Labour will call on Thursday for a “fast and fundamental” review of the test that determines who is eligible for sickness benefits, acknowledging that the policy the party introduced while in government is not working. Launching a consultation with disability campaigners in Glasgow, the shadow work and pensions secretary, Liam Byrne, will defend his party’s decision to bring in the Work Capability Assessment, which was designed to reduce the benefits bill, but will argue that the system needs to be reformed.
Speaking on Wednesday, Byrne said: “We have to be brave enough to say that even with initiatives we produced that are not working, we need to change them.
“We are now confronted with very clear evidence that it is simply not working. Labour was right to introduce the test – and we were right to say we would change [it] in the hard, clear light of experience.
“That experience is telling us now that the test puts a bureaucracy against disabled people. It doesn’t put a team behind them, to help disabled people into work.”
The focus of Labour’s criticism is not on Atos, the private IT company initially contracted by Labour to carry out the test, Byrne said. “Our target has always been the government who we don’t think are managing the contract when the tests are going wrong. There are clearly questions to answer for Atos but the government that has to get reform in place.”
The party will call for reform that also looks at the barriers disabled people face when looking for work, rather than simply assessing whether someone is capable or not of working.
Large numbers of people found ineligible for the new employment and support allowance, which replaces incapacity benefit, are appealing against the decision to find them fit for work; about 41% of those refused support go to tribunal and 30% are subsequently granted the benefit. There have been more than 600,000 appeals since the WCA started, costing about £60m a year.
Byrne said he would also be highlighting the combined impact of cuts to disability benefits and services, and argue that they are higher than the new levies imposed on banks.
A discussion paper which will be released by the shadow work and pensions team on Thursday states: “We believe that this government is forcing disabled people to pay for its economic mistakes.” The party has calculated that cuts to social care and disability benefits will total £8.6bn over the course of this parliament.
“As a consequence of government decisions, disabled people are carrying a heavier load than bankers in bring down this debt. In the final year of this parliament, cuts to disability benefits will be 40% more than the amount taken off banks.”
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said a number of improvements had already been made to the Work Capability Assessment, and a major review of the process was ongoing.
“The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) inherited by this government was not entirely fit for purpose and that is why we have continuously reviewed and refined it,” the spokesperson said.
“Since 2010 we have considerably improved the WCA process. We have made progress in giving people a more tailored and personal service and as a result we are seeing an increase in the number of severely disabled people being given long-term unconditional support.”