Plaid Cymru and the Green party – and a key figure in the SNP – have backed a call from disabled campaigners and carers for an “emergency ceasefire” on major parts of the government’s “fitness for work” regime.
They say it is unfair to “continue to threaten sick and disabled people” while politicians are still struggling with “deep problems” with employment and support allowance (ESA), the out-of-work disability benefit, and the work capability assessment (WCA), the test that decides eligibility for ESA.
They are calling for key measures brought in under the coalition and the last Labour government to be frozen as a “holding measure to give sick and disabled people a safe place to wait”, while providing “a safe space for debate”.
The Emergency Call for Ceasefire in Welfare Reforms campaign has been backed by the Green party, Plaid Cymru and Christina McKelvie, an SNP MSP and a member of the Scottish parliament’s welfare reform committee.
McKelvie has submitted a motion backing the emergency ceasefire campaign to the Scottish parliament, and has asked her fellow MSPs to sign it.
Among the measures the campaign wants to see suspended are the use of sanctions to punish ESA claimants, the one-year time limit for claimants of the contributory version of ESA, means-testing for ESA claimants, and WCAs used repeatedly to re-test ESA claimants.
They also want the next government to call a halt to ESA claimants being subject to the bedroom tax, and for an end to the use of sanctions on the Work Programme, and for it to be transformed into a voluntary programme.
The campaign has come from two groups, Pat’s Petition and CarerWatch, with backing from a string of campaigning organisations, including New Approach, Black Triangle, Spartacus, Disability Rights UK, Disability Wales, the Centre for Welfare Reform and WOWcampaign, and leading disabled campaigners such as Professor Peter Beresford, Mo Stewart, Catherine Hale and Samuel Miller.
Pat Onions (pictured), founder of Pat’s Petition, said the ceasefire was “something that all campaigners can agree on – it doesn’t prejudice the long-term solutions that different people are arguing for – it just makes a safe time and space for the real discussion”.
She said: “We think that would allow all sick and disabled people to take a deep breath and relax.
“It would give the time and space for the much-needed, wide-ranging debate on how sick and disabled people relate to the labour market and how the competitive labour market relates to them.
“If the Work Programme becomes voluntary for sick and disabled people, then there will be the opportunity for sick and disabled people who want to take part to discover what works and what doesn’t work.
“The whole social experiment can continue with sick and disabled people, and not against disabled people. And everyone will have the time and space to think again.”
She added: “The whole programme was initiated under a Labour government with full Tory support and continued by the coalition with Labour support.
“This agreement by the two main parties has meant that there has been no real opposition and no real debate.”
Although the campaign organisers do not expect support from either a Conservative or Labour majority government, their hope is that – in the likely event of a coalition government after May’s general election – smaller coalition partners “will make this a red line and speak up for us”.
Jonathan Bartley, the Green party’s work and pensions spokesman, said: “Sick and disabled people are suffering every day, caught up in the disaster which is the failed ESA.
“ESA is a disgrace, with harsh, inaccurate fitness-for-work assessments that are frequently overturned on appeal.”
He said that disabled claimants also suffer because of “huge delays” in being assessed for personal independence payment, the replacement for working-age disability living allowance.
Bartley called for a “progressive alliance” to “combat the growing hostility from the traditional political parties against those claiming benefits”.
He said: “None of the traditional parties are standing up for those in receipt of welfare. Instead they have become a target.
“It is now clear that both Labour and Conservatives are making those who had nothing to do with the financial crisis pay the highest price in its aftermath.”
He added: “There should be an immediate end to the targeting of those in receipt of welfare.”