In theory the Work Capability Assessment should be part of a process that makes sure that people who are ill or have a disability get the right level of support they need should they wish to return to work. That the assessments don’t get anywhere near close to this, and are in many cases actually harming the very people they should be helping, was a point made repeatedly at a packed Westminster Hall debate in Parliament yesterday. However the debate also prompted me to consider Labour’s general approach to welfare issues in Opposition and how this should be improved.
Labour’s main criticism of the Work Capability Assessment programme refers to poor management, long delays and the high number of overturned decisions. Whilst such criticisms are valid, I think we need to go much further. We need to acknowledge that the Work Capability Contract with Atos was poorly drafted and poor value for money. Under the terms of that contract, Atos receives money for the number of people they assess and process, with little to no regard for the accuracy of the results. In addition, no financial penalty is handed down to Atos when they get things wrong. Given the terrible impact an incorrect assessment will have on the life of a disabled person, this is shameful. So too is the fact that Atos gets paid for making improvements to the assessments that weren’t up to scratch in the first place. As of June this year, Atos pocketed an additional £5.47 million for implementing the changes recommended by the Harrington Review.
Labour also needs to reconsider its messages on welfare in general; particularly the primacy of the ‘tough on scroungers’ line. When that is seen by many as our only message on welfare, we have a problem. The values behind the welfare state our party created; that those that can work should do so, and those that cannot work should be supported, can get lost. ‘Tough on scroungers’ can slip easily into ‘tough on benefits’ and stigmatise whole groups of people in the process. The continuation of the ‘tough’ message is our response to polling data on attitudes towards people on out-of-work benefits, who are frequently categorised as lazy or pretending to be unable to work. If we want to be an electorally successful party, they say, then we need to look at what people think and what they want from a prospective Government. Whilst that is true to an extent, political parties do not exist just to reflect people’s attitudes back to them. Political parties should be driven by values and the New Labour obsession with polling as our primary driver needs to take a back seat whilst we look at what, and who, our party stands for ahead of the next election.
We need to remember that public attitudes are not static and ingrained beliefs; they are shaped by many factors. In the case of attitudes towards people on various out-of-work benefits, it is pretty clear that a right-wing press that loves to exaggerate and demonise welfare claimants has had a disproportionate impact in shaping views. Should Labour jump on this bandwagon and reflect it in our policies and our messages? Or should we try to shape the debate, challenge prejudices and misconceptions about out-of-work benefits and engage in political education?
People have reported ‘benefit cheats’ to me because their neighbour receives Employment and Support Allowance but doesn’t have an immediately obvious physical impairment. Explaining that not all disabilities that make people unfit to work are physical or obvious is one small action that needs to be replicated on a much larger scale. As a party we need to be educating people about illness and disability and the levels of support for people who cannot work, which are by no means generous. The huge interest in the Paralympics at the moment means this is an excellent time for Labour to consider its messages and to re-state its commitment to a welfare system that helps people instead of stigmatising them. Otherwise we may find ourselves lagging well behind a change in public opinion in light of the changing attitudes to disability that is currently sweeping the nation as they cheer on the Para Olympians whilst jeering George Osborne.
Demonising people who are on benefits is a deliberate Conservative ploy to harden public attitudes to welfare so that it’s easier to carry out the cuts and set neighbour against neighbour. The Labour party needs to restate its position on Welfare Reform by challenging the lies and mistruths and addressing the truth about the Atos contract. It was badly drafted, badly managed, poor value for money and causing real grinding misery to thousands of our most vulnerable people.
Teresa Pearce is the Labour MP for Erith and Thamesmead