Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary has attacked the “totally unacceptable” number of disabled people who return to work after being found not fit for work by the government’s assessment system.
In a major policy speech, Jonathan Ashworth (pictured) said that only one in 25 of those in the support group of employment and support allowance (ESA) return to work every year, which was “a monumental waste of the talents of the British people”.
But he also appeared to blame those in the ESA support group for this “huge economic cost” which “undermines economic growth” and “leaves the taxpayer with an increased health-related benefit bill”.
This echoes comments made by Conservative and Labour politicians that repeatedly scapegoated disabled claimants for the country’s economic problems in the post-2010 austerity years.
There was no mention by Ashworth of the links between back-to-work pressure placed on disabled people by DWP over the last decade and the deaths of disabled claimants.
And he also failed to mention in his speech the years of calls by disabled activists, families and allies for an independent inquiry into deaths linked to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
In November, at a meeting with relatives of three disabled people who took their own lives because of DWP failings, he backed away from his previous commitment to an inquiry if Labour won power at the next general election.
Ashworth promised this week to reform the work capability assessment (WCA) regime, a process he said can be “arduous, lengthy, stressful”, pledging to take away the “fear and distrust” disabled people feel.
He said he wanted to “de-risk the journey into work” so those found eligible for out-of-work disability benefits after a WCA would be given a guarantee that they could return to the benefits they were on without another assessment if they started a job with the help of employment support and “things go wrong”.
Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, later stressed that this support would be voluntary and was an “option” that could be rejected by the disabled person, with “no enforcement” if they refuse employment support.
And she told Disability News Service (DNS) that Ashworth “certainly” did not intend to scapegoat disabled people on out-of-work benefits.
Two days after his speech, the Times reported (paywall) government plans to reform the WCA in its long-awaited disability benefits white paper, which it said was now expected to be published within the next two months.
Following a briefing from a DWP source – likely in response to Ashworth’s speech – the Times said the white paper would “recommend reforming or scrapping” the WCA, and that ministers “want to remove what is described as a ‘perverse incentive to prove how sick you are’ and replace it with a system that encourages claimants to show what work they might be capable of taking”.
It said DWP was also considering allowing people to keep some of their out-of-work disability benefits for a period of time after returning to work.
Ashworth said in his speech – delivered at Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice – that it was a “scandal” that only one in 10 out-of-work disabled people were receiving any support to find employment.
But he also promised that a Labour government would take a “fundamentally different and new approach, where we prioritise wellbeing and security above all else when helping people into work”, with “quality, tailored support for those who want it”.
Ashworth also criticised the support provided by the government’s jobcentres and its outsourced employment programmes which he said were too often experienced as “a combination of benefit policing and one-size-fits-all exercises like CV-writing classes”.
He said a Labour government would “shift power and resources out of Whitehall” to ensure that it is “local people” who “design and shape” employment support so that it meets the “needs, challenges and opportunities of their communities”, replacing the current “confusing, fragmented, spaghetti junction of different programmes”.
He said this would be “delivered and fixed by partnership at local level between local authorities, public services, with the voluntary charity sector and the private sector”.
He said a Labour government would modernise jobcentres, which have “increasingly been seen as a place for policing benefit claimants”.
And he said it would reform the flawed Access to Work (AtW) system – where “shameful” waiting-lists have trebled and one of his disabled constituents has been told to expect a 26-week wait for an assessment – so a disabled person would be able to apply for AtW support without a job offer, and be given an “in principle” award indicating how much support would be available if they found a job.
DNS reported last month that more than 25,000 disabled people were waiting for their AtW applications to be dealt with, while the average clearance time for an application had risen in just 11 months from 32.5 days to 63.1 days.
Ashworth also confirmed that a Labour government would reform rather than scrap and replace universal credit.
He said the problems with universal credit were the “adequacy of the levels” and the “complexity” of the system.
But he failed to highlight repeated safeguarding concerns that have been raised about universal credit, including reports of claimants left traumatised and at least one suicide linked to the system.
Ashworth also stressed that benefit sanctions would not be scrapped and that there would be “rights and responsibilities running through the heart of social security”.
After listening to Ashworth’s speech, disabled researcher Mo Stewart – who has spent more than a decade researching DWP’s assessment system and its links with the insurance industry – wrote to Foxcroft with her concerns.
She said it was “deeply disturbing” that Ashworth had given his speech at the Centre for Social Justice, with its close links to former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith.
And she said the speech showed there was “little difference” between Labour and the Conservatives on universal credit and “the fatally flawed work capability assessment”.
Pointing to the death of Errol Graham, she said Ashworth “should be alert to the fact that the British public didn’t elect any government to starve to death claimants who are too ill to access the assessment centre, yet the DWP continue to use extreme sanctions which guarantees starvation when enforced for several weeks”.
And she said Labour appeared to have again “failed to comprehend the fear generated by the DWP” among chronically ill and disabled claimants.
Stewart said: “Persecuting these people by harassing them to find employment when catastrophically ill, whilst claiming this psychological tyranny is some form of ‘help and support’, is disturbing, and is a continuation of the preventable harm created by the present social policies which will be linked to more deaths in the future.”
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