Three cheers for the courts and mental health activists, O for the politicians and the DWP. Two days ago 3 judges ruled – as we all knew, but it required the courts to make it the law of the land – that the Government’s prescriptors, regulations and guidelines used to assess whether disabled people were eligible for ESA disadvantaged people with mental health problems, learning disabilities and autism. What prompted this to happen? Not a change of heart by Atos Healthcare – heaven forbid – but a judicial review brought by two anonymous claimants who were victims of mental ill-health. The case revolved round how the notorious Work Capability Assessment (WCA) is undertaken to decide if someone is fit to work. At present the judgement of a professional such as a GP or social worker is generally not taken into account unless provided by the persons being assessed themselves. This means that assessments are usually based on a very short interview, often just 15 minutes, with a stranger who may have no mental health training at all and no knowledge of what your GP, psychiatrist or community psychiatric nurse might have to offer concerning your illness. This is now going to have to change.
It is unreasonable to expect people with mental health problems, learning disabilities or autism to be able to navigate the often complex processes in being assessed and getting the evidence to ensure this is done fairly and properly. The judges rightly ruled that the DWP had not done enough to make sure this crucial evidence was collected and taken into account, and therefore had failed in its duties to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010. Asking someone with severe mental illness – perhaps a psychotic episode or somebody who has been unable to leave the house for months – has been rightly compared by Rethink Mental Illness with asking someone in a wheelchair to walk to an assessment centre.
There are several implications of this victory. One is that whilst this is one important aspect of Work Capability Assessments that needs reform (and we must rigorously monitor procedures in future to ensure this is done, and done quickly), there are several other big problems with these assessments which have got to be changed, and after this first victory we should continue to use the courts to bring about these changes. Second, it has officially confirmed, what we all knew privately, that the government’s current WCA system is about cutting benefits, irrespective of the human cost, to meet their target of callously paring back the Welfare State to set up a Market State in which you either work or get little or nothing in economic support. Third, we must redouble our efforts to get the government to make more far-reaching structural changes to the WCA and Mark Hoban, the DWP Minister, has now agreed to a meeting to discuss these if we can show there is a real intention for what he calls a ‘constructive engagement’. And fourth, other whistleblowers are now emerging, such as the ATOS doctor publicly calling the WCA tests ‘cruel’ and the evidence recently given to the Scottish Parliament by an ex-ATOS nurse. Changes are now at last happening, and none too soon.
Michael Meacher MP