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My speech on ATOS Work Capability Assessments

I beg to move that this House has considered the matter of Atos work capability assessments.

I warmly thank the Backbench Business Committee for enabling me and cross-party colleagues to introduce this debate on Atos work capability assessments. There is enormous concern about the issue both in the country and in this House, as witnessed by the fact that more than 30 Members wish to speak on a Thursday. To try to ensure that they can all do so, I propose to speak for no more than 10 to 15 minutes. I hope that colleagues will accept that, for reasons of pressure on time, I do not propose to take interventions.

As knowledge of the debate has spread, I have been sent nearly 300 case histories, many of which make heart-rending reading. I cannot begin to do justice to their feelings of distress, indignation, fear, helplessness and, indeed, widespread anger at the way they have been treated. Nor can I easily contain my own feelings at the slowness, rigidity and insensitivity with which Atos and the Department for Work and Pensions have responded—or very often not responded—to the cries of pain that they have heard repeatedly. I have time to cite briefly only three examples which show how extreme is the dysfunction and malfunctioning of the Atos assessments.

The first example concerns a constituent of mine who was epileptic almost from birth and was subject to grand mal seizures. At the age of 24, he was called in by Atos, classified as fit for work and had his benefit cut by £70 a week. He appealed, but became agitated and depressed and lost weight, fearing that he could not pay his rent or buy food. Three months later, he had a major seizure that killed him. A month after he died, the DWP rang his parents to say that it had made a mistake and his benefit was being restored.

The second example, also from the Oldham area, concerns a middle-aged woman who was registered blind and in an advanced stage of retinitis pigmentosa. She was assessed at 9 points—well short of the 15 that are needed—and her incapacity benefit was withdrawn. On review by a tribunal, the Atos rating of 9 points was increased to 24.

The third case—I could have chosen from hundreds of others—also comes from the north-west and concerns an insulin-dependent diabetic with squamous cell cancer, Hughes syndrome, which involves a failed immune system, peripheral neuropathy, which meant that he had no feeling in his feet or legs, heart disease, depression and anxiety. Despite his life-threatening condition, he was placed in the work-related activity group.

Those and myriad other examples illustrate incontrovertibly that Atos’s current work capability assessment system is drastically flawed, and for several reasons.

First, Atos is an IT firm and it uses the so-called Logic Integrated Medical Assessment, which is often described as “rigid” and “tick-box” because computer-based systems make it difficult for health professionals to exercise their professional judgment. Because such a mechanistic system has little or no regard for the complexity of the needs of severely disabled or sick persons, the British Medical Association and others have condemned the current WCA as “not fit for purpose”.

Secondly, assessed persons regularly felt that the opinion of their own doctor or of other specialist medical personnel who were treating them was either ignored or overridden. That is all the more serious when Atos’s practices simply do not adhere to the guidance for doctors set down by the General Medical Council.

Thirdly, because of the failure of so many initial assessments, the appeal procedure is grossly overloaded and hugely expensive. No less than 41% of decisions are appealed, of which 38% are won. At £60 million in a single year, the appeals have cost the taxpayer more than half of the £110 million that was spent on the original assessments. Moreover, the National Audit Office has castigated the Department for failing to penalise Atos for what it politely calls its “underperformance” and for not setting “sufficiently challenging” targets.

Fourthly, there are concerns about the responsibility for work capability assessments, in particular that of the Atos chief medical officer. Professor Michael O’Donnell joined Atos from the American company, Unum, formerly UnumProvident, which had a very poor reputation in the US, where it was described as an “outlaw company” by the US authorities, partly because it was regarded as a “disability denial factory”. In that situation, the responsibilities of the Minister and the Secretary of State need to be established clearly.

Against that background, it is frankly not good enough for the Minister to respond to the debate by saying that there have been three Harrington reviews, and that the Department is doing the best it can to improve procedures. The fundamental issue is this: how can pursuing with such insensitive rigour 1.6 million claimants on incapacity benefit, at a rate of 11,000 assessments every week, be justified when it has led, according to the Government’s own figures, to 1,300 persons dying after being put into the work-related activity group, 2,200 people dying before their assessment is complete, and 7,100 people dying after being put into the support group? Is it reasonable to pressurise seriously disabled persons into work so ruthlessly when there are 2.5 million unemployed, and when on average eight persons chase every vacancy, unless they are provided with the active and extensive support they obviously need to get and hold down work, which is certainly not the case currently?

I therefore want to conclude by asking the Minister five specific questions to which I want a specific answer before the end of the debate.

