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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.