The great debate – the incapable assessment regime

The most telling moment in today’s (September 4) Westminster Hall debate on Atos and Work Capability Assessments came when Chris Grayling was delivering his speech. A woman shouted, “You’re killing us!” and was immediately told to shut up or the public gallery would be cleared.

It was an act of insensitivity that put into a nutshell the Coalition government’s attitude to public discontent over its Work Capability Assessment regime for claimants of the new Employment and Support Allowance (and soon, the new Personal Independence Payment); it doesn’t care what we say, it will carry on doing what it wants, and it will lie to us about what that is.

I was listening to the debate and watching responses on Twitter. John McDonnell MP tweeted: “Protesters sum up exactly what this debate is all about. The Atos system is causing immense suffering & killing people.”

Mr Grayling did not address these concerns in his speech.

He said the DWP would not be changing the controversial ‘descriptors’, that are used in WCAs by the tick-box assessors, who need them to understand whether any person’s abilities mean they deserve a much-coveted place among the 13 per cent of claimants in the ‘Support Group’ – or whether they should be turfed out into the ‘Work-Related Activities Group’ or market “Fit For Work”.

But a potential new set of descriptors, more appropriate to the conditions suffered by the sick and disabled, is still being considered. Where’s the truth?

He said the assessment regime had “no financial targets”. This was a flat-out lie. We know there are targets because Atos trainers made that perfectly clear in the recent Dispatches and Panorama documentaries on the subject.

“Atos do not take decisions.” Another lie. The DWP decision-makers rubber-stamp Atos recommendations in the vast majority of cases.

He repeatedly told us the process was “not an exact science” before contradicting himself by stating that the government wants to “get it right”.

Before he got up to speak, the criticisms had been mounting up like a tidal wave against him. All to no avail, as he sailed on, oblivious.

“How many people have died between being rejected and their appeal, and how many committed suicide?” This was a question I was hoping to hear, as this blog has been criticised for using the “32 deaths per week” statistic. No response to that one, though! And what about corporate manslaughter? The issue wasn’t even raised, but the government – and Mr Grayling, together with his (now former) boss Iain Duncan Smith – might be guilty of killing thousands.

“Will claimants still get ESA while they ask for a reconsideration?” The current answer is no. Judging from the lack of response in the debate, that will remain the case.

Assessors’ lack of mental health knowledge came up time and time again.

One MP after another got up to speak, making it clear that they had all received multiple accounts of mistreatment at the hands of a company that clearly couldn’t give… well… Atos: “There cannot be an MP that hasn’t heard terrible constituent stories over WCAs.”

Labour MP Stephen Timms made some strong points. He pointed out the fluctuating nature of many claimants’ conditions, and warned that the work capability assessment does not take account of changes. “The WCA must not be a snapshot,” he said, and went on to add that the test needs “radical improvement”.

He admitted that Employment Support Allowance was a Labour initiative – but made it clear that the Coalition rolled it out before trials to ensure it was fit for purpose had been completed.

And Dame Anne Begg MP won praise for listing poor decisions by assessors and the failings at Atos, repeating, like a mantra: “When people feel this persecuted, there is something wrong with the system.”

She called for the contract to be re-written, saying it “can’t be fixed with a few tweaks here and there”.

Tom Greatrex, who opened the debate, said too many people were being found fit for work when they weren’t fit at all. He said the £60 million cost of appeals against assessment findings meant the taxpayer was effectively paying for a system that doesn’t work, then paying again to put it right. He said details of the Atos contract should be made public (a forlorn hope; confidentiality is a large part of many government contracts with private firms, although the Atos contract is particularly vague).

And he pointed out that, although Mr Grayling had said the transfer schedule for moving people off Incapacity Benefit and onto ESA was on-target, it was in fact very far behind, with waiting times up by 85 per cent.

Honourable mention was given to the disability campaigns Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and Black Triangle. Dishonourable mention was made of police brutality at last Friday’s protest outside the headquarters of Atos and the DWP in London.

Calls were made to reduce unnecessary assessments (of people whose condition was unlikely to change), anger was expressed that Atos is a sponsor of the Paralympics. The debate heard that applicants find the process of going through the Work Capability Assessment terrifying (I can personally attest to this, having witnessed my girlfriend’s. Terrifying and humiliating) – and that it was felt to take away their dignity as human beings.

Sadly, nobody called for a comprehensive study of the mortality rate.

Not one single Coalition backbencher indicated a desire to speak.

Amid all this, one online wit tweeted: “I do hope Osborne comes in at the end to take the now-traditional booing” – a reference to an incident the day before, which has already become infamous, when the Chancellor appeared at the Paralympics to hand out medals and was booed by the 60,000-strong stadium crowd.

Sonia Poulton, the Daily Mail columnist who became a campaigner against Atos, summed up the event: “W-C-A….SEIZE THE DAY! Yes, Labour started it, we ALL know that now…but Con-Dems butchered like never before. Time to get rid!”

If only we could.

For another perspective on the debate, please see the BBC website’s report at – oh. There isn’t one.

5 thoughts on “The great debate – the incapable assessment regime

  1. jaynel62

    I was there and in general agree with this summary however, I must point out that I take issue with your comment, “The DWP decision-makers rubber-stamp Atos recommendations in the vast majority of cases”. Personally I’m actually having to fight (again) to get the DWP to do just that; and I’m not convinced I am in a minority.

