ATOS lose monopoly on work capability assessments after audit shows up “unacceptable” standards

Those of us who are concerned about the fairness of the welfare system often cite the Work Capability Assessment, which claimants of Employment and Support Allowance are required to take. It seems that every few days there’s a story in the press reporting how someone has been marked fit for work when it is clearly inappropriate to do so. Yesterday the Daily Record carried the story of a woman who lived just a couple of miles away from me who was told she was fit for work weeks before she died of a brain tumour.

Concerns about the WCA appear to have been vindicated by a Government audit which found 41% of reports sampled to be of an unacceptable standard. As a result of this, the Independent reports, ATOS will lose its monopoly on conducting the tests.

The findings mean the company will be stripped of its monopoly on deciding whether people with disabilities are fit to work. The DWP said the poor quality of the company’s written reports were “contractually unacceptable” and announced on Monday it would be inviting other companies to bid for fresh regional contracts by summer 2014 to help reduce waiting times. Liam Byrne, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: “This is a direct consequence of three years of appalling contract management by Iain Duncan Smith.”

A few points:

This needs sorting now, not in a year’s time

I wonder if anyone in Whitehall actually realises how stressful the thought of an assessment is for the people who have to undergo it. And when the Government itself doesn’t have confidence in almost half the reports, it can only make that process harder to endure.

Action is needed now to build confidence in the system.

Liam Byrne has a cheek

You won’t find me defending the current WCA because I don’t think it has any relevance to actually being able to do a job. I do see the need to have an assessment system, but it must be based on clinical evidence, not a requirement to save money. It should be based on the principle of helping people to work if they are able. You would not think from Liam Byrne’s comments that Labour were the people who gave ATOS the contract and introduced the WCA in the first place. We are nowhere near having a fair WCA, but the Coalition, at the urging of Liberal Democrats, has at least improved it from the model they inherited. So, let’s not listen to anything Labour has to say on the subject.

We need a WCA which reflects the reality of work

I am, however,  prepared to listen to Richard Hawkes, the Chief Executive of Scope who said:

It’s about time the Government told Atos to smarten up its act.

But, it’s also strikingly clear to disabled people that whole £112 million per year system is broken.

The cost of appeals has skyrocketed, assessors have resigned in disgust, and the test has received criticism from the Public Accounts Committee and National Audit Office. We have also witnessed shocking undercover footage of how ATOS assessors are trained and heard horror stories of disabled people inappropriately found fit to work.

The Government needs to deliver a test that is fit for purpose.

Most disabled people want to work but they face significant barriers, such as a lack of skills and experience, confidence and even negative attitudes from some employers. The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) ignores all this. It’s a tick-box test of someone’s medical condition.

If the Government is serious about getting more disabled people into work they need a test that is the start of the process that gives disabled people the specialist, tailored and flexible support they need.

Last year I took a look at the WCA and pointed out some of its intrinsic flaws.

When I was ill for a long time with Glandular Fever, there was no way, at its worst, I could have got from my bed to the bathroom, let alone to work for a whole day. Yet if I completed this form, I’d feel like a fraud because I could have done virtually everything within it. On some days, I could walk 50 metres, although I would have struggled with 200. I could pick up a pound coin, turn the pages of a book, walk up my stairs most of the time if I’d been able to get down them. When I had the energy I could communicate with people, and most of the time I didn’t upset them.

I could set my alarm clock (although my husband still can’t work the Sky Plus, and he’s reasonably healthy so I’m not sure what that proves), I could put the washing machine on no bother, although it could take me half a day to get the energy together to sort the clothes into loads.

Fixing it will take more than just bringing in new companies to administer it. The whole process needs to be rebuilt to be realistic, sensitive and fair.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Andrew Suffield 23rd Jul '13 - 3:45pm

    Good news, long overdue.

  • paul barker 23rd Jul '13 - 3:48pm

    Its not just the suffering the system causes, theres the whole question of whether any money is actually being saved.
    First, theres been an enormous increase in the number of appeals to the point where the whole process can now take up to a year.
    Secondly theres a more fundamental point. Obviously if people go from not working to working thats a win. That isnt going to be what happens in most cases, most will simply move from ESA to signing on. Whether that saves any money I dont know & I suspect not. Signing on involves weekly or fortnightly meetings with staff with an associated cost.

  • What New Labour cannot run away from is the Unum involvment in the Work Capability Assessment and neither can the Conservatives because it was Peter Lilley who brought in Unum as “advisors” for “All Work Test” for Incapacity Benefit.
    Suggested reading:-

    “In November 2001 a conference assembled at Woodstock, near Oxford. Its
    subject was ‘Malingering and Illness Deception’. The topic was a familiar one
    to the insurance industry, but it was now becoming a major political issue as
    New Labour committed itself to reducing the 2.6 million who were claiming
    Incapacity Benefit (IB). Amongst the 39 participants was Malcolm Wicks, then
    Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Work, and Mansel Aylward, his Chief
    Medical Officer at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). Fraud – which
    amounts to less than 0.4 per cent of IB claims – was not the issue. The experts
    and academics present were the theorists and ideologues of welfare to work.
    What linked many of them together, including Aylward, was their association
    with the giant US income protection company UnumProvident, represented at
    the conference by John LoCascio. The goal was the transformation of the welfare
    system. The cultural meaning of illness would be redefined; growing numbers of
    claimants would be declared capable of work and ‘motivated’ into jobs”

  • Tony Dawson 23rd Jul '13 - 7:28pm

    Good news but how the hell did it take so long?

