Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith, Labour)
I will take the opportunity to speak, but for the reasons Duncan Hames gave—the number of Members who want to speak—I shall be brief. I congratulate my hon. Friend Tom Greatrex on securing the debate, but more importantly on the work that he has done over almost a year in highlighting the problems of Atos and the work capability assessment. Like many Members, I came to the debate today with a dossier of cases from my constituency of people who had suffered in the process, and not only that which involves Atos. Let us be clear, not only Atos is at issue, but how the system operates, how it is being put into effect and how Atos is asked to carry out its work. There are certainly major deficiencies in the organisation, but it is not only Atos with which we need to be concerned.
Given the time, I will make just a few points. Many applicants find the experience of going through the WCA process terrifying. There is plenty of evidence, especially in the cases of those with mental health issues, that the process does not take account of the particular circumstances of those who suffer from conditions that may vary from day to day, as my hon. Friend made clear. Inevitably, any process, under any system, will lead to stress and tension for many people, but what makes it worse is that the process is felt by many applicants to take away from their dignity as human beings. It does not lead to proper consideration of their personal circumstances and they believe, notwithstanding what the Government and the contracts say, that it is a method of keeping down the cost of benefits. I know that that is not in the policy or the contracts in any sense, but in a climate where there is a feeling that the Government are trying to drive down costs at any expense, it is inevitable that many of those who apply for benefit will feel that way. Those subjective feelings are borne out by the high rate of successful appeals.
The high rate of successful appeals, which hon. Members have pointed out, leads one to conclude that there must be people who do not appeal or even apply for benefit who would have been successful or been entitled had they done so. It is essential that the process is right first time. That is partly the responsibility of Atos; it is also the responsibility of Government. What must be ensured is that all available evidence is used at the earliest possible stage in the process. We are all familiar with cases in which the medical evidence from GPs and consultants is overwhelming and yet the applications are unsuccessful. It is only at appeal that such people receive the right decision. It is also important to reduce unnecessary reassessments, as there have been cases where it is overwhelmingly obvious that a reassessment should not be carried out. I would like to know what the Minister is doing about that.
I make this final comment to the Minister. He may be leaving his current post today, but I seriously hope that in his new role he will ensure that the backlog of appeals is dealt with speedily. That is important for individual applicants and for the system. Until that backlog is dealt with we will not get out of this vicious circle in which new applications are put in at the end of the appeal process and the whole process starts again. That should be a priority for the Minister to address in his new role.