    My ATOS assessment states I am UNFIT and UNLIKELY to improve yet the decision maker decided I was in the WRAG – leaving me waiting for my imminent job centre appointment!

    1. Mike Sivier

      I don’t think we’re at cross-purposes here; it’s just that you’re one of those who haven’t had the Atos decision rubber-stamped. The crucial part of what you’re saying – to me – is that the DWP decision-maker, without seeing you or making any assessment other than an intellectual one based on the evidence of your claim and the Atos assessor appointed by that government department, decided you should be in the WRAG.
      To me, that looks like yet another mockery of the system, of the kind we have already seen too often (I use the example of the person who was described as fit for work “as soon as their arm grows back”). If they’re not going to pay attention to the assessor’s opinion, based on their own slanted rules, why have them in the first place?

  2. Shrew Woman

    Actually everyone it was not Labour who started this victimisation of disabled people it was Thatcher. She started the ‘disabled people are scroungers’ mentality that Labour followed and then the Coalition government made even more unkind. I became disabled in 1989. At the time in order to claim ‘Sickness Benefit’ as it was called then you simply went to your doctor and got a sick note which you passed to the DHSS as it was known then, no further questions asked, your doctors authority was accepted and you received your benefits. Margaret Thatcher then brought in the system of forcing ill and disabled people out of bed to attend once yearly medicals run by a private company. The medical centres were in hard to reach places, mine was on an industrial estate and involved a one hour bus ride from my village and then another 20 min bus to the Industrial Estate. She claimed in the media that disabled people were scroungers and that must of us didn’t really need our benefits. Everybody swallowed this and disabled and ill people’s lives became very difficult. It meant we had to always be looking over our shoulder and had to be careful about what we told people about our situation.

    I can’t remember what the first company was called I was too ill to pay attention. But eventually the company running the medicals became Schlumberger Sema. Schlumberger is American owned and is the worlds biggest oil drilling company and is involved in human rights abuses and hires mercenary soldiers to protect it’s drilling projects in sensitive areas across the world. Eventually Shlumberger sold the UK medical services to Atos. I think Atos is just an arm of Schlumberger but I am no good at the ins and outs of the way multi nationals sell up regroup and relocate so that we never know who they really are. I ask you why is an oil drilling company running UK medicals for the most vulnerable people in society? Is Atos still connected to Schlumberger today?

    I began campaigning against what I witnessed at these medicals 20 years ago because they were already horrific. They were stressful, involved humiliating and unecessary stripping down to underwear, (the only benefit I know where you have to strip infront of a stranger) and laughable and inappropriate medical tests, such as reflex tests with rubber hammers, being asked to touch your toes and in my case a painful abdominal exam because I have a bowel problem. I was told by the doctor that she couldn’t feel anything and therefore I must be making up the bowel problem which was crippling my then young life. I was told by a doctor that ‘I don’t see you have any future, you are in your 30s, you’re not married, you have no children’. I got my records and not only had he written this but had included that I ‘wore lace up boots’. The experience was designed to be as intrusive, personal and upsetting as possible. People were very frightened and many became more ill as a result. My benefits got cut off despite the fact that I was virtually bedridden and I was forced to look for work. I nearly committed suicide but was lucky enough to have a very good GP who supported me and got my benefits re-instated. I lost £20 a week because there had been a break in my claim, this was re-instated after 6 months. I went into big debt on a credit card which I used to pay for food and heating. Years later I am still having to pay this off. This was all under Thatcher’s government.

    It wasn’t just me that this happened to I know of others and the result for at least one was a serious suicide attempt.

    Labour came along and I hoped that the situation with these evil medicals would change but it didn’t. I did contact newspapers, Liberty, Amnesty, my MP about 16 years ago but nobody was in the slightest bit interested. Somehow people believed there was a problem and that disabled people were swinging the lead and the only way was to haul them out of bed to these bogus medicals. My MP didn’t even bother to reply. I still hold fast to the belief that hardly anyone ever is cheating Incapacity Benefit. The majority of people desperately need their benefits. I have a good friend who worked as a doctor examining people for these medicals. He said in all his three years of examining hundreds of people he only found one person who he thought didn’t deserve their benefits. Surely that persons GP could have picked this up? I think the whole system is an utter waste of tax payers money. It is a prize example of the way that private companies in collusion with their friends in government create problems and disasters so that they can create bogus industries and line their pockets. The whole idea of these medicals is a sham. We should go back to trusting the people most qualified to judge a persons health, GPs and consultants and stop this incredible waste of money and totally unnecessary victimisation of ill and disabled people.

    I was very, very lucky and was able to escape the wretched system 7 years ago when Gordon Brown introduced Disabled Working Tax Credits. So my personal experience of being disabled under Labour was that it was much better and a huge relief. Disabled Working Tax Credits was the best thing that has happened in my life. I chose to work entirely because I wanted to, nobody forced me and I am able to work variable hours which fits with my variable condition. I became a self employed musician and received the most incredible support from the Job Centre. They paid for me to learn to drive, they bought me one of my instruments and gave me another £200 to help me on my way. I tell you it has been absolutely fantastic. As a result of being able to focus on what I can do rather than what I can’t, and being able to make a contribution to society my health did improve alot. I haven’t had to have a single State Medical by an oil drilling company for 7 years. I was given back my dignity and right to live my life privately. Now the Coaltion are going to take this away and replace it with Universal Credit, I wonder what will happen to me and others like me?

Comments are closed.