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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What’s the secret of the world’s best-paid sports manager? Ask the Chicago Cubs

Theo Epstein is a star because he values the person as much as the player.

As I write, the Chicago Cubs, perennial underachievers, are three wins away from reaching baseball’s World Series for the first time since 1945. By the time you read this they may have crashed out. Besides, baseball – like cricket – is a language that asks a lot of its translators. So, in writing about the Cubs, I’ll skip the baseball bits. Fortunately, the lessons of the Cubs’ success (they were the outstanding team of 2016, even if they don’t win the World Series) transcend baseball.

To understand the future of sport – and perhaps employment – I recommend a pair of profiles of Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations for the Cubs, one published in the New York Times and the other written by David Axelrod (Barack Obama’s strategist) for the New Yorker.

Epstein, 42, has just agreed a contract extension worth $50m over five years, making him the highest-paid non-player in professional sport. There is plenty in the profiles on his whizzy use of data analytics; his algorithmic tests that measure players’ co-ordination (essentially using neuroscience to measure talent); as well as the Cubs’ coaching programme dedicated to mental health and managing stress. Most timely and important of all is Epstein’s emphasis on character. He talks about “scouting the person more than the player”. He wants the right kind of people on the field.

“In the draft room [where the team decides which players to sign], we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player,” he has said. “We ask our scouts to provide three detailed examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field.”

Epstein is well known for empowering a “geek department” inside his baseball teams. Yet instead of perceiving a conflict between science and the human realm, he sees the two as part of the same big picture. He craves players with character who can benefit from the insights of science.

“Character” is a vexed subject inside sport. It sets off uncomfortable associations. Talking too much about character – building it, or even just valuing it – sounds dangerously close to endorsing an amateur ethos. Victorian public schools often celebrated sport explicitly in opposition to intelligence, even achievement. H H Almond, the headmaster of Loretto from 1862, got an A for candour (if nothing else) when he ranked his school’s priorities: “First – Character. Second – Physique. Third – Intelligence.”

The Victorian notion of games cast a long shadow over sport and society in the 20th century. The first phase of ultra-professionalism, in the office as well as on the sports field, was a reaction to Almond’s set of values. The concept of character was recast as a consolation prize, doled out to the class dunce or the twelfth man. Crucially, reformers and nostalgics alike bought in to the historical perception of a separation or conflict between character, intellectual life and sporting achievement.

The Cubs, however, know better. To adapt Almond’s clumsy saying: intelligence and physical skills derive, significantly though not entirely, from character. Character is now being understood not as the destination, but the foundation, even the process.

This is an overdue reassessment. In the loosest terms, I would identify three phases in the development of professional sport. Phase one optimised the body. Sadly, though we are still inching forward, the human body is now reaching the outer wall of virtuosity. All sports will tail off in speed of progress, in terms of pure physicality.

Phase two of modern sport turned to psychology. Realising how hard it is to gain an edge through physical conditioning, everyone suddenly started talking about the mind: the inner game of this, the mental game of that. However, reconfiguring the mental approach of elite athletes – already in their twenties and thirties, with deeply ingrained habits and highly evolved psychological software – is also exceptionally difficult. That is why many top athletes recoil from conventional “sports psychology”; the discipline is oversold and under-sceptical.

We are now entering phase three: the whole person. Sustained high achievement relies on something much deeper than a few sessions with a sports psychologist. So you need the right people in the room.

Coaches in future will be numerate and intellectually unthreatened by the scientific advances that illuminate sport. But the best coaches will never lose sight of a parallel truth: that although science can help us to understand what happens on the sports field, and sometimes how to do it better, it cannot conveniently convert athletes into inert particles, as though it were a ­physical science. Coaching can benefit from ­science but remains an art – one that revolves around understanding and helping people.

In most sports, players and coaches are really in the business of decision-making. The winning team, as Pep Guardiola says, makes more good decisions. Sport, in other words, advances when it trains people to make better decisions. There are now highly evolved analytical techniques for understanding how those decisions influence results. However, the athletes themselves are still people, imperfect and imperfectible. If you want machines, you get dummies.

This month, I was asked to found a new institute of advanced sports studies at the University of Buckingham. The mission is to create undergraduate and postgraduate courses that attend to the entire mindset – critical thinking, ethics and leadership, as well as data analytics and sports science: a kind of “PPE of sport”. After a misleading triple fissure – character, body, mind – sport is starting to put the pieces back together again. That’s why, this month, I’m rooting for Epstein’s Cubs.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood