A disabled Labour MP has delivered a passionate appeal for the government to fix the “fundamental” problems with its “fitness for work” assessment.
Dame Anne Begg, who chairs the Commons work and pensions committee, was speaking in a Commons debate for the first time since a serious injury in February that left her hospitalised.
She said that disabled people felt “persecuted” by the system that assesses their eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA), the new out-of-work disability benefit.
Dame Anne told MPs in a debate on the performance of Atos Healthcare, the company that carries out these work capability assessments (WCAs) for the government, that there was “something fundamentally wrong” with the system, and the contract that had been awarded to Atos.
She said: “It is not enough for government to say that the genuine claimant has nothing to fear. In too many cases, genuine claimants are not scoring any points in their initial assessment.”
She pointed to the British Medical Association’s vote to scrap the WCA, and to the increased workload of GPs due to treating patients whose health has deteriorated because of their experience with their WCA.
Dame Anne said: “When my constituent, who has lost his job because he has motor neurone disease, scores zero on his WCA and is found fully fit for work, there is something wrong with the system.
“When that same constituent appears in front of a tribunal and in less than five minutes is awarded 15 points, there is something wrong with the system.
“When some people would rather do without the money to which they are absolutely entitled rather than submit to the stress of a WCA, there is something wrong with the system.”
She added: “When someone with a severe illness has to fight for a year through an appeal to get the correct benefit, only to be called in almost immediately for another assessment, there is something wrong with the system.
“When people feel so persecuted, there is something wrong with the system.”
Dame Anne also pointed to the high percentage rate of successful appeals against being found fit for work, and the lack of an incentive for Atos assessors to “get the assessment correct first time”.
She said: “It is time for the government to act, because there is something fundamentally wrong with the whole system.”
The debate was secured by her fellow Scottish Labour MP Tom Greatrex, who has asked scores of questions about the WCA and the performance of Atos over the last year.
Greatrex was deeply critical of the government’s management of the Atos contract and its failure to fine the company for the large number of successful appeals.
He said there was a need for a process that “works in the interests of taxpayers, and of individual claimants and applicants”, and that “helps people who can work and does not hound those who cannot”.
Several MPs – in a debate dominated by Labour members – gave examples of disabled constituents who had been found unfairly fit for work, and had been forced to appeal to claim the ESA they were entitled to and needed.
The Plaid Cymru MP Hywel Williams said there “can hardly be an MP who has not had a constituency case involving Atos and the work capability assessment”.
He said there were “persistent complaints that Atos is working to targets to fail people”, and that disabled people were facing “continual reassessments”.
Another Labour MP, John McDonnell, said that his early day motion calling for Atos’s contract to be withdrawn, and for the WCA to be replaced by a new system, had secured the signatures of 103 MPS.
He said: “Surely after that, and following debate after debate and the protests on the streets, the government must reassess the role of Atos, and establish a new system based… on reputable, fair and equitable criteria.”
He said he shared the “disgust” of many disabled people’s groups that Atos had been allowed to sponsor the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and supported the week of protests against Atos – organised by the grassroots campaign group Disabled People Against Cuts – that took place last week.
In one of his final actions as employment minister, before his promotion to justice secretary, the Conservative MP Chris Grayling told MPs that the WCA system had been “created by Labour four years ago when they were in government, and it is a system that we have consistently tried to improve”.
He added: “It is really important to emphasise that the reassessment of people on incapacity benefit is not a financial exercise and that there are no financial targets attached to it.
“It is about finding the right number of people who can make a return to work. It is not an exact science – it never was and never could be – but it is all about trying to help people back into the workplace if they can possibly return to it.”
5 September 2012