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Atos campaigners win huge victory

atos bigEver since the days of Jo Moore who infamously emailed on the day of 9/11 that “today is a good day to bury bad news”, governments thereafter have tended to follow her advice. Hence on the day when Prince George’s arrival was announced to the world, the government cunningly buried the bad news (for them) that the work capability assessments were going badly wrong and would have to be re-thought.

Of course the government didn’t admit to making any mistakes themselves – it was all the fault of Atos! What a surprise! Atos staff, we’re told, had turned in some ‘unacceptably poor’ work standards and would have to be re-trained – ignoring the fact that it has taken them over 2 years to notice this.

The truth of course is rather different. Whilst there is certainly plenty of evidence of callous, unthoughtful, insensitive practices by staff working for the French IT firm Atos, the real reason that DWP has been forced into an embarrassing retreat, despite all ministerial assurances to the contrary, is that they have finally been compelled to recognise that the guidelines, regulations and prescriptors which they have handed down to their Atos agents are deeply flawed.

This is a huge victory for all those who have campaigned long and hard to get the government to acknowledge this. With a target of re-assessing 1.5 million incapacity claimants – some with multiple and complex disabilities – at a rate of 11,000 a week, it was inevitable there would be thousands of errors, misunderstandings, misjudgements – and consequential human tragedies.

With such rapid-fire work capability assessments (WCAs) needed to meet these inflated targets (sorry, guidelines), there were bound to be perfunctory interviews, failure to take advice from the claimant’s GP, and preconceived decisions – hence the very high 40% success rate on appeal. But whilst some Atos staff certainly have a lot to answer for, the main responsibility for this human disaster lies squarely with the DWP rules which they were forced to work under.

The question now is how far this framework is going to change. I am glad to report that the Minister responsible, Mark Hoban, has finally, albeit after 6 months procrastination, agreed to receive a delegation on 10 September to discuss how the whole Atos system can be improved so that interviews are carried out sensitively, with enough time and prior consultation to obtain GPs’ advice, and with serious attempts to assess properly and objectively and without the distorting intrusiveness of targets whether people are genuinely capable of work or not, as well as the realistic likelihood of being able to get a job in particular areas when the unemployment total is 2.5 million. This delegation is a breakthrough, and I pay a deep tribute to all those thousands of campaigners who have struggled against all the odds for so long to have this injustice righted.

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