I am glad to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Mr Byrne on securing it as part of the Opposition day debate this afternoon. If I had more time, there are many topics in the motion on which I would like to speak, but I shall limit my comments to the work capability assessment and, to some extent, follow on from Duncan Hames about some aspects.
The work capability assessment is a fundamentally important issue and I shall speak about some of the difficulties that I have encountered in trying to uncover the detail of the contractual conditions and information about the relationship between the Department for Work and Pensions and Atos Healthcare. I welcome the part of the motion that refers to the WCA. Members are aware of many of the concerns surrounding the work capability assessment. In an earlier intervention I made the point about the migration, so I will not repeat it. That, to me, sums up the fact that if the Government wanted to get it right, they would have done so before rolling it out further, and they would have applied the lessons from the pilot areas, Aberdeen and Burnley, and from the very good report from the Select Committee that followed from that.
All of us have many constituency cases to which we could refer. I have had a number, including a constituent with Parkinson’s disease who was assessed as fit for work, went through an appeal, won the appeal—as we heard, 40% of people do—and almost immediately underwent another assessment, was assessed as fit for work, went through another appeal and underwent a third assessment. People with fluctuating and other conditions are not necessarily well served by the work capability assessment. Parkinson’s, as Members know, is a progressive and incurable condition. Although people with Parkinson’s may have good days and bad days, in the case of my constituent, he could not come to see me; I went to see him, and it was obvious that he was in severe discomfort and barely able to answer the door to let me into his flat.
To go through a process, win an appeal, be assessed yet again, and then repeat that whole sequence—this crosses over the period of the implementation of some of the changes recommended in the first Harrington report—strikes me as a waste of time and money, quite apart from the stress and anxiety that it causes individuals. Someone who has that condition is not going to get better. I am not saying that everybody with Parkinson’s is unable to work. Many people with Parkinson’s do, but once they get to a certain stage, they are not going to get better. To go through such stress and anxiety as they go round and round in the system does not help anybody get back into work, which is the stated purpose of the work capability assessment.
I support the work capability assessment and I think it is the right thing to do. Many of my constituents who have encountered problems have said that they object not to the assessment, but to the way in which that assessment is carried out. I want to make a few points about the contract between the DWP and Atos Healthcare. I know that I have made a thorough nuisance of myself to Ministers by tabling about 200 written questions about various aspects of that. I have done so because it is very hard to get to the detail. Although the high level contract has been published, every time I ask questions about some of the performance indicators, I get the blanket answer, “We cannot disclose that for commercial reasons.”
In February this year a BBC Radio 4 programme uncovered the fact that there are potentially financial penalties for Atos within some of the conditions of the contract, yet I cannot get to the detail of those conditions. Some £110 million is being spent in carrying out the assessments, which lead to a huge number of appeals. Those are adding to the cost because the appeals are referred to the tribunals service, extra judges are being taken on and tribunals are being kept open at the weekend. The additional cost for this year will be £50 million to £60 million to get right what Atos has got wrong. Why is it in the interests of the public purse to pay that money effectively twice to get the right decision? I understand and will always accept that there will be decisions that are not necessarily right and that there needs to be an appeals process, but that volume of appeals in the system suggests that there is something wrong.
Why is Atos not being penalised through its contract for getting so many decisions wrong, because the decisions, although made by the decisions makers, are based on the assessment, and in many cases almost completely on them, and so we go round and round in this system? Why is it still the case that—perhaps the Minister can answer this point—after someone goes through an appeal and has another assessment, the information that the tribunal has to make its decision is not available for the next round of assessment? If this was actually about being fair, equitable and helping people, surely that information should be available so that those decisions are better informed.
I think that the root of the problems with the work capability assessment is the contract and the way the assessment operates. It is a great shame that this third report will be Malcolm Harrington’s last and that there will be someone else for the next two years. Perhaps the Minister could explain why that is the case and who will replace him. I have met him and understand that he has had some frustrations in getting some of the detail on the issues. He will be coming to Scotland in the near future to meet the citizens advice bureau in my constituency and understand some of the real issues. The Government must get this right. We are not against people being assessed, but they should be helped into work, not hounded.