A government minister and executives from the company that carries out “fitness for work” tests on disabled people have faced angry criticism from campaigners at a national conference on disability poverty.
Maria Miller, the minister for disabled people, once again faced heckling from disabled people as she tried to justify the government’s cuts and reforms to disability benefits.
The heckling came a month after she faced repeated, angry interruptions from activists at the mayor of London’s annual Disability Capital event.
Miller faced particular anger from delegates to this week’s Tackling Disability Poverty conference when she tried to justify the government’s sweeping welfare reforms by pointing to the need to tackle the number of people “defrauding” the system.
Only seconds earlier, she had argued that there was nothing she could do to stop the media portraying disabled people as cheats and scroungers.
Miller told the conference, organised by Disability Alliance, RADAR and the National Centre for Independent Living: “The need for reform is clear because all too often at the moment we cannot be absolutely sure that money is really getting through to those who need it most.”
Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, told Miller that disabled people were “living in fear every day that they are going to lose their benefits and care funding, and worse, they are losing their benefits and their care funding”.
Miller said much of this fear was “founded on perhaps a lack of information” and that the government was trying to ensure there was a “benefit system with the sort of integrity which will help disabled people get the support they need”.
She added: “When I open the newspaper and I see yet another case of somebody defrauding the benefit system what I think is that that probably doesn’t help disabled people really feel confident… that it is a support system that has integrity around it.”
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, called on the Department for Work and Pensions to issue positive case studies to the media as part of a plan “to counter what are outrageous levels of inaccurate reporting” about disability benefits.
Another disabled activist, who had been vocal in heckling Miller, pointed afterwards to the people he was supporting who were feeling suicidal because of the government’s welfare reforms.
He said: “You have to hold people accountable for their actions. You can’t just gloss over the reality of what they are doing to people. It’s barbaric.”
A senior executive for Atos Healthcare, the private sector company which carries out the much-criticised “fitness for work” tests for the government, shocked many of the conference delegates by suggesting that his company had vastly improved its performance.
The company, and the healthcare professionals it employs, have faced fierce criticism from many disabled people who have been tested using the government’s work capability assessment (WCA).
But Dr David Beswick, Atos’s medical director, claimed the company had recognised that it was “not looking after customers as well as we should” and needed to “focus better on their experience” and “make this a much more positive experience for them”.
He said Atos had implemented recommendations from the first annual review of the WCA by Professor Malcolm Harrington, and had improved the operation of its call centre, while a customer survey found satisfaction levels with staff courtesy and professionalism had topped 90 per cent.
But Sue Royston, from Citizens Advice, suggested the survey would have produced completely different results if claimants had been able to see the reports the Atos professionals had actually written.
There were also new concerns raised at the conference about the government’s administration of its Access to Work (AtW) scheme.
Robert Droy, from Southampton Centre for Independent Living, said his organisation had been “inundated with problems to do with Access to Work” over the last nine months.
He said he spent 10 hours last week sorting out problems with just one disabled employee’s AtW payments.
He said: “If I am getting to the end of my tether as a disabled person, how on earth are you going to convince a private company to actually take on disabled people?”
Disability News Service has reported a string of concerns about the coalition government’s commitment to AtW, including alarming evidence of a slump in the number of “new customers” helped by the scheme.