In an interview at the Conservative party conference in Manchester, Esther McVey said that the work capability assessment – which tests eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits – could be replaced if there was proof that it had fallen below a certain standard.
Although she said that any decision would have to be taken by the employment minister, Mark Hoban, McVey said there had been “many changes trying to bring it up to speed” since it was introduced by Labour in 2008.
She added: “What you are right about is it does have to be closely monitored… and should that fall below a certain standard that you feel we have tried all these enhancements… then those decisions would be made by Mark Hoban and the secretary of state [Iain Duncan Smith].”
McVey also said that she “would not disagree with any of that” when DNS said that campaigners had spoken of some people killing themselves, and about hundreds or even thousands of people who had died sooner than they should have done, or had a much lower quality of life over their last few weeks or months because of their experience of the WCA.
When asked whether she believed that some lives had been lost as a result of the WCA, she said: “I don’t know the difference between what would have happened otherwise, so I don’t know that, but we have got to make sure it’s right.
“It has to support the people in the correct way to make sure that works for the individual and that’s right for government. We don’t want or need or should have a process that doesn’t work.”
Asked if she would rule out scrapping the WCA, if there was proof that it was causing enough damage, she said: “Of course you wouldn’t [rule it out]. What I would say is you have got to make sure it works for the individual, for people getting into work, and that’s what we are trying to do.”
In her first in-depth interview with DNS since she took on the post in September 2012, McVey also said she was “open to suggestions” about a possible move to a single disability assessment, to replace the many tests disabled people currently have to undergo for their support.
Labour have signalled that they favour moving towards a single assessment for all disabled people’s support needs, while the Liberal Democrats are moving in a similar direction.
But McVey warned that some disabled people have raised concerns that a single assessment would be longer and even more stressful than the WCA, and that it would be hard to secure the right people to carry out the test and provide support for claimants.
She said: “I am open to suggestions. I never come with a rigid viewpoint. I just want to hear what people think are the things that could go wrong with a joint assessment before you run along into it and say it’s good.”
She also mounted a fierce defence of her department’s decision not to carry out an assessment of the cumulative impact of the coalition’s welfare cuts and reforms on disabled people.
London Councils, which represents the capital’s local authorities, has decided to research the impact of three of the major reforms: universal credit, the “bedroom tax” and the benefit cap.
But McVey said that the Institute for Fiscal Studies had warned the figures provided by such research would not be “suitably robust”.
She said: “What you don’t want to do is come out with inaccurate information, so yes, people can attempt to do it, but if people are saying the information you have gathered will be incoherent and inconsistent, especially as [the reforms] are not all going to be in place by 2017… you have to monitor it another way.”
She said that instead of a cumulative assessment, she had decided to “measure it, monitor it, assess it and be prepared to change it. It’s just a different way of tracking it. Surely that makes sense.”
McVey also said that she had “absolutely no concerns” that when Atos Healthcare submitted a tender for the £184 million contract to assess PIP claimants in London and the south of England, it stated that it would have a network of 740 assessment sites, but since winning the contract has secured only 96.
She said she was not concerned that the National Audit Office was now carrying out a major review of PIP, and its implementation, including investigating concerns over the award of the Atos contract.
She said: “Of course you have got to check that it is value for money, it is correct.
“They’ve been asked to do it, they want to do it, they do it, that’s fine. We do it, they do it… that’s what happens when you live in a democracy. Other people are looking at it and observing it, that’s fine.”
She added: “I don’t have a problem at all that other people are looking at it because we are constantly looking at it and ensuring that the right number of people are going for the right assessment, so my concern is with the individual who is going through it as well.”
She said the new PIP assessment was “working well” and was being monitored “on a daily basis”.
McVey also hinted that she would be in favour of granting legal status to British Sign Language (BSL), following a unanimous vote in favour of the idea at last month’s Liberal Democrat conference.
She said: “I think we are on a journey and you might say it is a slow journey but I believe we are going in the right direction.”
But she said she was concerned that granting BSL legal status could lead to greater isolation from mainstream society for BSL-users rather than “a bigger engagement”, so there would have to be a “debate” about that issue.
2 October 2013