The resignation of the Conservative Mayor of Swindon following his appalling comments about disabled people was a reminder of the discrimination that far too many of our fellow citizens face every day.
Sadly, in 21st century Britain, disabled people continue to be set huge challenges. Just 42 per cent of those with a disability are in employment, compared to 78 per cent of those without. Disabled people are twice as likely, meanwhile to live in poverty as non-disabled people. We’re a long way from achieving equality.
Those are some of the key findings of an independent report by a taskforce chaired by the distinguished campaigner Sir Bert Massie into breaking the link between disability and poverty. Today Labour is setting out its approach to one of the big issues Sir Bert considers, and one of the issues we hear most about from disabled people - the Work Capability Assessment.
Labour has always been clear that for many disabled people, the best way to tackle poverty is for the Government to help them to fulfil their own ambitions to enter paid work. That’s also the best way to control the costs of social security within an overall cap on spending, and to make sure there is a system that supports those who need it, including those who may never be able to take up jobs.
When we introduced the Work Capability Assessment we wanted it to be part of a system that helped support more disabled people into work. We’ve always said that a test will always be necessary, but it’s abundantly clear that at the moment the WCA isn’t working.
First, the test is not integrated with employment support, which may help explain why the Work Programme is performing so miserably for disabled people, with just five per cent helped into sustained jobs. Second, the test lacks credibility with disabled people, causing anxiety and stress. That’s in part because of the third failure – a system that has been riven with poor decision making, causing hardship for disabled people, and huge costs to the public purse. Last year, a staggering 45 per cent of appeals against the test were upheld.
So a Labour government would make three crucial changes to the way that the test works.
We'll starting by transforming the way the WCA is designed to make it more effective at helping disabled people into work. The current system is a crude assessment of people’s impairment, with little information about how this affects their ability to work. With Labour disabled people would receive a copy of the assessor's report of how their health condition may affect their ability to work, and information about the support that is available in their local area to help them. We think that’s a first vital step towards a more integrated system of support.
The second change we'd make is to give disabled people a central role in monitoring the way the tests are run. This is absolutely vital. For the first time disabled people would get a real say in how the assessments are delivered. We would continue to produce an independent review of the WCA, and ask the Office for Disability Issues to support an independent scrutiny group of disabled people to work together with the independent reviewer to assess whether the test is being conducted in a fair and transparent way. We'll commit to responding to the recommendations of this report.
Finally a Labour government will go further in ensuring that the assessments get it right first time. Reporting on the WCA last year, the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee found that the targets set for the quality of the assessment weren’t challenging enough. So we’d make sure that in the new system there would be clear penalties for poor performance, measured both on the number of times decisions are overturned by DWP decision makers, and the number of times they are overturned on appeal. That will put the right incentives in place to ensure that assessors collect the medical evidence they need to make a decision, ensure they listen to what the claimant is telling them, and make a decision based on the full facts of the case. Failure to get it right first time will result in financial penalties.
Disabled people have suffered for too long in a system that has too often been unfair, ineffective, and non-transparent. Labour aims to put that right.
Rachel Reeves MP is shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Kate Green MP is shadow minister for Disabled People