The Labour party has raised concerns about government plans to scrap the work capability assessment and give new “fitness for work” powers to work coaches in jobcentres.
Disabled activists and disabled people’s organisations have already said they believe the reforms would pose significant risks to sick and disabled people who cannot work.
Despite worries that Labour might be poised to support the government’s plans – because of the silence of its shadow frontbench over the proposals – shadow disability minister Vicky Foxcroft (pictured) said this week that she shared the concerns raised by disabled people.
The decision to scrap the work capability assessment (WCA), which has been blamed for countless deaths and years of harm caused to claimants since its introduction by the last Labour government in 2008, is the centrepiece of the new disability benefits white paper published last week.
Under the government’s plans, disabled people who cannot work will only be able to qualify for a new health element of universal credit if they also receive the disability benefits personal independence payment (PIP) or disability living allowance (DLA).
This would mean disabled people who were previously assessed as not needing to carry out any work-related activity would have to rely on the judgement of jobcentre work coaches to “determine what, if any, work-related activities an individual can participate in”.
This raises the prospect of claimants with significant impairments or long-term health conditions facing strict conditions imposed by their work coach, including potential benefit sanctions if they are unable to meet them.
The white paper confirms that the new approach “will mean both voluntary and mandatory work-related requirements may be set for health and disability benefit claimants”, although the Department for Work and Pensions confirmed this week that ministers would not be introducing any legislation to scrap the WCA until after the next general election.
Foxcroft has told Disability News Service (DNS) that these plans are “worrying” and that she “absolutely” shares the concerns disabled activists and disabled people’s organisations have raised.
She said Labour does not think that work coaches “should be dishing out sanctions” to people who would previously have been in the employment and support allowance support group.
She said Labour had not yet produced its own proposals – she said the party wanted to work on them in co-production with disabled people “to make sure we get this right” – although she thinks the party will have “the essence of where we are going” by the time of Labour’s annual conference in Liverpool in September.
Foxcroft said: “We will be looking to reform the system and try to build trust in the DWP which should be there to support people in time of need and allow those who can and want to work the ability to do so, but without the threat of punitive action.
“It’s ridiculous that people who want to work are too afraid to do it for fear of losing [extra support] and having to go through the whole assessment process again.
“We are absolutely 100 per cent genuine in making sure people should not be fearful of doing that and therefore the system needs reform to make sure that can happen.”
Foxcroft has already approached disability organisations for their thoughts about the government’s plans, and she said their concerns were focusing on plans to scrap the WCA and hand the responsibility for assessing “fitness for work” to jobcentre work coaches.
She said: “That’s where the biggest amount of concern is, that’s where people have come back to me.
“In theory, we would have welcomed getting rid of the work capability assessment.
“However, as always the devil is in the detail and from what we can see this is talking about merging [the assessment] with PIP and we are worried about people who will be impacted by this.”
She also has concerns over what will happen to the 630,000 people who are currently in the employment and support allowance (ESA) support group or the equivalent universal credit group but do not receive either DLA or PIP.
Many of this group are likely not to qualify for PIP and so could find themselves ineligible for the new health element of universal credit under the government’s proposals.
Foxcroft questioned why the government had published its white paper when it did not appear to know why so many people in these groups were not receiving DLA or PIP.
She obtained the figure of 630,000 from disability minister Tom Pursglove earlier this month, and DWP only gave a vague answer to DNS when asked why so many people in those two groups were currently not receiving DLA or PIP.
Although Labour welcomes some of the government’s proposals, Foxcroft said there were many questions over the sketchy details in the white paper, which is only 43 pages long.
She said: “There seem to be a lot of pilots, bearing in mind they have been in power for 13 years.”
Foxcroft said Labour had “tonnes and tonnes” of questions about the details of the government’s reforms, which they would try to secure answers to through parliamentary questions.
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