The Conservative shadow minister for disabled people has laid out some of the key differences between his party and the government on the heated and controversial issue of incapacity benefit (IB) reform.
Mark Harper MP has expanded on the radical welfare reform programme outlined during the party’s annual conference in Manchester earlier this month.
His comments come as many campaigners have expressed alarm at the prospect of a contest between the Conservatives and Labour over which party can sound toughest on IB reform.
Harper says he is “well aware” of the “anecdotal evidence” of problems with the operation of the work capability assessment (WCA) – the test for all new claimants of out-of-work disability benefits, which has just passed its first anniversary – particularly for those with mental health and other fluctuating and long-term conditions.
There has been a series of warnings from campaigning organisations that the new system is inflexible, riddled with errors and fails to reflect disabled people’s daily lives.
Harper says: “The principle of having a test is sound, but it needs to deal with those more complex and fluctuating conditions.”
But he says he cannot pledge to change the test until he has a greater depth of information about how it is working. His party has tabled parliamentary questions to try to secure this data.
He says: “First of all we just need to look at what the data says about the test.
“If the testing that is going on is not properly dealing with certain groups of people then clearly we need to address that.”
Both his party and the government are now proposing to test everyone on IB through the WCA over three years from 2010.
There are concerns that so many assessments – possibly as many as three million when taking into account new claimants over those three years – could expose disabled people to even more mistakes and hardship.
Harper says he is “very well aware of the concerns that groups have got” with how the WCA is already working.
But he says: “This is doable. We are not inventing a new process. We want to do it fast because we want to make sure those people get the help.
“It clearly is a challenge. It’s not going to be a walk in the park. But not doing it means saying to those people we are not going to provide you with the help and support you need to get into work.”
Although he does not accept that it could easily take longer than three years to test everyone on IB, he does not rule out this possibility either.
He says: “We will need to see how fast we can do it. At this point, we don’t know.
“We want to be able to reassess the existing IB claimants as soon as practically possible.
“Clearly if we find that is not practical we may have to go back to it.”
Harper also defends his party’s plan to scrap all the government’s individual back-to-work programmes, such as the New Deal for Disabled People and Pathways to Work, and replace them with one single welfare-to-work scheme.
He says one of the key differences with government policy is that a Conservative government would refer everyone on out-of-work benefits to a welfare-to-work provider for targeted, personalised help.
Everyone on IB or the new employment and support allowance (ESA) would be referred to a welfare-to-work provider “immediately”, he says.
This is possible, he says, because the Conservative treasury team has agreed that expected benefits savings secured by finding people jobs can be used to pay for an expanded back-to-work programme.
He says this would mean that disabled people who should have been on ESA but end up on jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) instead could still secure support to find work, although he accepts that they will be receiving a lower rate of benefit.
He says: “For most of the people on IB at the moment, [the government] do not have anything to offer them almost for the whole [of the next] parliament. That’s the single biggest difference [between the parties].”
He says the government’s Invest to Save pilots, which will also use benefits savings to fund work programmes, would help only a small proportion of those on IB.
Another key difference between the two parties, he says, is that a Conservative government would ensure bigger rewards for welfare-to-work providers who find jobs for those people who are the hardest to help into work.
There would also be a “more robust” emphasis on ensuring that those jobs are sustainable, which would be of “particular help” for people with fluctuating conditions.
Harper also claims that a Conservative government would address the workplace barriers that disabled people face, for instance through mental health anti-stigma campaigns and ensuring that the NHS provides better support for employers taking on new staff with health conditions.
And he tries to quell fears that disabled people who fail the WCA and are forced onto JSA might have their benefits cut, for instance if they refuse inappropriate jobs.
He says: “If you assume people on JSA are capable of work, they should not have the option of not working and continuing to claim benefit.”
But he says welfare-to-work providers would be “expected to provide” the support those people needed.