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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 sick and disabled may fare no better under a new provider.
Protesters carry placards during a protest against Atos outside the company's head office in London on August 31, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

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. 

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