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Disability Alliance defensive and on the fence

6 December 2006
Disability Alliance has responded angrily to criticisms by Benefits and Work about its position on welfare reform, accusing us of repeated factual inaccuracy.

However, we not only stand by everything we've said but go further and ask Disability Alliance how an organisation so uncritical of the Welfare Reform Bill, and with such inappropriate funders, can claim to be campaigning for disabled claimants?

Work related activities
Last month we received an on the record email from the Chief Executive of Disability Alliance complaining about three recent stories. The first related to:

"The story that implied that DA was were part of the group that came up with the 46 descriptors that will be used as part of the new Personal Capability Assessment, to decide whether someone goes into the support group or the work-related activity group. We were not in that group, but in the overarching consultative group looking at the other bit of the PCA, that investigates whether someone is basically entitled to ESA. No-one on the consultative groups was consulted about the 46 descriptors, the DWP came up with these on their own."

In fact, the DWP did not come up with these descriptors 'on their own' - the overwhelming majority of the 11 activities in the Limited Capability for Work Related Activity (LCWRA) test are taken from the revised Personal Capability Assessment (PCA) which was created in consultation with Disability Alliance. For the record, the numbered activities in the LCWRA test taken directly from the new PCA include:

1 Walking; 2 Rising from sitting; 4 Reaching; 5 Manual dexterity; 6 The revised, and harder to pass wording of the continence descriptor 'loses control of bowel/bladder so that he cannot control the full evacuation of the bowel/bladder'; 9 the concepts of 'learning simple new tasks' and 'understanding simple instructions' which are taken directly from activities 1 and 2 of the new PCA mental health test; 10 the concept of 'the ability to initiate and sustain personal action' which is taken entirely from activity 7 of the new PCA mental health test; 11 The concept of misunderstanding communication and causing distress to himself or others at 11 (c) which is taken directly from activity 10 of the new PCA mental health test.

In the story Disability Alliance complains of, we stated that: 'CPAG, Citizens Advice and Disability Alliance all sit on the Committee which helped draw up the new PCA, on which this test is based' ('Harsh' new test for severe incapacity 23.10.06)

We entirely stand by that statement and we're still waiting for Disability Alliance's outraged reaction to the LCWRA test, under which someone who is deaf, blind, epileptic and unable to walk up even one step is not regarded as sufficiently disabled to pass the test and get higher rates of benefit.

Whose side are they on?
Disability Alliances second complaint was about:

'Your criticism of DA for not leading a campaign against WRB/ESA and implications arising from that. (Disability Alliance - whose side are they on? This was Members only snippet). To assume that we are on government's side is factually incorrect. This is not our position at all.

We have done a great deal of work to ensure that ministers and civil servants know the real implications of ESA for disabled people. Are you aware of any of this work; info about our concerns and representation of disabled peoples' views to government, the select committee, the standing committee, the DWP, Jim Murphy in person? So whilst your statement 'DA - whose side are they on' is by matter of fact only a 'question' there is implication in that question, implication that is factually incorrect.'


In August of this year, in Disability Alliance - whose side are they on? we lamented the fact that Disability Alliance had yet to produce any sort of reaction to the Welfare Reform Bill, published at the beginning of July. As the leading disability benefits campaigning organisation we had expected them to take the lead in opposition to the coercive, rushed and largely unclear nature of the legislation.

Disability Alliance may, as they now claim, have done a great deal of work behind the scenes, but in public their only notable act has been to have Jim Murphy, author of the Welfare Reform Bill, as guest of honour at a conference on getting disabled people off benefits and into work. Disabled claimants were asked to pay £45 (no concessions) for the privilege of listening to the minister speak.

So, no we are not 'aware of any of this work' done by Disability Alliance. Instead, like other visitors to Disability Alliance's website we found on the Campaigns page, not a campaign against the Bill, but merely a link to 'a summary of the main proposals and the bill itself.' Aside from that, there's a briefing paper on the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). The entire nine page paper contains just one criticism of ESA, in relation to the 13 week assessment phase which it describes as 'harsh'. Otherwise it would not look at all out of place on the DWP website.

Finally, there's also a very polite and deferential letter to a senior civil servant at the DWP relating to the proposed new PCA which begins:

'Thank you for the draft paper Transformation of the Personal Capability Assessment. As a member of the PCA overarching group, we welcome the opportunity to provide comment on your draft paper, having commented on the review process to date as well as appreciating that this has been a demanding undertaking in a short space of time.'