    I write as someone who has won a benefit appeal by a dead man in respect of the failure to provide him the ESA without which he staved himself to a point where pneumonia took over.

    One big problem still is the failure of the DWP to include ATOS complaints within the mainstream complaints process. The idea that dissatisfied claimants should have to complain to ATOS itself would be laughable were it not tear-inducing.

  • A Social Liberal 23rd Jul '13 - 10:48pm

    Two points.

    *Paying a company on the basis of how many are found fit for work is cynical in the extreme and wrong – just plain wrong.
    *To then employ a private firm to conduct the interviews is, quite simply, wicked. How can a company ensure objectivity when it is driven by the above?
    *Take the two points above and what you get is what you see – expertise is sacrificed in the pursuit of money and mediocre interviewers make decision about illnesses about which they know nothing. Worse, they are trained to ensure that most interviewees are found fit to work.

    Here I must declare an interest. I have a brain disease. this means that for the rest of my life I will occasionally collapse in a heap, or stare off into space for the odd 15 minutes or so, I will have hallucinations that will have me screaming and shouting and dreams so vivid and real that I cannot always tell the difference between reality and dreamstate. It would take a brave employer to take me on.

    However, ATOS may well find me fit to work

  • A Social Liberal 23rd Jul '13 - 10:49pm


    I meant to change ‘two points’ to three

  • David Wilkinson 24th Jul '13 - 8:28am

    The sad thing is that it as taken the coalition government three years to realise that ATOS are useless at best and at worse are one of the most evil organisations in the country.
    But it only lost the contract because its wriiten repoart were ppor, no mention of thre suffering inflicted on the sick or even the deaths caused by methods of ATOS
    Another bright idea from Labour which should have been scrapped in 2010. Its funny how Labour MP’s, councillors etc say how terrible ATOS is and then conveniently forget its was their sick idea in the first place
    The trouble is that now all the main parties in parliament have a contempuous attitude towards the poor, the weak, the unemployed and also the sick, they are all view by our polictical masters as a burden.
    The worse example I have to deal with was a man who needed a lung transplant but was deemed fit to work by this shower.

  • Liberal Neil 24th Jul '13 - 10:26am

    If 41% of reports are sub-=standard I would expect them to lose the entire contract, not just their monopoly.

  • And, as they lose their monooply, which denial mill will be taking up the slack – Serco, G4S, some other as yet un-named corporation who got denounced by the US as rogue and not fit for purpose?

  • Andrew Colman 24th Jul '13 - 9:55pm

    At long last, a bit of good news in this disgraceful saga.

    The ATOS checks should have been scrapped in 2010 and replaced with a scheme to help disabled people get jobs (rather than cutting benefits). Perhaps with the tories so low in the opinion polls, this change could still be forced through before the next election,

  • I have had three Work Capability Assessments over the last five years. Caron Lindsay wrote, “We are nowhere near having a fair WCA, but the Coalition, at the urging of Liberal Democrats, has at least improved it from the model they inherited.” My last assessment was worse in 2012 than those of 2008 and 2011 because the criteria has become more difficult to meet. It is also important to remember that the decision is not made by ATOS but a Work and Pensions decision maker. However the guidance is flawed because it assumes that the ATOS report is accurate. There would be less appeals being won at tribunal if the appeal process was improved to ensure that when reviewed the new decision maker has before them a submission that always includes a rebuttal of the inaccuracies of the ATOS medical report. (This would mean that these medical reports would need to be sent to the all claimants appealing.) All three of my ATOS medical reports had some inaccuracies. Another way to improve the process would be to get the ATOS medical professional to read back to the claimant and ensure they agree with what is written in the report.

    In my opinion if someone scores anything they should be put in the first category and given the support that these people receive at the moment. It should also be easier to be put into the support group. I believe that under the reforms under this government it has become harder.

    The contact should be changed so ATOS or however is carrying out these medicals no longer receive all the money for the test in one payment. Two-thirds of the money could be withheld until the deadline for appeal has passed and if there is no appeal it could be paid. If there ia an appeal then the next third could be paid if the decision in agreement with the report is upheld by the decision maker who passes it to the tribunal service and the last third paid if the appeal stops there. If the appeal continues the final third would only be paid if the tribunal upholds the decision. As the government likes payments by results this system would assist in bring it about for the ATOS medical reports. I do wonder how much it costs government to deal with appeals. (The tribunal service and I were sent 73 pages by the DPW that included the reasons why the decision was made.)

  • michael straughan 13th Nov '13 - 12:37am

    i had an assessment and every think in the report after it. was all lies she put things on the report that were never mentioned . but will there wages be stoped for getting it wrong probably get a bonus

  • Robert Simmonds 22nd Feb '14 - 8:14pm

    Take a good look at the mess ATOS has made ! Now imagine the same Private corporations in the NHS . Privatization by the back door has to stop and stop now . I believe strongly in Private enterprise but not in HEALTH . POWER and WATER

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