Disabled activists are hoping to use a parliamentary meeting next month to persuade more MPs that action must be taken to prevent further deaths caused by the government’s much-criticised fitness for work test.
The First Do No Harm lobby on 13 February aims to expose the continued harm caused to disabled people by government social security reforms.
And it will focus on the repeated failure of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to ensure that the “further medical evidence” needed to demonstrate a disabled person’s eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits is always collected, particularly for claimants with mental health conditions.
Although the lobby has been organised by Labour’s Treasury and work and pensions teams, through shadow chancellor John McDonnell and shadow work and pensions secretary Margaret Greenwood, activists hope that MPs from all parties will attend.
McDonnell told Disability News Service: “Disabled people have had enough of the continuing austerity, attacks and discrimination.
“The lobby will brief on the plight of disabled people and lobby for reform to protect against this harm.”
The lobby is the result of campaigning by the disabled people’s grassroots group Black Triangle and other disabled activists.
The aim is to push for the principle of “First Do No Harm” to be included in the benefits assessment process, through a framework that “treats disabled people with dignity and respect”.
John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said assessors working for government contractor Maximus are asking for further medical evidence “in far too few cases”.
He said: “Time and time again, decisions on fitness for work are made without adequate medical evidence. That needs to be addressed by DWP ministers.
“We know that DWP get it wrong in a very substantial number of cases. That means a great many people who are entitled to support are being denied it.”
Black Triangle wants new “safety protocols” introduced to ensure that the health and lives of disabled people are not put at risk by unfair decisions on eligibility following a work capability assessment (WCA).
McArdle said: “Black Triangle sees this above all as a human rights and public health issue that transcends any form of party politics.
“Members of parliament from all parties will by now be keenly aware of the issues from meetings with their constituents in every constituency of the UK.
“They will no doubt be as anxious as we are to achieve consensus on a way forward to ensure that sick and disabled people’s lives are protected from any further avoidable harm.
“We would like to warmly welcome them to our lobby and to receive their feedback and input.”
The lobby follows years of mounting concerns about the WCA and the failure of DWP ministers to make the necessary changes to make the test safe.
Evidence of such failure dates to 2010, when incoming ministers in the new Tory-led coalition government were presented with a coroner’s letter calling for action to be taken to prevent future deaths.
Following an inquest into the death of Stephen Carré in January 2010, coroner Tom Osborne had written to DWP to express concerns that the system did not automatically seek further medical evidence from a claimant’s GP or psychiatrist if they had a mental health condition.
Four years later, another letter was sent to DWP by a coroner, raising the same concerns and making almost identical recommendations, this time following the death of a north London man.
The deaths of other claimants have also been closely linked to the failure to ensure that further medical evidence was obtained, including those of Mark Wood, Paul Donnachie, David Barr, and a Scottish woman known only as Ms D E.
Public health experts from the Universities of Liverpool and Oxford have also shown in a study that, across England as a whole, the process of reassessing people on incapacity benefit for the new employment and support allowance from 2010 to 2013 was “associated with” an extra 590 suicides, 279,000 additional cases of self-reported mental health problems, and the prescribing of a further 725,000 anti-depressants.
Next month’s lobby also aims to push the government to bow to years of pressure to carry out a cumulative assessment of the impact of its social security cuts and reforms on disabled people.
And it will call for an end to the government’s sanctions and conditionality regime.
Activists are now calling on disabled people and their allies to ask their MPs to attend the lobby, which is the first concrete result of meetings between disabled activists and allies and Labour shadow ministers, including McDonnell, Greenwood and shadow minister for disabled people Marsha de Cordova.
Both Greenwood and de Cordova are set to speak at a briefing as part of the lobby on 13 February.
Disabled people or allies who want their MP to attend the lobby should write to their MP – for example, by using the website WriteToThem – to inform them they wish to seek an appointment on the day of the lobby.
The lobby is due to take place on Wednesday 13 February between 1pm and 6pm, with the briefing from 2-3.30pm, in the Palace of Westminster’s committee room 15. The committee room can be used for one-to-one meetings with MPs or further discussions on the issue from 1pm-2pm and then from 3.30pm-6pm
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