Greg Mulholland, Lib Dem MP for Leeds NW, is a regular user of twitter and, like many users of the social medium, he has not always used it wisely. He’s been tweeting quite a lot recently and one of his efforts caught our eye.
On 24th Feb, Mr Mulholland tweeted:
‘I welcomed the fact that #ATOS, appointed by the last Govt, have now failed their own #workcapabilityassessment. Far too many poor decisions.’
We presume this tweet refers to the fact that ATOS Healthcare is seeking to withdraw from their contract to manage the work capability assessment (WCA) one year before it is scheduled to end. Although the tweet is short it deserves close attention because it obscures a complex web of issues.
The tweet begins with the glib comment that he, ‘welcomed the fact that ATOS .… have now failed their own work capability test’. Welcomed, Mr Mulholland? Welcomed? Perhaps, he does not understand that whilst he is welcoming ATOS’s failure, hundreds of thousands of people have been left distressed and angered by the treatment they have received.
Notwithstanding the above, the key phrase of his tweet, of course, was ‘appointed by the last Govt’. The clear implication being that he wants us to think that what has been going on since 2010 is somehow Labour’s fault.
Subsequent to his tweet, Mr Mulholland has now posted an item on his website in which he repeats his ‘not us guv’ phrase, ‘It is no surprise to many that Atos, appointed by the last Labour government, have failed their own work capability assessment.’ He obviously wants his constituents to believe that ATOS’s failings have nothing to do with him.
So let us get the facts straight and place the responsibility for the mess surrounding work capability assessment where it lies: with Greg Mulholland’s coalition government.
Under Labour (1997 – 2010)
1. ATOS is a French multinational IT services company having contracts with businesses and public bodies including British, Welsh, Scottish and local UK governments;
2. In 1997 the Labour government was faced with a problem left over from the previous Major government. In an attempt to mask the number of people of unemployed, these people were tacitly encouraged by the Tory government to apply for Incapacity Benefit.
3. Initially the task of assessing people’s ability for work was undertaken by the Benefits Agencies Medical Service. One of the assessment centres was located at the Lawnswood Government Offices, in Leeds NW constituency.
4. However, acting on advice from the National Audit Office that had reported that the Benefits Agency was not coping, the government decided to out-source the medical ‘test’. The contract was won by SEMA in 2001. In 2004 SEMA was bought by ATOS. The branch of ATOS responsible for this was ATOS Healthcare.
5. The Welfare Reform Act (2007) replaced the incapacity benefit with the Employment and Support Allowance in 2008 for which a work capability assessment (WCA) by medical staff would be required.
Under Greg Mulholland’s Coalition government (2010 – )
Despite growing criticism of ATOS Healthcare’s performance, Greg Mulholland’s government extended ATOS’s contract in November 2010 until mid-2015.
By the time Labour lost office it was clear that the new system as a whole and ATOS Healthcare’s performance were falling short of what was required.
A review by Professor Michael Harrington for the Department of Work and Pensions, published in November 2010 said:
“There is strong evidence that the system can be impersonal and mechanistic, that the process lacks transparency and that a lack of communication between the various parties involved contributes to poor decision making and a high rate of appeals.”
However, Professor Harrington went on to say that the system was not beyond repair and he proposed some changes that he hoped would,
“ …. have a positive impact on the process – making it fairer and more effective, changing perceptions so the WCA is seen as a positive first step towards work, and reducing the rate of appeals. I also set out a future programme of work.”
So what happened next?
1. Some of Professor Harrington’s report and recommendations were accepted but additional and serious changes were made to the work capability assessment that had had nothing to do with his report.
2. DWP rewrote the regulations so as to change the assessment criteria descriptors. Against advice from charities and GPs across the UK, Iain Duncan Smith narrowed the descriptors and required ATOS Healthcare to apply the criteria more stringently. ATOS Healthcare was given new, tighter targets.
