The Conservative party has refused to say if controversial proposals to cut the out-of-work disability benefits of people with obesity or addictions if they refuse treatment could also be applied to those with mental health conditions or other impairments.
The prime minister, David Cameron, has asked Dame Carol Black to carry out a “rapid review” of people claiming sickness benefits – employment and support allowance (ESA) or old-style incapacity benefit (IB) – “for conditions such as drug addiction, alcohol addiction or obesity… treatable conditions”.
Cameron said: “We want to work out how the benefit system can be used to incentivise positive changes in their lives – not just keep them stuck in bad old habits.
“And yes, that means looking at whether people should face the threat of a reduction in benefits if they refuse to engage with a recommended treatment plan.”
But despite repeated attempts to clarify the position by Disability News Service, the Conservative party has so far refused to release the terms of reference for Dame Carol’s review, or to say if it would look at conditions other than drug and alcohol addiction and obesity.
The review is due to report back in July, but a party spokesman said it would only take place if the Conservatives regain power at May’s general election and Cameron remains as prime minister.
The spokesman said the review would be “looking particularly at addiction and obesity”, and he added: “What she has agreed to do is have a review of the best way of ensuring people with treatable conditions are not parked on benefits, but incentivised to recover.”
Cameron’s proposals drew a furious response from many politicians and campaigners, including Dr Sarah Wollaston, herself a Conservative MP and chair of the Commons health select committee, and a former GP.
She said, in a series of tweets, that sanctions linked to medical treatment were “unethical”.
Wollaston has written an “urgent” letter to the prime minister, telling him, according to one tweet: “We absolutely cannot implement coercive consent to treatment because that is NOT consent to treatment!”
She added: “#consentmatters because treatments imposed without ethical consent are more likely to fail.”
She also said: “Remember Alan Turing. His horrific treatment which led to his suicide was an example of coerced consent #consentmatters.”
And she warned: “First coerced consent would come for drug addicts, alcohol dependants & the obese but who next? #consentmatters.”
The Conservative party spokesman said that Wollaston “has her own view”, and added: “You will have to ask Sarah Wollaston why she thinks these things.”
He added: “We have announced a review, we have not announced a policy.”
So far, Dame Carol has failed to respond to a request for a comment, and for clarification on the terms of reference for her review.
Meanwhile, new Department for Work and Pensions figures show that a record number of benefit sanctions were handed to ESA claimants in September 2014.
There were 3,828 ESA claimants sanctioned in September 2014, compared with 3,096 the previous month, and a previous high of 3,810 in March 2014.
Other new DWP figures show that the total number of ESA and IB claimants has continued to increase and has now risen back over 2.5 million (2,508,080), only about 100,000 below the figure the coalition inherited when it won power in May 2010 (2,613,100), pledging to force hundreds of thousands of people off out-of-work disability benefits.
In August 2014, there were 2,508,000 claimants, compared with 2,470,210 in the previous quarter, May 2014, and 2,459,300 in February 2014.