A month ago the Government was defeated in a vote on the floor of the House of Commons on a very important issue – the question of the level of the EU budget. The Government whips strained every muscle they could to avoid defeat, but having been decisively defeated, the Government simply ignored the vote. Two days ago a similar event occurred. In the debate on the Atos Healthcare treatment of disabled people not a single MP spoke in defence of the Government’s position and the Minister made a very poor speech in defence of the indefensible. One senior Tory MP, Charles Walker, now chair of the Procedure Select Committee, solemnly pronounced that “Atos is now so discredited that we should park it on one side and go off again in a different direction”. But having been unanimously overturned, will the Government change course? I said in my concluding remarks at the end of the debate that this issue has now become a test of the accountability of the Government to the House of Commons. It has, and we are not going to let go.
There’s another reason why this is so important. Rarely have I known a debate in the House of such passion – poignant, focused, always well-evidenced – yet perhaps some of it was not as well directed as it should be. What did not come out of the debate as strongly as it should have was that, dreadful as the things done by Atos are, they are not ultimately in control. It’s not Atos’ fault that there are no recording machines, DWP blocked them. The arbitrary descriptors – sending cancer patients to the Jobcentre, insisting you must be blind and deaf to qualify, as well as so many other cruel demands – were all designed by the DWP. The one year limit was laid down by DWP. The targets that they call norms, that too is a DWP device. Even the inaccessible buildings are DWP buildings, they’re not Atos properties.
One other piece of evidence is clinching. When Atos work for other employers like the Royal Mail or the NHS, their decisions about unfitness for work are wholly different. That points ineluctably to the real truth, as I said at the end of the debate, that DWP are quite ready to accept, even require, this inhumanity if it is the only means to get 1.6 million disabled persons off Incapacity Benefit. The evil is not Atos – I make no excuse for them whatsoever since they could, and certainly should, walk away from so brutal and dehumanising a contract – but the real evil is the DWP (and no doubt the Treasury behind them) and the Ministerial instructions that set up this system – the descriptors, the regulations, the guidance, and all the rest. In fact in Kettering Atos have implemented all Harrington’s proposals and the accuracy of assessment is almost 100%, but it means only doing 4 assessments a day and DWP insists on 11.
We must be careful. Getting rid of Atos would seem a triumph, but there’s always a private company greedy enough to step into the breach where contracts like £110 millions are involved. Would G4S or Capita be a jot better if the underlying system and the DWP/Treasury instructions remained the same? It’s the system itself we’ve now got to destroy.