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Atos to leave WCA contract early

On Thursday the DWP announced that Atos is withdrawing from its contract to run Work Capability Assessments, the controversial assessment for people too sick or disabled to work.

Interestingly the DWP both claim that they sacked Atos (“We removed them. It’s not them walking away”) and that Atos paid them for leaving. Which to me sounds like Atos chose to leave, as I’d have thought that the one responsible for ending the contract early would be the one that pays the penalty fees.

Atos and the DWP have been in discussions since at least October of last year about ending the contract early. Perhaps it was disagreement over whose fault the mess is, who is responsible for ending the contract and who pays the penalty fee that meant it has taken this long to agree that Atos pay, but apparently it was the DWP who chose to end the contract.

The DWP tried to say it was Labour’s fault for employing Atos in the first place, or at least for employing only Atos and not some other companies as well, but this neglects to mention that it was this government that chose to roll out nation-wide an assessment known to be flawed. Also the DWP aren’t seeking multiple providers to take over from Atos but only one – with more coming later, they say, at an unspecified time.

Atos will be transferring their staff and infrastructure to the new provider. The DWP presumably will be keeping a fairly similar contract, with hopefully some criteria about providing the right recommendation rather than just focussing on the number of assessments performed, although they don’t say if this will be the case. The WCA itself, the biggest problem with ESA, will not be changing.

So for disabled people, will anything improve? It will be the same people assessing them, in the same too-often-inaccessible places, against the same unsuitable criteria, with presumably the same training and guidelines, and perhaps even the same computer system that has previously been criticised based on fears that it may inappropriately shape the assessment.

Perhaps the new contract will include a requirement to make the right recommendation a reasonable proportion of the time. But perhaps the new people at the top won’t be as used to running Work Capability Assessments as Atos were, who for all their flaws have at least got 6 years of experience providing WCAs, so hopefully know through experience at least some errors to avoid.

It doesn’t look like anything will improve.

The government should take this opportunity to think very carefully about whether the WCA is the right assessment to continue with. At the very least they shouldn’t bind the next government to lengthy contracts for delivering WCAs if that will hinder the opportunity to give the WCA the massive overhaul, even total replacement, that it very much needs.

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