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ATOS and government treatment of disabled people

Research published in March by the think-tank Demos and by the disability charity Scope, which my hon. Friend Mr Bain mentioned earlier, revealed that by 2017-18, 3.7 million disabled people will collectively lose £28 billion as a result of the Government’s cumulative benefit changes. If Scope and Demos can do a cumulative impact assessment, why cannot the Government? That is a staggering expropriation from arguably the most deprived and disadvantaged section of the entire population and it is perhaps worth rehearsing quickly the range of the cumulative impact: the incapacity benefit reassessment; the reassessment of the personal independence payments; the overall cap; the universal credit; the time limitation of employment support allowance; the change to local housing allowance; the bedroom tax; the abolition of the independent living fund; the 1% cap on benefit uprating; the localisation of and 10% cut in council tax benefit; and the 1% cap on various benefits and tax credits. That is the range of it.

The study found that 123,000 disabled people faced three benefit cuts that will lose them an income of £18,000 in the five years to 2018. A group of nearly 5,000 disabled people will suffer a combination of six benefit cuts, losing a total of £23,000 each over five years. That works out as £88 per week per person, which for people on the breadline is absolutely huge.ESA system pitted with defects & failures,

The gratuitous harshness of the Government’s treatment of disabled people comes out mostly in the initial attack on and forthcoming abolition of the independent living fund. The ILF gave new life, engagement, mobility and participation to severely disabled people. Two years ago, the Government closed the fund to any new claims and now they will devolve it to local authorities. Let me ask the Minister some questions—and I expect a reply. Will that be ring-fenced when it goes to local authorities? Will it be the same level of expenditure, with no reduction in public spending of the kind that the Government slipped in when they made the switch from DLA to PIP or in the devolution of the council tax benefit?

Then we have Atos and the work capability assessments. Frankly, the ESA system is simply not working. A Citizens Advice study found that nearly half the Atos reports included inaccuracies that were so serious that they would have affected the decisions made and 70% of them included incorrect factual recordings of the history given. Reviews have found considerable variability in decision making, and there is a 42% success rate at appeal; the rate is much higher when the individual disabled person is represented. There is a very low employment rate among claimants 12 to 18 months after the decision.

The inherent problems that remain with the ESA are legion. The descriptors do not capture a person’s state of health in a way that reflects their ability to work, while medical evidence from those who have detailed, accurate and relevant knowledge is ignored. The assessors lack the time, ability and medical knowledge to understand an individual’s condition and how it relates to work and the assessment is irrelevant to work because no attempt is made to discover what work an individual is supposed to be capable of doing.

As so many disabled persons who have been through the process have said, the worst aspect of the employment and support allowance assessment is fear and insecurity. There is the belief that a test has been created for people to fail, no matter how sick they are; the stress that makes ill-health worse; and the stress and uncertainty of repeated assessments, which are like a sword of Damocles hanging over people perpetually.

My hon. Friend Ian Mearns referred to Calum’s List. I thought 30 people had died; he says it is now 33. In nine cases, the family believe that stress triggered the death, and in 20 the person took their own life. Who is responsible for this bleak, unforgiving trail of misery? Behind Atos stands the Department for Work and Pensions, with its guidelines, regulations and descriptors, which underpin the Atos work; its targets—which are, of course, denied—for return-to-work decisions; and the sanctions to make sure that the assessors produce results.

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