John Harris

Journalist & Author

A contract to terrify 1.5m people on incapacity benefit | John Harris

A French company is being paid millions to harass incapacity benefit claimants with the threat of being made destitute

Some sobering summer reading came my way on Monday: not The Social Animal or any of the voguish paperbacks being thumbed in Tuscany and elsewhere, but a report from the select committee on work and pensions (officially published on Tuesday). Bear with me: if you’ve got visions of a headache-inducing text full of tedium and officialspeak, nothing could be further from the truth. It is incisive, fact-packed, smattered with moving first-person testimony, and downloadable for free. Anyone with any interest in where Britain is heading ought to read it.

The report’s focus is on welfare reform – more specifically, the reassessment of 1.5 million people who have been on incapacity benefit, via the so-called work capability assessments, or WCAs. It sets out a story that includes plenty of the most fundamental aspects of life in modern Britain: the tabloid shrieking about the supposedly workshy that exerts such a grip on our politicians; the stupidly cushy terms on which whole chunks of the welfare state are being handed over to private companies; and above all, an underlying sense that the pain and panic that result from all this have precious little chance of gaining any political traction.

As of October 2008, incapacity benefit began to be replaced by the employment and support allowance – and anyone putting in a new claim faced the WCA, which places people in one of three categories: judged “fit for work” and introduced to the stringent regime based around jobseekers’ allowance; in effect deemed incapable of employment and put in a “support group”; or held to be somewhere between the two and thus destined for “work-related activity”. The monopoly provider of WCAs is Atos Healthcare, a division of a French IT firm, which had signed up for £100m of DWP business three years before.

Last October the reassessment of those 1.5 million people began, and the kind of alarming stories that crop up in the select committee report started to pile up. Ministers apparently claim that two official reviews have blunted the process’s worst shortcomings, but still: evidence from Citizens Advice Scotland says that the assessments, delivered by Atos’s doctors and nurses, “can last just 20 minutes”, and that “the yes/no format of the assessment is too narrow”. One page later you find a mind-boggling handful of paragraphs about the company’s “Logic Integrated Medical Assessment” (or Lima) computer system, which has often seemed to reduce complex cases to the stuff of binary idiocy.

The results of all this are obvious enough. Thousands of people have been fallaciously deemed fit for work. Even if your condition is sufficiently serious to avoid that fate – as the Mental Health charity Rethink puts it, “if a claimant can set an alarm clock, feed themselves and manage life without daily aggression or needing almost constant supervision” – you can still be pushed into “work-related activity” – which, under the terms of the government’s welfare bill, could see your employment and support allowance stopped after a year.

On Monday I heard from a man in the West Midlands; a diagnosed depressive and agoraphobic who was deemed fit for work, only to successfully appeal. “I have no confidence in the Atos way of assessment,” he told me, “as I feel it’s geared more to them ticking boxes and gaining brownie points … than the actual physical and mental wellbeing of each person.” He is now on to his third assessment, feeling “very apprehensive”, and in fear of “ending up on a mental health wing”.

From Rethink I received the story of a man suffering from bipolar disorder who had also been put through the assessment grinder. His account chimed with recent reports of WCA-related suicide attempts: “As a direct result of the way I have been treated by the DWP and Atos I considered taking my own life on and off for a period of months. My GP even wrote a letter to them to spell out the severity of my illness and how the situation was putting me in danger.”

He won an appeal last February, and will now receive his backdated benefits. (At the last count the rate of successful appeals was running at about 40%. The projected annual cost of appeals has been put as high as £50m – although Atos incurs no penalty for getting things so wrong.)

All of this is scandalous, yet it goes on – seemingly of no concern to the supposed everyman, nor to the politicians who fixate on him. This raises two issues: first, the treatment being meted out to thousands of people should be a moral offence to all of us; and second, our flexible labour market and increasingly brutal welfare system are now so constructed that even if you are doing well, it is perfectly possible that you could fall ill, and then find yourself just as terrified as the thousands who are currently being herded through the WCA process.

In the modern benefits system, trapdoors abound: if you fail to get the employment and support allowance and find yourself on jobseeker’s allowance, for example, you will not only suffer a 14% drop in income but may very well fall foul of the latter’s demands and find yourself “sanctioned”, with no benefits at all. The next stop is that miserable demi-monde that defines more lives than a lot of people would like to think: crisis loans, food banks, the very real prospect of ending up destitute.

In other words, the old aspirational tagline of the national lottery now applies to some of the most iniquitous aspects of the benefits system. Really: it could be you.

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