19 January 2013

Let’s look at two recent parliamentary debates which affect people in Cornwall.

Government games 1: the disabled
The Commons debated the current arrangements for assessing the suitability of disabled and sick and vulnerable people for work, the work capability assessments carried out by the company Atos on behalf of the Department for work and pensions (DWP), and the subsequent loss of benefits by some of the disabled and vulnerable. If you have a strong stomach read the debate in Hansard 17 January 2013 column 1050 onwards.

I say ‘strong stomach’ because MPs from across the Commons gave scarring examples of their constituents’ unacceptable experiences of the assessments and process and the effects on people’s wellbeing. They are not abstract accounts or generalisations but deal with reported actualities; they make disturbing and often harrowing reading. Clearly the assessment process is not working well. Stephen Gilbert, the Libdem MP for St Austell and Newquay, said his constituents told him they found the process “dehumanising and degrading” (column 1056); Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, described it as “humiliating and demeaning” (column 1057).

There was general acceptance of the need to assess people’s capacity for work; near universal agreement that too many of the present assessments were unsatisfactory; and most MPs present looked for radical changes but some felt that the current process was so flawed and discredited it should be replaced – on this point also see the hard worded EDM 295 and EDM 687.

The work capability assessment, associated benefits, and the effects on individuals are the responsibility of the government. The minister’s response to the flood of distress was unconvincing. Welcome changes have been made but he had no answers to the large number of real life instances cited by MPs and the larger number unsaid. The government appears to be indifferent to the mountain of distress and dazzled by the lure of saving money by taking benefits from people. I wonder whether those taken off benefits actually find a job in the recession: look at this post about the experience of the Remploy workers of Penzance, only 4 out of 32 have a job after the factory has closed. Talking about the work capability assessments, Sheila Gilmore told the Commons: “Research commissioned by the previous government, which I understand is not being continued by this government—the minister might reassure us on that—found that 43% of those found fit for work were neither in work nor in receipt of an out-of-work benefit a year later. We must ask where they are. What is happening to them? We should know and we should care” (column 1091).

The MPs’ stories of their constituents’ experiences suggest that the weak and vulnerable are too often treated harshly and shamefully. We can do much better than this and we should do much better. We should encourage and help people who can work into work and support them in it; we should support those who cannot work and not create unnecessary anxieties and stress in their lives.

The report The people’s review of the work capability assessment (November 2012) takes a hard look at the realities for people of the work capability assessment. Case studies start at page 6.

The work capability assessment was introduced by the Labour government who awarded the contract to Atos Healthcare, a private company. The Atos contract was renewed and its range extended by the Tory Libdem government.

The content of the work capability assessment is written by the (DWP) and carried out by Atos. Decisions about benefit withdrawal or confirmation are made by the DWP who look at the Atos assessment and what claimants and their medicos say.

Government games 2: the farm workers
On 16 January the Lords debated the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) of England and Wales in Grand Committee (Lords Hansard 16 January 2013 column GC 253 onwards). Yes, I thought this was done and dusted. Apparently the Labour ministers of the Welsh government, whose consent was necessary, would not consent so the Tory Libdem government decided to seek abolition by a different bill. You can decide for yourself whether this is jiggery pokery or sensible management.

The debate was testy at time and I think the Labour opponents of abolition (including Paul Myners from Cornwall) had the best of it, pointing out the contradictions in government claims that abolition would simplify life and the finding from an impact assessment that farm workers might lose around £238 million in income over the next ten years, including a valuation of loss in future inferior sick pay and holidays. Whether farmers or supermarkets get that money was contended. For the sum see the ‘Best estimate’ in Table 2 on page 13 of the impact report. More details are found on page 16 onwards.

In the end the abolition amendment fell because in the Lords Grand Committee it had to be agreed unanimously and it wasn’t. The AWB survives for another day and the government scratches its head.

An earlier post about the AWB, with links to other posts, is Long winter for agricultural workers. In the vote on abolition in the Commons Andrew George voted against, Stephen Gilbert and Dan Rogerson voted for.