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.

Photo: Getty
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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia