Liam Byrne, and his leader, Ed Miliband, have been criticised by disabled campaigners over the last two years for mirroring some of the hostile rhetoric that has come from sections of the media and the coalition.
Some activists saw an improvement in tone and content at last year’s Labour conference, although Miliband again used his main conference speech to suggest that many disabled benefit claimants were choosing a life on social security rather than finding jobs.
This week, Byrne said the government’s social security reforms were in “crisis”, and that a future Labour government would aim to “bring costs down and keep the system affordable for the long term” and reform the much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA).
He delivered the speech at the headquarters of Chance UK, a charity which provides mentoring programmes for young children with behavioural difficulties.
Byrne repeated his party’s backing for a long-term cap on “structural” social security spending – benefits expenditure that is not caused by short-term fluctuations in the economy – an idea now adopted by the coalition.
He said the “welfare revolution” promised by the Conservative work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith had “collapsed because of a failure in basic delivery”, and he pointed to Duncan Smith’s “failing” Work Programme, the “incompetence and cruelty” of the “bedroom tax”, and the implementation of universal credit, which he said had been a “disaster”.
But Byrne also devoted a large chunk of his speech to incapacity benefit reform.
He criticised the government for rolling out the WCA – which tests eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits and was “pioneered” by the last Labour government – before it was “fit for purpose and ready to fly”.
He spoke of the “human misery” caused by the WCA, with the cost of tribunals increasing by two-fifths last year, but he saved most of his criticism for Atos Healthcare, the company chosen by Labour to carry out the assessments.
Byrne said Atos must be forced to improve the accuracy of its assessments, clear the heavy backlog of tests, and “radically” change the culture of its assessment centres.
He added: “They should be given weeks to get back on track. And if they cannot deliver, the process should start to get them sacked and replaced – without disruption to tests.”
But Jane Young, an independent consultant and coordinator of the We Are Spartacus online network of disabled campaigners, said Byrne’s speech showed some “worrying gaps in his understanding”, even though he has “some good ideas to support disabled people”.
She said Byrne appeared to be ignoring the “rampant discrimination” faced by disabled people in the job market.
She said: “The labour market needs proper reform, so that disabled people can get and keep meaningful, long-term employment.”
Young said Byrne did not seem to understand that ESA “should be a sickness benefit, for those who are too sick to work – not for those who are ‘disabled-and-well’.
“The way to reform ESA is not to bash Atos – although they do need to do better – but to reform the basis of the benefit – the descriptors, the statistical norms and the assessment process – so that it correctly identifies and supports those who are too sick to work.”
The Conservative party dismissed Byrne’s speech as a “last ditch attempt” to keep his job in the shadow cabinet.
A party spokesman said: “Same old Labour is in the wrong place on welfare. They want people on benefits to make more money than the average hard-working family earns. They want unlimited amounts of benefits to be a basic human right.
“Labour have even gone as far as to ban the word ‘welfare’ in the hopes we all forget they are The Welfare Party. The taxpayer supports what we’re doing on welfare. Ed Miliband has got it wrong yet again.”
22 August 2013