3. The effect of this was that the number of appeals and the annual cost of appeals against decisions on ESA rose from £21m in 2009/10 to £66m in 2012/13, and the number of appeals rose from 279,000 to 465,000. A majority of the appeals succeeded.
4. Mr Mulholland’s government now insists on reassessments for those deemed incapable of working. This has increased the workload on ATOS’s staff. The Financial Times reports that 163 ATOS staff per month have been threatened. Examples on Facebook include: “murdering scumbags . . . won’t be smiling when we come to hang you bastards”. Another says: “Know anyone who works for Atos? Kill them.”
5. Mr Mulholland’s government has been so pleased with ATOS’s performance that the company has been contracted to service a DWP flagship policy. Personal Independent Payments are planned to replace the Disability Living Allowance. A report by the National Audit Office, however, shows that within six months of the introduction of PIPs in some areas of the north of England in April 2013, a backlog of 92,000 cases had built up, almost three times the number expected. The DWP had made decisions in only 16% of the expected number of cases.
6. Here is what the NAO writes: ““It is too early to conclude on the Personal Independence Payment programme’s overall success and all major programmes run the risk of early operational problems. However the Department did not allow enough time to test whether the assessment process could handle large numbers of claims. As a result of this poor early operational performance, claimants face long and uncertain delays and the Department has had to delay the wider roll-out of the programme. Because it may take some time to resolve the delays, the Department has increased the risk that the programme will not deliver value for money in the longer term.” The above confirms what many commentators have argued, that whilst ATOS Healthcare has not provided value for money the root cause of the problem lies with Mr Mulholland’s government and the DWP in particular.
7. Mr Mulholland’s government is so keen on ATOS that it has given them contracts with the Department of Health and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.
8. And as if this wasn’t bad enough, we now learn that Atos has been given the contract to extract patient records from GP surgeries as part of the controversial NHS data sharing scheme. The plan has now been put on hold because the medical professions and the public have expressed grave concerns with regard the confidentiality of the data.
When Mr Mulholland’s government came to power it had the opportunity to review the work capability programme – when it came up for renewal – and make it fit for purpose, i.e. to serve the best interests of the incapacitated and disabled. It failed to do this. Indeed, the guidance of Iain Duncan Smith made the situation far worse.
Late in 2013 the charity, War on Welfare, raised more than 100,000 signatures in support of a petition requiring the Government to find time to debate a motion on welfare reform. The debate took place on Thursday 27th February and the motion was passed. (Details of the motion and the parliamentary debate can be found here: )
The essence of the motion, moved by Labour’s John McDonnell, is to call on the Government to commission an independent cumulative assessment of the impact of changes in the welfare system on sick and disabled people, their families and carers, drawing upon the expertise of the Work and Pensions Select Committee. The work capability assessment is a core component of the system.
Francesca Martinez, a high profile actor and comedian who suffers with cerebral palsy, was a key figure in organizing the petition. Speaking before the Commons debate, Ms Martinez, echoing the words of Cardinal Nichols just a week previous, said:
“It seems we’re living in a country at the moment where if you do get sick or if you do become disabled, not only have you got to deal with those challenges but you have to deal with the fact that the vital safety net that society provided for many decades is being eroded away. “Disabled people around the country are dying from these policies.”
Ms Martinez, speaking with a degree of gravity entirely absent from Mr Mulholland’s flippant and graceless tweet, cited the figure of 10,600 people who died within weeks of being found fit for work by a WCA test:
“Many more are falling into destitution and being subjected to humiliation and being targeted in a really awful way.”
It is interesting to note that in a recent posting on his website (28th February) Mr Mulholland makes NO reference to the debate in Parliament and the War on Welfare petition that launched it. We know that Mr Mulholland did not speak in the debate but we do not know whether or not he was present to vote at its conclusion because the vote passing the motion did not go to division.
We also note that he seems to think the problem with the work capability assessment lies with ATOS Healthcare and to a certain extent it does. But mostly it lies with the DWP, Iain Duncan Smith and all those in the coalition who have used the work capability assessment programme to attack the disabled or at best turned a blind eye.
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