The minister for disabled people has failed five times to say whether he was aware of research linking the “fitness for work” test with 590 suicides of disabled benefit claimants, as his department prepares to tighten the assessment even further.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is currently consulting on proposals that would make it significantly harder for many disabled people to secure the highest rate of support and avoid being forced to carry out work-related activity.
Among its plans – which would not be introduced until after the next general election – is to remove a vital safety net that protects those at risk of suicide.
But at this week’s Conservative party conference in Manchester, both work and pensions secretary Mel Stride and Tom Pursglove, the minister for disabled people, suggested that they had not been briefed by the department on the ground-breaking research, despite embarking on major reforms to the work capability assessment (WCA).
At a fringe event hosted by the Conservative thinktank Policy Exchange and the Health Foundation, Disability News Service (DNS) asked Pursglove whether he was aware of the high-profile research, and if it would impact how he approached the reforms.
The research, published in 2015 by public health experts from Liverpool and Oxford Universities, found that a programme to reassess people on incapacity benefit through the WCA was linked to 590 suicides in just three years.
In response to the DNS question, Pursglove insisted that his department would proceed with the reforms “with great care” and was “continuing to engage with relevant stakeholders” to make “every effort possible” to ensure “there is all of the right safeguarding around that”.
He added: “I can absolutely say to you that we will take forward any reform that we seek to make as a government with the utmost care and attention to the needs of our most vulnerable customers.”
Asked again if he was aware of the research, Pursglove (pictured, second from left, at the event), said he considered a “wide range” of reports.
Asked a third time, he pointed to the “considerable work taken place since 2018 particularly, tangible improvements that have been recognised as quite significant strides forward in terms of those safeguarding mechanisms, and we continue to keep that under review, taking account of all reports”.
Asked a fourth time if he knew of the research, he said nothing, and when DNS asked for a final time, he again stayed silent, before the event’s chair asked another panel member to comment.
When DNS had asked the same question of Pursglove’s boss the previous evening, he also did not appear to be aware of the research.
Stride told DNS: “It’s therefore really important that when we look at the report you referred to that we do it in a measured and proportionate and very careful way.
“So rather than rushing out and announcing reforms, we are going through a consultation that will end in October… to make sure that we don’t rush these things, to make sure that we do take those decisions in a proportionate, careful and caring way.”
Asked if Stride would now promise to ask the department to brief him on the research, a Conservative party spokesperson refused to comment, directing DNS to DWP.
Asked if it could confirm that it had failed to inform Stride about the research, despite the secretary of state announcing plans to further tighten the WCA, a DWP spokesperson refused to comment.
Pursglove also confirmed at the fringe event that DWP was proceeding with further controversial changes to the assessment process that would – eventually, after the next general election – scrap the WCA entirely.
The reforms, announced through the Transforming Support white paper in March, would see eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits – through a new universal credit “health element” – decided by the personal independence payment assessment.
This would also mean that decisions on whether a sick or disabled person must attend job-focused interviews or other work-related activity would in future be decided by a jobcentre work coach.
Pursglove told the fringe event that the reforms would remove the “jeopardy” that some disabled people feel when considering whether to try to move into work from out-of-work disability benefits because of the risk of it not working out and losing their benefit entitlement and then having to reapply and be reassessed.
He said: “We have been through extensive consultation around that change, and I think it is the best route forward in terms of alleviating that pressure and anxiety that people feel.”
Chris Smyth, Whitehall editor of The Times, told the event that the government’s plans for reform were “pretty similar” to Labour’s plans.
He said he had spoken to Labour’s (at the time) shadow work and pensions secretary, Jon Ashworth, and asked him “what do you actually disagree with the government on” and was told Ashworth’s main concern was: “We thought of it first.”
Smyth said there was “an unusual degree of political consensus on this”.
A note from the editor:
Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.
Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…