First, it is true that Harrington has produced minor adjustments—implemented at a glacial place—but the underlying system remains largely undisturbed. The BMA and the NAO have therefore called for a thorough, rigorous and transparently independent assessment of the suitability of the work capability assessment. Will the Minister now implement that?

Secondly, will the Minister accept that the current criteria and descriptors do not sufficiently—or even at all—take into account fluctuating conditions, especially episodic mental health problems? How will he rectify that?

Thirdly, will the Minister provide full and transparent details of the Atos contract? They should not be hidden by specious claims of commercial confidentiality when Atos is the sole provider of what is clearly a public service. Better still, given that Atos has failed so dramatically, why does he not in-source the work back into the NHS?

Fourthly, how will the Minister ensure that the medical expertise of disabled persons’ doctors and related professionals is fully taken into account before assessments are completed?

Lastly, I want to provide a full dossier to the Secretary of State so that he fully understands what is being done today in his name, and to bring a small delegation to see him from some of the excellent organisations of disabled people who have heroically battled to highlight and tackle the distress and pain caused by Atos. Can I please be assured that the Secretary of State will see such a delegation?

I repeat that I am sincerely grateful for this debate, for the co-operation of colleagues from all parties, and for the detailed responses I have received from so many hundreds of victims of Atos, but I assure the Minister of this: the debate is important, but it will certainly not be the end of the matter.


  1. Jenna says:

    Thank you Michael Meacher for showing there are still some MPs who care what happens to the sick and disabled in this country. Excellent sppeech and debate. Stephen Timms response still too weak. Labour MPs spoke with passion, knowledge and terrible constituency case histories. Yet still the Labour leadership is unsure wehther to continue with the tough on croungers rhetoric or call this gobernment out for the deliberate and known policy which is killing people. The WCA MUST END NOW not more tinkering. Hoban’s response was woeful – he must know he will be held accountable for the deaths and suicides if he allows this to continue on his watch. He should leave it to his predecessor Grayling to take the responsibility and end it while he still can.

    I can only thank you again Michael. Please keep this up. A member of my own family has died as a result of the added stress anxiety and worry caused by having to deal with this assessment while clearly unable to work. I will never forgive this government or any MP who still tries to defend this abomination.

  2. Claire Stanbridge says:

    Thank you for your speech. I am sure many people will appreciate your valiant effort to present the truth about ATOS to the H.of C.

  3. treborc says:

    I’m glad some in labour still have some socialism, it sad that they are in the minority.

  4. Mary S. says:

    Welfare Rights Workers have been concerned about this issue for years. As I told a seriously ill client “there are no points for not being able to breath.”
    Yet elements of the press would have readers believe that failing Atos assessments is proof that people were benefit frauds in the first place!

  5. Sandy says:

    Thank you Michael Meacher from the bottom of my heart for this brave stand against a government that shows no compassion for those many of who can not defend themselves, and for your continued efforts to bring this atrocity to the publics attention.

  6. Michele Rickitt says:

    Thank you Michael Meacher for putting the truth out there. I just hope that the press and media report what you have said.

  7. Dave says:

    treb: “some in labour still have some socialism,”

    Heartening though it may be, unfortunately they are isolated and, in Parliament, can easily be marginalised.

    Members in the constituencies fair little better as demonstrated by the antics surrounding the selection of Sarah ’13 votes’ Parachute of Rotherham. In fact, in the constituencies in my area there are hardly any activists left – only a rump of diminishing retiree nostalgics.

    As someone active in campaigns to save the NHS I’m surprised by the degree to which people have given up on the Labour Party. Even what’s left of my own loyalty, in comparison to feelings of fellow campaigners, seems to be a remnant of over-optimistic naivety.

    Organisations like 38 Degrees, Ukuncut and the National Health Action Party are now attracting those who wish to do something useful and may even do Labour a favour as an outside pole of attraction – preventing the PLP from drifting any further into the Thatcher/Blairite la-la-land.

    But goodness knows how the Labour Party will get it’s message across come 2015 – the media will be against it and it will be without a ground force of activists to do the business on the doorstep – it’s not looking good.

  8. treborc says:

    Of course I’m one of the people who do what I can for 38 degrees, in Wales our NHS is being ripped apart by labour under the guise of modernization, they said they spoke and they did listen to the people, sadly they did not because we all said no to the changes.

    It’s getting harder and harder to find a reason to be in, or support a political party run by a bloke who has done sod all in the party.

