Labour has pledged to scrap Conservative plans to tighten the work capability assessment – reforms described by disabled activists as “cynical” and “horrendously dangerous” – if it wins power at the next election.
Although Labour offered almost no information at its party conference this week about its plans to reform social security if it wins the next general election, Disability News Service (DNS) has been told that it has ruled out proposals announced last month by work and pensions secretary Mel Stride.
Under his plans, currently out for consultation, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) would no longer take any account of whether a disabled person has a mobility impairment when deciding if they were fit for work through a work capability assessment (WCA).
Ministers also want to remove the absence of bowel or bladder control, the inability to cope with social interaction, and the inability to access a location outside the claimant’s home from the list of activities and “descriptors” used in the WCA.
And Stride is considering removing protective guidance which currently states that a claimant should be found eligible for the highest rate of support – with no conditions or potential sanctions – if work or work-related activity would create a substantial risk to their health.
But Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, told DNS this week in Liverpool: “We won’t be following through on that. No.”
Labour’s position on other Conservative proposals, announced earlier this year in its Transforming Support white paper, is less clear, with Liz Kendall only appointed shadow work and pensions secretary little over a month ago.
Foxcroft said that Stride’s plans to scrap the WCA and instead use the much-criticised personal independence payment assessment system to decide eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits was not Labour policy, or at least “not in that way”.
She said Labour had not yet decided if it would follow the Tories and scrap the WCA and rely on PIP assessments.
But Foxcroft did say that she did not like the Conservative plan for jobcentre work coaches with no healthcare experience to decide whether a disabled person was able to carry out work-related activity.
She said Labour’s plans for social security were partly on hold because they wanted to wait until they met senior DWP civil servants for confidential briefings (PDF), roughly six months before the next general election.
She said Labour did not yet know “what the universal credit computer systems can do and what they have got the potential to do”, and they would not find out until they have these meetings.
She stressed again that Labour wanted “a fairer system, we want one that’s more compassionate, we don’t want one where disabled people feel fear of the DWP in terms of any interaction.
“We need to get rid of that culture of fear, but it won’t happen overnight, and it won’t happen if we don’t do this by working with disabled people about how we do that, because there’s already a complete lack of trust [in DWP].”
Foxcroft said a Labour government would reform the assessment process and would do it in co-production with disabled people “because otherwise we’re not going to get it right”.
Kendall’s speech to the annual conference contained almost no social security policy detail, with vague pledges to “transform employment support so it’s tailored to individual and local needs”, make “sweeping changes to jobcentres”, “reform universal credit” and “champion equality for disabled people”.
Foxcroft defended the lack of policy detail in her new boss’s speech, saying she “didn’t have very long to speak”.
Foxcroft was also unable to say whether a Labour government would order a public inquiry into deaths linked to DWP’s actions.
Evidence stretching back more than a decade has shown how DWP repeatedly ignored recommendations to improve the safety of its disability benefits assessment system, leading to hundreds, and probably thousands, of avoidable deaths of disabled claimants.
It also shows how DWP ensured that key evidence linking its actions with those deaths was not considered by the independent reviews it commissioned into the assessments.
Disabled activists and relatives of those who have died – backed by DNS – have repeatedly called for a statutory public inquiry into the deaths.
A report by Labour’s National Policy Forum, which will form the basis for its general election manifesto and was approved by conference delegates this week, includes no mention of an inquiry.
Asked how a party committed to social justice could refuse to hold an inquiry, Foxcroft said the decision would be “one for Liz” and that as she was new in post it might be a few months before she could make a decision.
She said: “A big inquiry like that… I think we need to keep the dialogue going with the families.”
Picture: Vicky Foxcroft (left) and Liz Kendall
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