Protesters carry placards during a protest against Atos outside the company's head office in London on August 31, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Atos's departure isn't enough - fit for work tests aren't working

Unless the system itself is reformed, the sick and disabled will fare no better under a new provider.

The news that Atos has exited its contract to carry out work capability assessments, more than a year before it was due to expire, has prompted rejoicing among its many critics. The French company has been under attack for years over the tests, which assess the suitability of the sick and the disabled for work. More than 600,000 appeals have been lodged against its decisions since the WCA was introduced with 40 per cent overturned. "Atos kills" is the slogan daubed on London walls, a reference to the 10,600 people who died during or within six weeks of undergoing the test. Dennis Skinner memorably branded the company a "cruel, heartless monster" during PMQs last year, calling on David Cameron to "abolish" it, and Labour similarly urged the government to "sack" it.

That, according to ministers, is what the coalition has now done. While Atos sought to give the impression that it walked, disabilities minister Mike Penning suggested that it was pushed. He said this morning:

The previous government appointed Atos as the sole provider for carrying out work capability assessments and since then we have carried out several independent reviews and made significant improvements to the assessment.

Today we are announcing that we are seeking a new provider to replace Atos, with the view to increasing the number of assessments and reducing waiting times.

I am pleased to confirm that Atos will not receive a single penny of compensation from the taxpayer for the early termination of their contract; quite the contrary, Atos has made a substantial financial settlement to the department.

But while the departure of Atos is being celebrated, on its own, it won't be enough to end the problems with the system. As GPs and others have warned, it is the work capability assessment itself, not merely its administrators, that is fundamentally flawed. It rests on the premise that a 30-minute test, comprised of tasks such as moving an empty cardboard box and using a pen, is capable of determining whether someone is able to return to work. As GP Andrew Holden noted: "Since the system was introduced in 2008, people with terminal cancer have been found fit to work, people with mental health problems have complained their condition is not taken seriously and people with complex illnesses say that the tick-box system is not able to cope with the nuances of their problems," he told the conference, proposing the motion.

"The computer-based assessments are carried out by a healthcare professional but one not necessarily trained in the field of the patient's disability, which is particularly important when it comes to mental health issues."

With the government merely stating that it hopes the new provider will increase "the number of assessments" and reduce "waiting times" (suggesting a crude focus on costs), the risk is that Atos's departure is just used as an excuse for a convenient rebrand. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Pexel
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This week, a top tip to save on washing powder (just don’t stand too near the window)

I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

Well, in the end I didn’t have to go to Ikea (see last week’s column). I got out of it on the grounds that I was obviously on the verge of a tantrum, always distressing to witness in a man in his early-to-mid-fifties, and because I am going to Switzerland.

“Why Switzerland?” I hear you ask. For the usual reason: because someone is paying for me. I don’t think I’m going to be earning any money there, but at least I’ll be getting a flight to Zurich and a scenic train ride to Bellinzona, which I learn is virtually in Italy, and has three castles that, according to one website, are considered to be “amongst the finest examples of medieval fortification in Switzerland”.

I’m not sure what I’m meant to be doing there. It’s all about a literary festival generally devoted to literature in translation, and specifically this year to London-based writers. The organiser, who rejoices in the first name of Nausikaa, says that all I have to do is “attend a short meeting . . . and be part of the festival”. Does this mean I can go off on a stroll around an Alp and when someone asks me what I’m doing, I can say “Oh, I’m part of the festival”? Or do I have to stay within the fortifications, wearing a lanyard or something?

It’s all rather worrying, if I think about it too hard, but then I can plausibly claim to be from London and, moreover, it’ll give me a couple of days in which to shake off my creditors, who are making the city a bit hot for me at the moment.

And gosh, as I write, the city is hot. When I worked at British Telecom in the late Eighties, there was a rudimentary interoffice communication system on which people could relay one-line messages from their own computer terminal to another’s, or everyone else’s at once. (This was cutting-edge tech at the time.) The snag with this – or the opportunity, if you will – was that if you were not at your desk and someone mischievous, such as Gideon from Accounts (he didn’t work in Accounts; I’m protecting his true identity), walked past he would pause briefly to type in the message “I’m naked” on your machine and fire it off to everyone in the building.

For some reason, the news that either Geoff, the senior team leader, or Helen, the unloved HR manager, was working in the nude – even if we knew, deep down, that they weren’t, and that this was another one of Gideon’s jeux d’esprit – never failed to break the monotony.

It always amused us, though we were once treated to a terrifying mise en abîme moment when a message, again pertaining to personal nudity, came from Gideon’s very own terminal, and, for one awful moment, for it was a very warm day, about 200 white-collar employees of BT’s Ebury Bridge Road direct marketing division suddenly entertained the appalling possibility, and the vision it summoned, that Gideon had indeed removed every stitch of his clothing, and fired off his status quo update while genuinely in the nip. He was, after all, entirely capable of it. (We still meet up from time to time, we BT stalwarts, and Gideon is largely unchanged, except that he’s now a history lecturer.)

I digress in this fashion in order to build up to the declaration – whose veracity you can judge for yourselves – that as I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, I, too, am in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

There are practical reasons for this. For one thing, it is punishingly hot, and I am beginning, even after a morning shower, to smell like a tin of oxtail soup (to borrow an unforgettable phrase first coined by Julie Burchill). I am also anxious not to transfer any of this odour to any of my clothes, for I will be needing them in Switzerland, and I am running low on washing powder, as well as money to buy more washing powder.

For another thing, I am fairly sure that I am alone in the Hovel. I am not certain. To be certain, I would have to call out my housemate’s name, and that would only be the beginning of our problems. “Yes, I’m here,” she would reply from her room. “Why?” “Um . . .” You see?

So here I lie on my bed, laptop in lap, every window as wide open as can be, and looking for all the world like a hog roast with glasses.

If I step too near the window I could get arrested. At least they don’t mind that kind of thing in Switzerland: they strip off at the drop of a hat. Oh no, wait, that’s Germany.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times