  9. David says:

    Well done to Michael Meacher for getting this debate

    As Jenna has pointed out the response from Stephen Timms was too weak.

    Stephen Timms , the shadow minister of state for employment, said: “The architecture of employment and support allowance is sound. The assessment system, however, is clearly not up to the load it is being asked to bear.”

    This fails to acknowledge the failure of the horrendous edifice of ESA precisely because it based on a totally flawed foundation – the WCA that lies at its base.

    And while we continue to challenge and condemn the present Government for the horrific scandal they have created and continue to perpetuate, this kind of statement from Labour also needs to be strongly challenged.

    The assessment system supports the whole architecture of ESA. It is the centrepiece of the whole horrendous system.

    The methodology and the design of the WCA itself is clearly flawed, as well as its implementation and delivery by ATOS.

    It is not just a matter of who is delivering it.

    The WCA test itself is demonstrably flawed as is clear through its horrendous results.

    Its design, methodology and descriptors are a bizarre hotch potch of factors which have little to do with any real world work environment that I’ve ever come across.

    It is scandalous that the enormity of the present ESA system has been built upon it.

    Labour should not be trying to perpetuate it.

    The architecture of ESA is built upon a demonstrably flawed and collapsing foundation.

    Let it fall and be consigned to the rubbish tip where it belongs.

  10. Findlow says:

    Thank you so much, Michael Meacher, just a huge thank you to you and colleagues like John McDonnell who are trying so hard against all odds to get something done about this awful, shameful scandal. I desperately want to see the back of the ConDem government, but we must be certain that Labour will safeguard the rights and dignity of chronically sick and disabled people and repeal the current nightmare brought about by the Welfare Reform Act.

  11. treborc says:

    Of course all the Tories are doing is of course carrying on with Labour medical it was labour that contracted ATOS and it was Blair who had secret meeting for which we were refused an FOI request.

    It was Miliband who stated at the Labour party conference about him knocking on a disabled persons door knowing he could work without even asking him what was wrong.

    Labour Tory fact is the differences was once massive today it’s to little to make a difference

  12. I have already emailed a letter of gratitude but wish to thankyou again. We have a 64 year old neighbour lives alone suffers incredibly with Parkinsons disease to the extent he can’t hold a knofe and fork. We helped to complete his forms and took him for his WCA and yes he scored no point and found fit for work. It nearly killed him he could not get out of bed fo two weeks. Thankyou for starting to get his flawed system out in the public domain.

  13. Number Six says:

    The Physician’s Oath
    At the time of being admitted as a member of the medical profession:
    I solemnly pledge myself to consecrate my life to the service of humanity;
    I will give to my teachers the respect and gratitude which is their due;
    I will practice my profession with conscience and dignity;
    The health of my patient will be my first consideration;
    I will respect the secrets which are confided in me;
    I will maintain by all the means in my power, the honour and the noble traditions of the medical profession;
    My colleagues will be my brothers and sisters;
    I will not permit considerations of religion, nationality, race, gender, politics, socioeconomic standing, or sexual orientation to intervene between my duty and my patient;
    I will maintain the utmost respect for human life; even under threat, I will not use my medical knowledge contrary to the laws of humanity;
    I make these promises solemnly, freely and upon my honour.

  14. george firewood says:

    Yes I agree great speech and sincere comments but the bottom line is the tories are in goverment have a majority supported by the liberals so they can and will do whatever they like and of course the weak and vunerable in society will suffer and the great speeches will count for nothing.

  15. Zordana says:

    ATOS should be suspended pending further investigation. What is happening is criminal and they should be taken to the Human rights court.
    Why do they continually attack the weak, vulnerable and old? Cowards the lot of them.
    Can you say”Class Action law suit”…thought you could.

  16. katherine roberts says:

    speaking from experience of the process,ATOS will not leave me alone even after a decision was turned around in my favour,they are at it again,They have caused me so much stress and hardship,my health has deteriorated and sometimes I think they would prefer it if you just stepped off this mortal coil.

  17. Ross says:

    Having received my letter telling me I was fit for work, having scored 0 in total. I was left bewildered, at the interview I was in severe sciatic pain. Unable to sit, stand or walk without suffering, and yet my report states I had no problem sitting, standing or walking at the interview, just one area the report was in error, I’m wondering if it’s worth appealing as I feel that
    Atos have stitched me up completely. It’s good to know that some MPs don’t think that we are all a bunch of layabouts who just sit about on our fat backsides watching Jeremy Kyle all day. Keep up the good work and hopefully Atos will be done for fraud!

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