Disabled campaigners have criticised a Tory MP’s failure to co-operate with an investigation into claims that government contractors were carrying out covert attempts to trick benefit claimants.
Dr Ben Spencer, the Conservative MP for Runnymede and Weybridge, told a minister in July how staff working for benefit assessment companies were setting traps at their assessment centres to try to test claimants’ mobility.
The minister for disabled people in post at the time, Chloe Smith, told him she would launch an urgent investigation, after he raised his concerns at an evidence session of the Commons work and pensions select committee.
Smith wrote to the committee a month later, on 24 August, asking Spencer to “provide more details of the assessment centres where the alleged activity occurred”.
But he has so far failed to do so.
Spencer has this week finally offered an explanation for his failure to co-operate with the investigation, claiming that this was to protect the identity of the disabled people who spoke to him.
But after DNS pointed out to Spencer that hundreds, if not thousands, of claimants pass through each assessment centre every year, so there would be no risk of identifying his sources, he declined to comment further.
Spencer said that concerns about “informal observation” had been a “recurrent feature” of the evidence heard by the committee during its inquiry into benefit assessments, with much of it published online.
He said: “Testing evidence with ministers is a common part of select committees’ scrutiny and inquiry work.
“As I am sure you will appreciate, where information is provided in confidence, protecting the anonymity of those involved is crucial.
“Any commentary from the committee on its inquiry and the evidence it has heard will be made in its report, alongside any conclusions and recommendations to government that the committee agrees upon.”
The Labour chair of the committee, Sir Stephen Timms, has declined to criticise Spencer’s actions.
He also pointed to the “suggestions of informal observations” heard by the committee through its inquiry, and said it was “not unusual for the committee to test its evidence with ministers during an inquiry, who will then have to decide how best to respond based on the evidence available”.
But he said that any commentary from the committee on its inquiry and the evidence it has heard will be made in its own report.
When it was pointed out to Timms that the government’s promise to carry out an investigation was separate from his committee’s inquiry, he declined to comment further and said he could “shed no further light on this”.
Steve Taylor, a director of Disabled People’s Voice, a disabled-led co-operative offering training, advice and support, said: “When you first covered this story [in July], I was cautiously optimistic, but not overly hopeful, that it might lead somewhere.
“Anecdotally, these covert tricks are no surprise to a lot of us, with many assuming that ‘the other side won’t play fair’.
“Spencer’s outrage seemed genuine, and talk of a probe was encouraging – especially as the testimony of disabled people would be centre stage if the probe were to be taken seriously.”
He said Spencer’s initial silence was “frustrating, concerning and mystifying”, but now he had heard his explanation, he said: “My frustration deepens.”
Taylor said he did not understand why Spencer had raised his concerns and then failed to co-operate with the inquiry.
He said his response “raises more questions than it answers” and had left disabled people “out in the cold”.
He said his confidence in DWP was “at rock bottom”.
Michelle Maher, co-founder of the WOWcampaign, said she was “not surprised” Spencer had failed to co-operate with the investigation because it would have exposed serious and ongoing “institutional violence” against disabled people within DWP and among its private sector contractors.
She said she believed covert action had been taking place for 12 years, both in jobcentres and assessment centres.
She said: “I was called into a jobcentre for a meeting about my benefits claim about eight years ago.
“There was no lift for my interview, just stairs to go to the room, so I refused to attend.”
DWP eventually re-arranged the meeting in an accessible room.
Spencer revealed in July that one disabled claimant had told him that the lifts in the assessment centre had been “deliberately” broken, to assess whether claimants could use the stairs.
A second claimant told him that the healthcare professional who was carrying out the assessment had dropped a pen on the floor to see if they would pick it up “as part of a covert assessment”.
Another had told Spencer that there had been water available at the assessment centre he attended, but the water cooler did not have any cups, although the cooler at the end of the corridor did have cups.
Picture: Dr Ben Spencer (left) and Chloe Smith at the evidence session in July
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