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We must end the hostile environment for disabled people

3 min read

The genesis of the welfare state was the Beveridge Report, published in 1942. The report envisioned a social security system that would act as a safety net, there to support each and every citizen in need.

However, for many disabled people, the current welfare state betrays those principles. There is an ever-growing link between poverty and disability, and the social security system - rather than alleviating that problem - now often exacerbates it.

This week I led a debate in Parliament on disability benefits assessments and the government’s health and disability green paper.

I was an advocate for disabled people before I became an MP, and since being elected I have spoken of the cruelty that disabled people face at the hands of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) time and time again. I am sure that every MP has been contacted by constituents who have fallen foul of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) for Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and/or the assessment for Personal Independent Payment (PIP).

The overwhelming body of evidence shows that the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) and PIP assessment frameworks are not fit for purpose. By the end of 2020 in my constituency of Battersea, one in five disabled people in receipt of PIP had their awards reduced and one in three had their PIP completely stopped. Yet over 70 per cent of PIP and ESA decisions are overturned at independent tribunals.

The green paper published last year was a missed opportunity to transform social security and support for disabled people

In the debate, MPs from across the country were sharing heart-breaking testimonies from constituents who have been victims of both of these assessments. The aim of assessments must be to get the decision right first time. But shamefully, too often this has not been the case.

These assessments are carried out by private profit-making companies, including Atos, Capita and Maximus. When responding to the debate, the minister confirmed that the DWP would continue to use private companies. But where is the accountability? There is no opportunity for scrutiny and the taxpayer is not getting best value for money. Last November, the government announced another £2bn private contract. It is incredibly disappointing to see the government continue to put private profits above public health.

The consequences of this failing system are devastating. In 2019, the government revealed that over the previous decade 5,690 people had died within six months of being found fit for work under the WCA. There is no stronger indictment of a failing system than over five thousand people dying just months after being denied vital social security. I have called for an independent inquiry into these deaths.

For more than a decade, successive Tory governments have created a hostile environment for disabled people. Their green paper published last year was a missed opportunity to transform social security and support for disabled people and did not address the fundamental structural problems. Not only was their National Disability Strategy unambitious, it was ruled unlawful last month, as disabled people and disabled people’s organisations were not consulted.

The assessment framework must be totally overhauled, and it cannot be a callous box-ticking exercise – it must involve expert analysis of evidence, taking into account the day-to-day realities of disabled people’s lives.

To truly create that, we need the government to adopt the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Disabled People (UNCRPD) into British law. They have a moral duty to transform the social security system from one that demonises and sanctions ill and disabled people, to one that enables independence and promotes dignity and respect.


Marsha De Cordova is the Labour MP for Battersea.

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