Time to shut down the Atos machine

By Bernadette Meaden
August 23, 2013

If a factory production line was found to be turning out a high proportion of faulty and unusable widgets, it would be stopped. It might then take some time to detect and correct the fault, but to leave the machine running whilst the fault persisted would be an avoidable waste of energy and materials.

So, now that the whole system of assessing sick and disabled people has been found to be deeply flawed and unacceptably poor, why are assessments continuing?

Surely the ethical and rational thing to do would be to suspend assessments until there was confidence that the system was effective and humane. To do as the Department for Work and Pensions has done, to carry on dragging vulnerable people into a process known to be ineffective and, for many, quite distressing, seems unreasonable and perhaps even reckless.

It is also wasteful, as the government continues to pay for faulty assessments, many of which will inevitably lead to an appeal, which will cost yet more money.

The public may be surprised to learn that people are being pushed through this flawed process at a rate of over 100,000 a month. Many will be transferring to Employment Support Allowance (ESA) from the old Incapacity Benefit, whilst those on ESA may have already been through one or more Work Capability Assessments (WCA). The system is geared to constantly assess and reassess the same severely disabled or seriously ill people.

This process should be halted, and for new claimants, who have only recently become ill or disabled, surely it would be sensible to accept the opinion of their GP?

In May, judges ruled that the assessments were unfair to people with mental health problems, And Ravi Low-Beer, of the Public Law Project, said:

"Today's ruling confirms what disabled people have been saying for years – although ignored by ministers – that the work capability assessment process is not fit for purpose.

"It is in everyone's interests that the DWP changes course. If they continue to rush people with mental health disabilities through the process as it stands, more ill people will be wrongly refused support, more ill people will suffer a deterioration in their mental health as they try to navigate the appeal system, and more public money will be wasted."

But the DWP continues to put people with mental health problems through the Atos mill.

Even when the assessment reports were found to be ‘unacceptably poor’ the DWP’s response was to say it would bring in additional providers from summer 2014, meaning that hundreds of thousands of sick and disabled people will continue to be put through the Atos machine for at least another year.

But as activist Sue Marsh has pointed out, the problems with the Work Capability Assessments run far deeper than just their implementation by Atos.

The WCA is used to assess a wide variety of people, from those with a severe, permanent disability to those who have suddenly had their working lives disrupted by an accident, or an illness which may fluctuate, meaning that the result of the assessment can depend on what day it is carried out.

The WCA is a blunt instrument, completely unsuitable for the subtle and sensitive situations in which it is applied.

Now, Atos whistleblower Dr Greg Wood has raised a very interesting point. After explaining his reasons for blowing the whistle on Atos, Dr Wood added: “what’s really interesting is that if they have got decisions wrong for two years there could be legal implications involving one to two million cases.”

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has shown a remarkable ability to remain impervious to reason and ignore inconvenient truths, but the slightest possibility of one or two million people suing the DWP for damages should be enough to perturb even Iain Duncan Smith. And surely it makes a suspension of these flawed assessments the only prudent course of action: to continue may be to store up further legal liabilities.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.