Disabled Liberal Democrats have helped force a major change to their party’s policies on welfare reform, and the use of “fitness for work” tests to determine eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits.
The party voted this week for urgent improvements to the government’s much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA) – which helps decide eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA) – after disabled members took to the stage to explain the disturbing impact of the tests.
Among changes approved by members was a call for Atos Healthcare – the company which carries out the WCAs for the government – to be replaced by a charity or public sector organisation when its contract expires, and for its performance to be reviewed.
They also called on Liberal Democrat ministers to oppose any “arbitrary” time limit on claiming ESA. The government’s welfare reform bill proposes a one-year limit on claiming the contributory form of ESA for those disabled people found able to return to work in the future.
The Department for Work and Pensions began sending letters out this week, which will warn all such claimants that they could lose the benefit from next April if they have been receiving it for more than 12 months, even though the measure is still being debated in parliament.
Liberal Democrat party members also voted for less stressful WCAs, and clearer criteria and more accurate tests, particularly for those with fluctuating conditions.
They also want all claimants appealing against the result of their ESA application to have access to legal aid and expert advice.
Disabled Liberal Democrat Shana Pezaro told the conference debate the WCA was “utterly failing” the many disabled people who were “genuinely not able to work”.
Pezaro, who has multiple sclerosis (ms), said: “It is impossible to give a standard answer to a benefits assessor about how ms affects me on a typical day.”
She welcomed the coalition’s efforts to improve the WCA, but she added: “We still need to send a bold and clear message that much more needs to be done.”
She said the stress of the test was “making ill people suffer still further”.
George Potter, the young Liberal Democrat activist who first proposed the WCA motion, said plans to impose the one-year time-limit on ESA were “potentially dangerous and devastating” to hundreds of thousands of disabled people.
After the debate, Greg Judge, an executive member of the Liberal Democrat Disability Association, who supported the motion, said he believed Liberal Democrat peers would now submit amendments that were similar to parts of the motion to the welfare reform bill as it passed through the Lords.
Although the motion is now party policy, Liberal Democrat ministers, other MPs, and peers are not bound by the vote, although they are certain to take note of the party’s decision.
The disabled Liberal Democrat peer Baroness [Celia] Thomas told Disability News Service that she hoped there would be some “compromise” from the government as the bill passed through the Lords.
She said: “I hate the policy of time-limited ESA. What we desperately hope is that we can get some compromise.”
But she said there were many aspects of the bill that she wanted to challenge in the Lords, including proposals to increase the qualifying period for the replacement for disability living allowance (DLA) from three months (as it is with DLA) to six months, and the government’s proposed benefits cap.
She said: “What do you do when there are so many things to fight for? We will do our best, but we have got to pick our fights.”