Work capability assessments: the fightback

Disabled people win right to judicial review.

Encouraging news out of the High Court on Thursday for opponents of the loathed Atos' work capability assessments (WCAs) : the court granted permission to two disabled people for a judicial review to challenge the operation of WCAs. 

Represented by the Public Law Project, the claimants argue that WCAs discriminate against people with mental health problems. Says the Public Law Project's Ravi Low-Beer, the reasonable adjustment they want is for the onus to be on the Department of Work and Pensions “to make sure they have medical evidence from medical practitioners from the beginning of the process,” for ESA applicants with mental health issues.
 
Most people will know WCAs as the face-to-face interviews and brief physical tests that are conducted by Atos healthcare to assess people's eligibility for the Employment and Support Allowance
 
As things stand, says Low-Beer, WCAs are conducted by Atos healthcare professionals who are not mental health experts. “At present,” the Public Law Project says, “the DWP do not routinely ask for expert medical reports from an applicant’s community-based doctor.” Interviews are often hurried and people must be able to explain their problems in detail. The claimants contend that not everyone with mental health problems is always in a position to do that – it may be, says Public Law, that “conditions fluctuate in seriousness, or [people] cannot easily talk about their disability” - which means people can be found fit for work with less than their whole stories told. That, says Low-Beer, pushes people who may already be struggling into a notoriously stressful appeals process.
 
“For some people, having to negotiate an appeal is an agony. It causes a tremendous amount of distress. It's a confrontation with the state that they're ill-equipped to endure.” For those reasons, says Low-Beer, medical evidence should be available and considered at the beginning of the process, and it should be up to the DWP to make sure it is. Last year, the Public Law Project and the Mental Health Resistance Network began to meet to consider a course of action around the problem
 
Now, they have one. It's certainly a slap in the face for the government – and for a despised assessment process that has long been mired in strife and acrimony. Sites like Broken of Britain, AtosVictimsGroup and Jayne Linney's have grown and grown as people have looked to rein in an assessment process that they say is imprecise, unfair, fails to account for medical evidence and even to reflect discussions which take place in Atos assessment rooms. The Guardian has reported “hundreds of thousands of people” flooding to contest decisions made against ESA eligibility as a result of these assessments:  “a 56% rise during 2010/11 in the number of people appealing rulings that they are fit for work,” and an overloaded tribunals system to boot. “Since the system was trialled at the end of 2009, at least 390,000 people have gone to appeal. Tribunal courts have been forced to open on Saturdays and to increase staff by 30% since January 2010 to deal with the backlog.”
 
God knows I've talked to people who've been stuck in it. People I've interviewed with mental health problems and bad experiences of WCA include Paul*, from Cheshire, a man who'd worked for nearly 40 years, but who suffered from severe depression and had made a suicide attempt when his department was restructured and his job changed. He told me that "there was no sympathy all,” at his WCA:  “They even got my date of birth and my medication wrong. They said I went out shopping and visiting my brother - none of which was true. I can't go out of the door on my own.” Atos found him fit for work – a decision which was, like many, overturned on appeal. He almost didn't get there – he was so stressed by the thought of the appeals process that he did not want to go through it. In the end, he only appealed because his wife insisted and helped him with it.
 
A Newcastle man with schizophrenia, Steve*, also failed in his application for ESA. He told me that few questions were asked in his assessment about the impact his schizophrenia has on his life and his ability to cope. He was found fit for work and needed the help of his community mental health team to go through an appeal.
 
*Surnames withheld
Work and Pensions minister Chris Grayling (Photo: Getty Images)
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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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