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.