anxiety and despair for hundreds of thousands of disabled benefit claimants, many of whom were found unfairly fit for work through the use of the work capability assessment (WCA), which tests eligibility for employment and support allowance.
The early rollout of an unfit test is also believed to have caused untold health relapses and cases of self-harm.
Grayling insisted to MPs last year that Harrington gave his blessing for the rollout to begin, claiming that he told him: “I believe the system is in sufficient shape for you to proceed with incapacity benefit reassessment.”
This week, Grayling’s former department, work and pensions, appeared to be rebuffed by his current department, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), as civil servants scrabbled to clarify what advice he was given by Harrington in 2010.
A DWP spokesman told Disability News Service (DNS) that they could not find any record of the conversation between Grayling and Harrington, and so had contacted the MoJ press office.
The DWP spokesman said: “We both decided among ourselves that it was one for us to answer. The upshot was we were going to be dealing with it because it was our media inquiry.”
But when asked whether the MoJ press office had asked Grayling about his conversation with Harrington, the DWP spokesman said: “I don’t know.”
When DNS approached the MoJ press office, a spokesman said: “Chris stands by what he said to parliament.”
The MoJ spokesman denied that Grayling was therefore accusing Harrington of not telling the truth.
But he then admitted that he had not asked Grayling about the meeting with Harrington in the summer of 2010, or if he remembered the conversation about the rollout of the assessment process.
The spokesman said: “The accusation that was put to me was that Chris had misled parliament with this statement. All I asked him was, ‘this is the accusation, do you stand by what was said to the House?”
He has now agreed to ask Grayling about the meeting with Harrington.
As a result of the growing row – first sparked by the publication of an email conversation between Harrington and disabled campaigner and blogger Sue Marsh – Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, Kate Green, has called for answers.
She said: “I just don’t know what was and wasn’t said but if there is doubt about whether Grayling took Harrington’s advice or not, and doubt about whether he misled parliament and misrepresented Harrington’s advice, we are entitled to get to the bottom of that.
“They commissioned Professor Harrington, they wanted his expertise. To disregard that advice is in my view pretty cavalier if you haven’t got a good reason for doing so.
“If you commission expert advice and you decide not to take it, you have to have clear and transparent reasons not to do so.
“The WCA has been absolutely disastrous in terms of its execution over the last three years. If there were warning signs that it wasn’t in a state to be rolled out to thousands of quite vulnerable clients – in some cases – I think that is disgraceful.
“If there were clear warnings that the assessment was not fit for purpose and should not be rolled out, to disregard that advice is disgraceful.”
Marsh said it appeared, “as things stand”, that Grayling misled parliament.
She added: “The coalition brought Professor Harrington in to advise them on employment and support allowance and work capability assessments.
“If he advised that the tests were ‘inhumane and mechanistic’, recommending that the national rollout should be postponed for a year, and they ignored that advice, then this is a very serious allegation.
“Chris Grayling needs to clarify immediately whether or not Harrington did indeed advise him to pause.”
19 December 2013