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.

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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