First published in Shifting Grounds: 1st August 2013
The decision by the government to bring in other providers to work alongside ATOS Healthcare in delivering the Workplace Capability Assessment (WCA) for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claimants has come as little surprise to those who have consistently campaigned against the company and the assessment in recent years. ATOS has been repeatedly labelled as the unscrupulous executer of the Government’s policy to move people off sickness benefit and onto Job Seekers Allowance (JSA). Tragic stories of who have died whilst awaiting appeals against benefit reclassification decisions have been few in number, but they have horrified those who feared the worst following the announcement of Ian Duncan Smith’s benefit reforms.
ATOS has enjoyed a fruitful, if controversial relationship with the government over the past 15 years. In 1997, the Labour government asked Mansel Aylward, a senior health professional, to devise the Personal Capability Assessment (PCA) a test designed to identify what individual clients were capable of and how they could be supported back into work. The contract for delivering the assessment eventually found its way to ATOS Origin, who administered the assessment through a Logical Integrated Medical Assessment tick box program. These evaluations were proved unreliable by the number of successful appeals against decisions, and in 2003 they were dropped in favour of the ‘Pathways to Work’ scheme, in which claimants were mandated to attend appointments with an advisor, with a view to returning to the jobs market.
Following the passage of the 2012 Welfare Reform Act, the return of assessments has yielded much the same result. Yet this time, both the DWP and the Coalition government are as much to blame. Though ATOS performed poorly in its recent audit – it was accused of providing inaccurate information and substandard reports to the Job Centre – witnesses have stated that the company has faced sustained pressure from the DWP to provide evidence that supports the government’s tough stance against benefit claimants. A recent investigation by The Guardian exposed the pressure its staff were under to edit reports so they were less favourable to ESA claimants, and to award points ‘begrudgingly (15 points are required to qualify for ESA). Responsibility, they claimed, lay with the DWP, who were responsible for the training of ATOS assessors. Over 80% of the 35% of successful appeals were lodged by clients who scored six point or less on their assessment. The WCA consists of a series of broad questions about clients personal lives and their health condition, with the answers building up a report of their capability to hold down work.