Making Ministers listen to what Spartacus & other disability groups are saying

Michael Meacher (Oldham West and Royton, Labour) in the House at 5pm yesterday 

I should say immediately that I have been informed that the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, Mr Hoban, to whom this debate is directed, has unfortunately been held up at Glasgow airport because his plane has developed engine trouble. Obviously I am sorry about that, both for him and for me, but I suspect that the speech to be delivered by his last-minute stand-in, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Esther McVey, will not diverge too dramatically from the one he would have delivered.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this matter in an Adjournment debate, although I very much regret that it has been necessary to do so at all.   It is unprecedented in all my 40 years’ parliamentary experience for a Minister to refuse point blank to receive a delegation, on a matter of acute public interest and importance, of representatives of a major section of the population who have, in their view, been targeted extremely unjustly by Government policy.

On 31 January, I wrote to the Secretary of State asking whether a delegation could meet him in his office to discuss the reforms that urgently need to be made to the work capability assessments for disabled people. I reminded him in my letter of the debate in the House on Atos, which I initiated on 17 January.   In my view, it was one of the best debates I have experienced in the House for a long time. It was free from rancour and partisanship, but it was critical, detailed, passionate and well focused on the need for reform. Nearly 30 Members spoke and, although Members on both sides of the House acknowledged that there had been some improvements, they were without exception deeply critical of the fact that the fundamental structures remained deeply flawed.  That, they said, was causing profound upset, distress, indignation, anger and a real sense of helplessness, and was, in many cases, making sick people even sicker as a result of anxiety and fear.

Although many Members targeted Atos Healthcare, the French company to which the assessments have been outsourced, it was notable that not a single Member from any part of the House defended the position of the Department for Work and Pensions on the descriptors, the regulations and the guidance that had been handed down by the Government to that private firm. It was for those reasons that I sought the meeting with the delegation, and it never occurred to me that it would not be readily and promptly granted by the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Fareham. Not having had a reply to my letter throughout the whole of February, however, I tabled a parliamentary question asking when the Minister was going to reply.

Within 24 hours, after waiting more than five weeks, I did receive a reply from the Minister of State. It emerged when I spoke to the Secretary of State earlier this week that he had never seen my letter. The Minister of State’s letter, which I have with me, bluntly stated that his diary did not permit him the opportunity to see this delegation, which I take to be “civil service-ese” for a flat no.

Frankly, I was taken aback, so I sought out the Minister in the Lobby and, as soon as he saw me, he said: “I’m not seeing you”. When I protested, he repeated “I’m not seeing you” three times. When I insisted that this was unprecedented and totally unacceptable, he finally said, “I’m not seeing Spartacus”—and repeated that three times.

That provides the basis for my seeking this Adjournment debate today. Spartacus is a group—initially hundreds but now thousands—of sick and disabled people whose lives have been dramatically affected by the welfare changes and who have come together as a loose collective, call it what we will, to share their own narrative with a wider public. Crucially, this work, which I have read through in detail, is evidence-based, used the DWP’s own figures and reports whenever possible, and has never been challenged on accuracy either by the DWP or the wider public. Spartacus always aims to provide a calm, credible and plausible response to the Government’s proposals, highlighting where it feels the proposals will have a damaging effect on sick and disabled people and promulgating that to the wider public.

The movement crystallised initially around the so-called Spartacus or “Responsible Reform” report, which set out an evidence-based analysis showing that the DWP had misled the public by claiming broad support for the abolition of the disability living allowance and its replacement with the new benefit of personal independence payments when there was, in fact, almost no public support at all. On the launch day, literally hundreds of thousands took part and the report trended at No. 1 or 2 on Twitter all day. Since then, the report has been widely used and quoted by the Work and Pensions Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and in several parliamentary exchanges in this Chamber. I think that says enough about the auspices and credibility of this group.

In addition, the Spartacus group has produced, as I said, a detailed and lengthy review of the work capability assessment procedure based on the lived experience— set out at great length—of 70 or more claimants, with additional comments from MPs, the courts, professional bodies and medical professionals, along with the findings of several freedom of information requests.

In the light of all that, I find it inconceivable that a Minister would refuse to meet a representative or representatives from a group who have a very powerful case to make—one that is strongly supported by hundreds of thousands of sick and disabled people—and whose records show, I repeat, that they have always argued their case with evidence-based rigour and well documented analysis. It is not as if Ministers have not yet met members of Spartacus. In the last year or two, they have done so repeatedly. Kaliya Franklin, for example, one of the people I named for the delegation, met the Secretary of State at the Conservative party conference last year, and I understand that it was a productive and courteous meeting, as I would have expected it to be. Kaliya also met the Under-Secretary last year and I believe that the discussions on disability and work were fruitful.

Sue Marsh, another leading member of the Spartacus group whom I included in the delegation, discussed employment and support allowance and work capability assessments with the former Minister of State, Chris Grayling, for 45 minutes before they appeared on “Newsnight” together on 12 January. Both those disability activists had engaged in debate with the former Under-Secretary of State, Maria Miller, numerous times on Radio 5 Live, Radio 4 and BBC TV. I simply cannot understand how the current Minister of State can conceivably, on the basis of any defensible argument, refuse this delegation.

