Conservative conference: Four ministers evade questions on work test


Four Conservative ministers have evaded questions about the controversial work capability assessment (WCA), at their party’s annual conference.

Employment minister Chris Grayling, disabled people’s minister Maria Miller, welfare reform minister Lord Freud, and a special adviser for work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, all declined to discuss the subject with Disability News Service (DNS) this week.

Their reluctance to be questioned about the much-criticised “fitness for work” test follows the success of Liberal Democrat activists – including disabled members – in persuading their party to overturn its policy on the WCA and the employment and support allowance (ESA), the replacement for incapacity benefit, at their conference in Birmingham.

The following week, Labour chiefs ensured that disabled people’s concerns about the WCA – a test introduced by the Labour government – were not discussed on the platform at their conference in Liverpool.

This week, at the Conservative conference in Manchester, all four of the party’s work and pensions ministers declined opportunities to discuss the WCA.

First to refuse to comment was Lord Freud, who is attempting to steer the coalition’s welfare reform bill through the Lords, and was approached by DNS on the train to Manchester at the start of the week.

When asked why he did not want to be interviewed, he just said: “Unscripted. You know.”

The next day, Maria Miller, the minister for disabled people, also declined to discuss the WCA, as she said the issue was the responsibility of her ministerial colleague Chris Grayling.

But Miller did say the government was ensuring “careful scrutiny” of Atos, the company that carries out the assessments, and that it was “absolutely going to be our priority to make sure the assessments and the way they are undertaken are fair”.

Susie Squire, special adviser to work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, also declined to discuss the issue, even though she was named as the contact for “further information” on a party press release about Duncan Smith’s speech to the conference.

Finally, Esther McVey MP, the parliamentary private secretary to Chris Grayling, said she would ask the minister to call DNS “after he has had a coffee”. Grayling failed to make the call.

Meanwhile, the prime minister, David Cameron, made a heavily-spun reference to the WCA in his main conference speech, in which he claimed that 77 per cent of those assessed “are either able to work or stopped their claim before their medical assessment had been completed”.

But he failed to mention that the figures simply show how many people have been assessed as being “fit for work”, without mentioning that the tests themselves have been widely and heavily criticised as inaccurate and unfair.

Duncan Smith referred briefly to the WCA in his speech, but did not mention the huge concerns over its impact on tens of thousands of disabled people denied the benefits they need.

Grayling also made a short reference to the process of reassessing all those disabled people claiming old-style incapacity benefit, using the WCA, but again did not mention the problems with the test itself.

4 October 2011

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