Friday, 18 April 2014

Labour's New WCA Policy, Damned with Faint Praise

Labour's team of Rachel Reeves (shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions) and Kate Green (shadow Minister for Disabled People) had an article in the Independent on Wednesday How Labour would reform the Work Capability Assessment and the reaction from disabled people has been underwhelming.

Labour propose:
  • That the WCA will be changed to be more relevant to work, with the disabled person to get a copy of the assessor's report, detailing how their disability is expected to affect their ability to work, together with information on locally available support.
  • That they would introduce an independent group of disabled people to work with the independent reviewer in producing ongoing annual reviews of the WCA.
  • That the firm(s) contracted to conduct the assessments would be held to tighter standards.

Now any improvement in WCA is clearly better than none, but these proposals aren't exactly earth-shattering. Holding the Atos replacement to tighter standards is already ConDem policy, involving disabled people in the annual review is clearly better on the Nothing For Us, Without Us front, but the ConDems have shown how easy it is to work around the review while making the WCA worse, and promises to change the test to make it more relevant to work don't necessarily mean making it any more honest in the way it proceeds.

Disabled bloggers and campaign groups have already responded, and the response has been lukewarm at best. Sue Marsh in the Guardian is perhaps least negative and even she declares herself 'tremendously disappointed', noting that, as ever, Labour seem scared of providing any detail to a policy in case it might scare off the middle ground (I think that's Labour code for Mail readers), I'm not as convinced as Sue is that all the points made are necessarily positive, more of that below, but as she notes, it's a step on from the shirkers they've called us in the past. Mason Dixon is less positive in his assessment, noting that we have no guarantee that Labour are on our side given those same very negative attitudes towards disabled people and benefits expressed in the not-so-distant past by very senior Labour figures (Miliband, Byrne, and Reeves herself). Disabled People Against The Cuts meanwhile have no problem presenting a detailed assessment of where the proposals fall short in their response and in detailing how getting disabled people into work needs a system-wide approach stretching far beyond the bounds of WCA and including reversing cuts to DSA, ILF and PIP, while extending AtW, the accessibility of public transport,  reversing changes to the law on unfair dismissal and enforcing laws against disability discrimination in employment, while also recognising that many disabled people simply cannot be expected to work. These are all issues that do indeed need addressing if disabled people are to be able to compete in the labour market as anything closer to true equals - unfortunately I think they also represent a far wider debate than Labour is prepared to address at the moment, which is another point where Labour is falling short of our needs.

Beyond the issues raised by Sue Marsh, Mason Dixon and DPAC, I spotted some fairly major problems of my own. Nowhere in the Reeves/Green article is DWP itself addressed, and there are few disabled people left with any doubts that DWP is a major part of the problem, not the solution. We have seen openly disablist attitudes from the bottom of DWP to the top: from front line clerks who continually try to undermine disability related provisions in Job Seekers Agreements; through Disability Equality Advisors who believe disabled people should only expect to compete for jobs at the minimum wage; through people sanctioned at the drop of a hat; even when the issue is something like a learning disabled person unable to respond to a written letter, or a blind person DWP consistently fail to write to in braille; through the issues with the Work Programme and its utter failure towards disabled people; and that its DWP overseers allow rampant 'parking' of disabled people; through WCA decision makers who rarely question even the most absurd Atos assessments; on up to the highest levels of the department with their reports saying '75% are faking' and the under-the-counter briefing of the tabloids of the frothing right. Even if much of the higher level issues have originated with IDS, his coterie of junior ministers, and their Special Advisors; the senior civil servants of DWP have a professional responsibility to enforce both the Civil Service and Ministerial Codes in order to stop these abuses, and it is clear that they have not been prepared to do that. It is unfortunately clear that disabled people will not be able to trust DWP until there is a root and branch clear-out of staff with disablist attitudes, and a thorough retraining of every single member of the department in the principles of disability equality, with any who are unable to reform their attitudes transferred out of the department. Issues of staff attitudes also carry through into training providers - anyone willing to 'park' a disabled person is clearly not fit for their role, and to the staff of whichever companies end up conducting the revised WCA. Atos clearly had no shortage of staff who fell far short of the standard of behaviour that would be expected of medical personnel conducting a medical assessment and there was plentiful evidence of worse problems in the highest levels of the organisation.

Equally the subject of the BioPsychoSocial Model of Disability never arises. It is this model, avidly adopted by Labour and the highest levels of DWP from US insurer Unum (they of the 'disability denial mills') which shaped the evolution of WCA into a punitive system which envisages disabled people as being inherently involved in a conspiracy to defraud the government by petulantly refusing to get better (I wish I was joking, but you really couldn't make this stuff up). The BioPsychoSocial Model is used by DWP as an excuse to say 'Why yes, we are listening to the poor cripples and their Social Model', but the truth is that it is a model shaped to avoid any possible aspect of the Social Model infiltrating its way into WCA or any other part of DWP policy, and to maintain WCA as a punitive system to drive down ESA eligibility, rather than an enabling system which ensures all disabled people receive all of the support they need. Until and unless Labour say that the BioPsychoSocial Model is gone, and that it was a fundamental mistake ever to adopt it, then we simply can have no trust that they, DWP, and the WCA are acting in our interests, rather than against them.

Nor, returning to the WCA itself, do we see any promise to address the problems with the various disabilities whose needs and issues WCA has systematically failed to address, and remember, issues with WCA failing to address variable disabilities and mental health were identified all the way back in the first Harrington report. Nor is there a promise to do away with the 'imaginary wheelchair' method of assessment, in fact the proposal to have the assessor detail how they envisage the disabled person's disability affecting their ability to work potentially enshrines the 'imaginary wheelchair' in Labour's proposals. Nor is there any promise to do away with the ruling that no symptom can possibly have both physical and psychological effects, no matter that it flies in the face of medical science. Labour will probably argue that these are concerns about the details, but for disabled people, these details are vital in knowing whether we can support the policy, or whether we must oppose it.

Overall: C-, must try harder to address the entire problem.

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