The government has “blood on its hands” from the deaths of disabled people caused by its “fitness for work” test, a minister has been told during the angriest and most outspoken parliamentary debate yet on the much-criticised assessment.
Several opposition MPs called for the work capability assessment (WCA) to be scrapped, with many MPs detailing examples from their own constituencies of disabled people who had suffered as a result of the test.
Kevan Jones, the Labour MP who spoke in a debate last summer about his own mental health condition, said the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had been asked to record the number of cases of suicide connected with the WCA but had refused.
He said there had been “a number of well-publicised cases where people have taken their own lives because of this system”.
He added: “It is not too strong to say this coalition government has the blood on their hands for the deaths of these individuals.”
John McDonnell MP said the WCA – which he voted against when it was introduced by his own Labour government – was a “brutal attack on the weakest and most vulnerable in society”.
And he said the level of concern expressed by MPs was “unprecedented about any level of public administration that we have seen in decades”, with “example after example of human suffering on a scale that is unacceptable in a civilised society”.
He said: “I think it is unreformable. That is why I believe it should be scrapped and why the British Medical Association has said it should be scrapped.
“We will be to blame for every injury, every harm, every suicide, every death as a result of the system if we do not do something now to scrap it and bring in something that is fair and based on proper medical knowledge.”
The Common debate on how the WCA is carried out by the government contractor Atos Healthcare was secured by former Labour minister Michael Meacher.
Meacher said he had been sent nearly 300 case histories of people affected by the WCA.
He said: “I cannot begin to do justice to the feelings of distress, indignation, fear, helplessness and indeed widespread anger at the way they have been treated.”
He criticised the “slowness, the rigidity and the insensitivity with which Atos and the Department for Work and Pensions have responded – or very often not responded – to these cries of pain which they have heard repeatedly”.
He said the changes made by the government as a result of three independent reviews of the WCA by Professor Malcolm Harrington had proceeded at a “glacial pace”, and he called for Atos to be stripped of its contract to carry out the assessments.
Labour MP Kate Green said she had a meeting with disabled constituents last week and they told her they believed the WCA system was “deliberately designed to trick them” and to “stop paying benefits wherever possible”.
Labour’s Madeleine Moon said her case worker had been “inundated with [WCA] cases that are both tragic and heart-rendering”, while her telephone was “often clogged with people crying down the line” because they were “unable to cope with the stress of the assessments”.
Charles Walker, the Conservative MP who also spoke in last year’s debate about his own mental health condition, asked whether “the reputation of Atos may be so damaged that it can never really be effective and perhaps the time has been reached where we need to park Atos and move on in a different direction”.
The disabled Conservative MP Robert Halfon said Atos had “repeatedly failed to inspire confidence and they need shaking up”, but that it was a Labour government that had signed the contract with the company.
But another Conservative MP, Margot James, said: “I don’t share the universal condemnation of Atos that I have heard in this House.”
She said Harrington had reviewed the WCA system three times – with particular reference to mental health – and “he did conclude that the improvements are starting to have an impact and as such no fundamental reforms in his view were needed”.
Mark Hoban, the Conservative employment minister, said the Harrington changes had led to improvements in the WCA, although there was a need to do more.
But he claimed that “some of the worry experienced by claimants is as a result of adverse media coverage, and it risks being fuelled by incorrect anecdotal information and indeed total myth”.
He insisted that Atos dealt with 100,000 assessments every month and “consistently meets quality thresholds that we set”, while only 3.6 per cent of its assessments were below standards set by the DWP.
He also said that of all the claimants found fit for work by the DWP, only 15 per cent were overturned on appeal.
He said: “Much is reported that ESA is not working. This is untrue. What we are seeing is people coming off ESA and into work.”
17 January 2013