Spartacus set out to engage with politicians. That is what it wanted to do: to create a movement with a credible voice that would be scrupulous in aiming for reasonable change, setting out reasonable demands that it believed were achievable. Yes, it does focus on the most damaging aspects of welfare reform and explain why they are harmful, as it might be expected to do, but it also offers alternatives which it believes will work and which are costed whenever possible. For the Minister to deny the engagement that Spartacus itself wants strikes me as bizarre and perverse.

Spartacus tells me that over the next few weeks it will produce a clear set of demands regarding ESA. Key to that will be the implementation of all—I stress the word “all”—the Harrington reforms now. Three years is long enough, and Harrington himself said in his year 3 review that progress had been too slow.

Of course, in trials in which all the changes are implemented, the rate of assessments falls from the current rate of between eight and eleven a day to perhaps four or five, but, crucially, this has led to nearly 100% accurate decisions. On the basis of that extremely important conclusion, I hope that Ministers will reconsider and agree to meet the delegation.

 

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington, Labour)

The Spartacus report was put together following a great deal of academic advice from my local university, Brunel. The whole purpose was to engage constructively with the Government to improve the system, and to consider basic reforms. Those people thought they would enter into a consistent dialogue with the Government. The absence of a ministerial dialogue undermines the whole exercise.

 

Michael Meacher (Oldham West and Royton, Labour)

My hon. Friend is right. That is the whole point. The purpose is not to abuse the Government, but to engage in a rational, thoughtful dialogue in which each side listens to the other.

I realise that I could omit Spartacus from my request, but I am not prepared to do so because I do not believe that Ministers should have the right to pick and choose who is to be included in delegations they receive. It is not as if Spartacus members were rude or offensive, or did not have a powerful case to make. I would understand the Minister’s refusal in those circumstances, but they are, in fact, rational, plausible and eager to engage, and they have an extremely compelling message to which Ministers ought to listen.

I hope very much that the Minister concerned, who has displayed highly uncharacteristic defiance and intransigence, will change his mind, but if he does not, I will certainly not leave the matter where it rests at present. I will renew my request to the Secretary of State in a letter that I will personally deliver into his hands, so that this time the matter is brought to his attention.

Let me end by saying that I think it is tragic that we are having to waste time this afternoon discussing the composition of a delegation rather than dealing with the real issue, which is that hundreds of thousands of sick and disabled people have been subjected to real hardship, suffering and fear because they have been so bitterly mistreated under these regulations. They should be listened to directly, and that is the request to which Ministers should now respond.

6 thoughts on “Making Ministers listen to what Spartacus & other disability groups are saying

  1. Thank you so much for pressing the DWP on why they will not meet with Spartacus. I listened to the debate with incredulity. I hope that you and your colleague Mr McDonnell will continue until ministers agree to this meeting.

    It is very encouraging that there are still some individual MPs who stand up for sick and disabled people, even though the three political parties do not.

    Very best wishes for success

  2. They forget those thousands of affected sick and disabled have a vote….. also those affected by the ‘bedroom tax’, I certainly know who’s not getting my next vote…….

  3. I watched this debate and to be honest you may as well speak to a brick wall as speak to Mcvey who doesn’t give a damn about the disabled and should be removed from her office. Well done to you Micheal for standing up for those who are less fortunate 🙂

  4. QUESTION :
    WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN LABOUR & CONSERVATIVE & LIBERAL DEMOCRATS?
    ANSWER :
    1 “LABOUR” THROUGH ALAISTAIR DARLING : WAS THE PARTY THAT FIRST INSTIGATED THE
    WORK CAPABILITY PROGRAMME!!
    A) ATOS AGAINST US!!!
    B) DWP AGAINST DISABLED
    C) FORCED LABOUR POLICY WITHOUT PAY
    D) AGAINST THE DISABLED.
    E) THIS IS TRUE
    2 – THE CON DEM PARTY ARE ONLY CARRYING OUT WHAT
    A) LABOUR INVENTED AND WILL CARRY ON!!!
    B) FACT.
    3 – LABOUR ARE ONLY INTERESTED IN FIGHTING FOR US –
    A) TO GET OUR VOTES!!!
    B) THEN LABOUR WILL STAB US IN THE BACK, FAR DEEPER,THAN THE TORIES OR THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS EVER WOULD
    – REMEMBER THESE WORDS AS YOU SEE THIS UNFOLD.
    – UNTIL I SEE LABOUR CHANGE FROM CHEATING THE DISABLED. THEY WON’T GET TRUSTED…
    ONCE “IN POWER” LABOUR WILL TURN FROM BEING
    A) “BEDROOM TAX HEROES”
    INTO
    B) ATOS VILLAINS….!?!!!!

  5. Thank you Mr Meacher for all you are doing to stand up to this evil. My heart went out to you and Mr McDonnell having watched the adjournment debate, and having to contend with that awful McVey woman. The sentence they objected to in the Sparticus Report obviously struck a nerve!

  6. When the next parliament is formed I sincerely hope influential groups like Spartacus are listened to by the government. I hope you and Margaret Hodge and others in both Houses will keep up the momentum.

    Thank you Mr Meacher

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