In the House of Commons on Thursday the Back Bench Business Committee called for the Department of Work and Pensions to “park” Work Capability Assessments and the company that administers them, ATOS, “on one side and to move off in a different direction”. Full transcript here. Michael Meacher MP (Oldham West) who secured this debate, summed it up as following:
Mr Michael Meacher (Oldham West and Royton) (Lab):
I cannot remember attending such a compelling and powerful debate, combining passion, analysis and a very powerful demand for radical reform. It is absolutely clear that the consensus of the whole House is that the current Atos system has failed irretrievably and needs to be replaced by a wholly new and fair system.
During the course of the debate many comments were made by MP’s which highlighted the many issues constituents had faced when negotiating this process, including the following.
Natascha Engel (North East Derbyshire) (Lab):
The fault lies not with Atos, but with its employer, which, in this case, is the Department for Work and Pensions. When we look at the other employers for which Atos works, such as Royal Mail and the NHS, we see numerous cases of people who have been signed off work—not just their current work, but for any work ever again, with a recommendation that they be retired from all kinds of work—going back to Atos, but this time when it is employed by the DWP, and being assessed as entirely fit for work. They get no points and are deemed fit for work. As my right hon. Friend said, the number of people who are not just not fit for work but who die after being assessed as fit for work, is a reflection not of Atos but of the DWP. That is where the questions need to be asked.
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green):
…the Atos assessment process is not only humiliating and demeaning for those involved—and often plain wrong—but counter-productive, in the sense that it adds to the stress they are under, making sick people even sicker?
Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP):
Finally, I want to say a quick word about the situation facing people with serious mental health problems and long-term fluctuating conditions. There is a world of difference between being potentially fit for work, given the right support, and being an attractive prospect to a potential employer. The elephant in the Chamber today is the fact that many employers will think very long and hard before taking on a member of staff with a serious long-term or fluctuating health condition.
Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con):
One of my early letters to a previous Minister asked about the point when we say that the system is not working; frankly, I have not had an adequate reply. When someone drops down dead within three months of being assessed as being perfectly capable of going back to work, what is the review process for Atos?
Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con):
I do not think it is necessarily wrong, harsh or unreasonable to say that people who could work should be supported into work, but we need to do that in a way which recognises the dignity of individuals going through the system. Despite my support for the welfare changes that this Government are making, the examples that I have seen in my own constituency surgery leave a lot to be desired. We should not throw out the baby with the bathwater, but we need to make sure that the recommendations that have been made time after time are implemented as soon as possible. We owe that to the constituents we represent.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab):
Someone said that what we are debating is a party political issue. Let me be clear: I opposed the system when it was introduced by the last Government and I oppose it now—for the same reason. I see it as a brutal attack on the weakest and most vulnerable individuals in our society and an exercise by private companies to profiteer at those individuals’ expense.
Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD):
None of us can underestimate or undervalue the human effect that some of these assessments are having. I would like to read into the record an e-mail I received from a constituent. It is probably similar to e-mails that all hon. Members have received. It reads:
“They never asked about the amount of pain I have to contend with or how tired I get from coping with it. After the interview I was told I was to be disallowed ESA benefit. I could probably go down the route of appeal but I really don’t feel like fighting for a benefit that I have already been made to feel that I do not deserve, neither do I have the energy”
to appeal. If we in this House cannot give voice to these people, who are some of the most vulnerable in our society, I really do not know what we are for.
In Summing the debate up Michael Meacher concluded:
Mr Michael Meacher (Oldham West and Royton) (Lab):
This issue is a test of the Government’s accountability to the House. In my opinion, the incontrovertible message conveyed by today’s debate is that until the Government and the DWP listen to, and act on, the unanimous view that has been expressed today—I have never seen such unanimity across the Benches—and introduce a wholly different system, the House will not let the matter go.
The WOWpetition(wowpetition.com) supports these statements and calls for:
'An immediate end to the Work Capability Assessment, as voted for by the British Medical Association'
Our position can be summarised by the following:
The government doesn’t have to beat us up to get us to work. We all want full lives, but it is critical to our health to respect our limitations.
The government not only fails to respect limitations confirmed by the NHS it forces us onto a job market where millions already cannot find work.
The DWP & ATOS together with for-profit ‘training’ companies force us into work without any medical exam to determine what we can realistically do without worsening our condition or what reasonable accommodations we need in order to be able to do it, endangering our health without realistic prospect of improving our job chances.
The current ATOS administered Work Capability Assessment system was developed in consultation with private health corporations at the same time some were being fined for fraud in disallowing medical treatment in the US. The government is demonising sick and disabled people, imposing unreasonable expectations on them, starving them by denial of benefits and driving them to suicide by removing all hope, self-respect and self-esteem.
We do not believe the current system is fair and cannot believe it is beyond the imagination and ability of the UK Government to replace it with a system that is both fair and fit for purpose.