Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde, Labour)
I am pleased to be called in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend Tom Greatrex on securing the debate and on giving a superb speech. I wish to add my voice to those concerned about the operation of the WCA by Atos, and to highlight specific concerns in relation to people with autism.
I accept that we have a problem in the UK with the number of people who are not in the labour market owing to illness or disability. I asked the Library for a comparative analysis of the levels across the EU. Although it is hard to make such an analysis given the differences in scope, eligibility and recording of information, the European labour force survey clearly shows that the UK has a much higher proportion of the population aged 20 to 64 outside the work force owing to illness or disability. It is 6.1% in the UK, against an average of 4.3% in the rest of the EU. I think we know why that is. From the Thatcher Government onwards, people were put on the incapacity benefit rolls to hide the true scale of unemployment. There are people who were dumped there in the 1980s who have been there ever since. That is why I do not have a problem with the principle of a medical assessment; otherwise the Government can too easily push people into inappropriate benefits to massage the unemployment figures. Equally, I do not have a problem with three classifications: fit for work; unfit for work; and the possibility of work, but not in the short term, because someone has been out of the labour market for so long.
My concerns and objections relate to the way in which the Government are allowing Atos to conduct the test. Like other colleagues, my observations are heavily based on the experiences of constituents who have come to see me. It is not sensible, prudent or fair to have a test in which 40% of appeals against decisions are successful. It is a waste of money and it causes unnecessary distress. The Government need to hold Atos to account for an assessment that is clearly not working as it should. Atos is not coping with the complexity of the cases that are seen, and it is clearly struggling to deal with people with complex conditions, particularly those with less visible symptoms. Some specific problems are particularly evident: the Royal National Institute of Blind People has reported that the descriptors against which blind and partially sighted people can score points are primarily those based on navigation and communication, with no account taken of other barriers that blind and partially sighted people might face in obtaining work.
I am one of the vice-chairs of the all-party group on autism, and I remind the House of my existing declaration of interest in relation to my son. For people with autism, such face-to-face assessment can often be extremely problematic. People with autism face problems with communication that other people would not see. They may misunderstand questions that are asked, find it hard to answer questions, and fail to pick up on inference and assumption. For example, when asked, “Can you travel to work on a bus?”, they may say yes, but not explain that they can use only one bus route, planned with the help of a support worker, provided that the bus is not late or a different colour from usual, or that no other factors have arisen.
In addition, the testing of some people is too frequent. I have a constituent with a degenerative disease who passed one assessment, but failed another one within a year. As his condition was degenerative, it was surely medically impossible that he had got better. It does not make sense. At the extreme end, I have heard accounts of people in the support group being tested again after as little as three months. The worry that that causes is
exacerbated by the freak results that an assessment can produce. I have another constituent who was deemed fit for work despite having a broken back.
The Government need to listen to the feedback that is coming in across the country about the very real problems in the operation of the WCA. Crucially, they must begin to hold to account private companies with important Government contracts when they do not deliver for the taxpayer. The quality of life of thousands of people depends on getting this right, and it will soon be even more the case given that Atos has won the contract for the personal independence payment assessment. Let us not get into the usual party political rhetoric and stereotypes that tend to mark welfare debates. Let us focus on meaningful changes that will improve many people’s lives.