Demonstrators at an anti-Atos protest. The company has since abandoned its contract with the DWP.
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How do we make the fit-for-work tests fit for purpose?

Maximus has just taken over the running of the controversial Work Capability Assessment from Atos. What’s broken and how can they fix it?

David waited nervously to see the physiotherapist who would judge whether his learning disability stops him from working, just as thousands like him do every month.

David already knows the answer – for him, it does. But he felt powerless.

Half a million other people are waiting for this assessment who, like David, want to live normal lives and just need a little help. Whether extra help to find a job, or support because they can’t work, the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) is the gatekeeper to a lifeline that millions of disabled people rely on. This lifeline, the out-of-work benefit Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), helps disabled people to live the kind of life that most people take for granted.

David lives independently with a carer - someone who helps him to shop, cook, manage his money and even get out of the house - things he struggles to do alone. They told the physio this, and more, in his scarcely 15-minute long assessment. Several months later, David got a letter telling him he’d been refused ESA and was ‘fit-for-work’.

His choice was to either go hungry or claim Jobseekeer’s Allowance (JSA). This would force him to spend 35 hours every week applying for jobs on a computer. He can’t use a computer or spend 35 hours per week looking for a job because of his learning disability. David would probably end up being sanctioned as a result and eventually go hungry anyway.

David and his carer couldn’t believe it, especially as the physio’s report didn’t reflect David’s needs at all. Like many people with a learning disability, David tends to agree with questions he doesn’t understand - something the assessor clearly wasn’t aware of. ‘Tick box’ is how many describe the assessments, designed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and carried out by a third party.

David couldn't see how badly the assessment had been, as he couldn’t read his own report; his carer had to. Bizarrely the DWP doesn’t provide alternative formats like ‘easy read’ for their disability benefit assessments.

When asked to reconsider their decision, the DWP maintained that David was fit-for-work and had to find a job. David now has to face a tribunal, represented by his 75-year-old dad, leaving him feeling even more powerless than when he walked into that assessment.

In 2012/13, £66m of taxpayers’ money was spent defending ESA tribunals like David’s, with just four in ten being upheld.

At the start of March, Maximus took over the running the WCA from Atos. Perhaps Maximus will improve the quality of assessments, the quality of training (which clearly isn’t adequate), and perhaps more people will get the right results.

Maximus could improve the assessment right now by matching claimants with more suitable assessors - ending the current lottery of whether you’ll get a doctor, nurse, physiotherapist or occupational therapist who may not understand your disability.

But Maximus can only change so much. It’s up to the DWP to fix the rest of the issues. Issues like the backlog of half a million people, the flawed ‘tick box’ interview, the refusal to provide information that disabled people can understand (here's an easy read sample – it’s not hard to make). Things like the rigid format of the assessments and the fact that people on ESA - no matter their condition - repeatedly undergo assessments, whether or not their condition has changed or even can.

We don’t know how Maximus will fare. We don’t know if the DWP will make those changes. We do know that changing the company conducting the assessment won’t fix a fundamentally flawed system.

We don't need a system that forces thousands of our society’s most vulnerable people, like David, to live in fear of the next letter dropping on their floor, the next ring of their phone, or the next knock on their door.

We need a fit-for-work test that is itself fit-for-purpose. 

James Bolton leads work on welfare and health policy at Mencap and is the co-chair of the Disability Benefits Consortium, a group of over 50 health and disability charities. James was an expert witness for the Public Accounts Committee’s investigation into Personal Independence Payments in 2014. He tweets at @JamesABolton.

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.