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)
OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
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Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.