If Disability Alliance were saying, in an understated sort of fashion, that the new PCA has been produced in an unseemly rush - which it has - some campaigners may feel that they should be objecting angrily to that rather than empathising with DWP staff over the 'demanding undertaking' they've been given by their minister. The letter ends in equally humble fashion:

'We trust that you will find these comments useful and incorporate them when passing your report forward to the Minister.'

The truth is that Disability Alliance have not mounted any campaign whatsoever against any aspect of the Welfare Reform Bill, leaving any such action to unfunded groups such as Winvisible and Sheffield Welfare Action Network. The fact that Jim Hutton has been able to claim all party support for the Welfare Reform Bill is in no small part due to the failure of Disability Alliance to oppose it. After all, if the leading disability benefits campaigning organisation has nothing to say against ESA, why should MPs object?

So, whilst others may disagree, four months on we think that their resounding silence has amply answered our question: Disability Alliance - whose side are they on?

Singing
Disability Alliance's third complaint related to:

'The story that was titled 'DWP, DA and rightsnet all sing from the same song sheet' - printing a news story does not mean that we are singing from the same song sheet.'

In 'DWP, Rightsnet and Disability Alliance sing from same sheet'

we criticized both organisations for uncritically reproducing extracts from a DWP press release as if it were the unvarnished truth. The press release was about an allegedly independent study which purported to show that unemployment damages health but, 'when people return to work from unemployment their health improves by as much as unemployment damages it'. The report was welcomed gleefully by a government minister. In fact, the document was written by a former DWP employee who has close links with scandal hit American employment insurance giant UnumProvident.

We'd ask readers to imagine their reaction if Friends of the Earth printed, without any caveats or criticism, a story explaining that a new government report showed that nuclear fuel was the most environmentally friendly form of power generation and the best way to reduce global warming. If the report was written by a former government nuclear scientist who now worked for a nuclear reprocessing company - but Friends of the Earth chose not to mention this - people might just start to wonder about their allegiances and sense of purpose.

We stand by our criticism. A campaigning organisation simply doesn't have the option of printing bits of the other side's press releases - it has to say where it stands. Disability Alliance have now altered the text on their website - inviting visitors to 'judge for yourself' about the contents of the report.

Funders
We have other concerns about Disability Alliance's credibility as a campaigning organisation.

As well as receiving funding from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) with whom they are "working together with the aim of improving the way tax credits are claimed and administered". Disability Alliance also receives funding from UnumProvident. Unum, an American disability insurance company, has recently paid $15 million to compensate people it allegedly carried out improper medical assessments on.

Unum is a very strong supporter of the current welfare reforms and has a clear financial interests in seeing as many disabled people as possible found fit for work. It was heavily involved in the creation of the original All Work Test and had representatives on both the committees drawing up the proposed new Personal Capability Assessment. It is difficult to imagine a less appropriate funder for an organisation campaigning for the rights of disabled claimants.

(See: US medical scandal company at heart of UK welfare reform 11.08.06 )

One of the Disability Alliance publications which Unum sponsors is 'Moving into work: a guide to the benefits, tax credits and other help available to disabled people considering work or self-employment'. This author, along with Holiday Whitehead, wrote the original guide. At the time, we were informed that the publication was being sponsored by the Department of Health. Back then, in any case, the name UnumProvident would have meant nothing to us. Now that we know rather more, there are no circumstances under which we would undertake work with which Unum is connected and we no longer update Moving into Work.

Disability Alliance, on the other hand, received a letter from disability campaigners Winvisible in December 2005 explaining their many concerns about the activities of UnumProvident and questioning Disability Alliance's links with them. (Winvisible were the group whose members famously chained themselves to the railings at Downing Street when the first New Labour administration attempted to cut disability living allowance. The protests on that occasion led to a rapid government u-turn and the resignation of a minister).

We understand from Winvisible that Disability Alliance never replied to that letter and, in April of this year, they produced the third edition of the Moving into work, once again sponsored by Unum.

Last chance
There is still a very slim chance of overturning some of the worst provisions of ESA when the Welfare Reform Bill goes to the Lords in the New Year. If Disability Alliance don't mount a vigorous and very public campaign against issues such as the obscene test for qualification for the higher rate of ESA or the power of private sector contractors to cut claimants benefits, readers will be left will little room for doubt about whose side they are on.