Doctors Urge Government to Scrap Callous Disability Tests


Two weeks ago, doctors at the annual conference of the British Medical Association (BMA), which represents 141,000 doctors and trainee doctors in the UK, delivered a resounding rejection of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA), which is being used by the government to establish that people who have physical and/or mental health disabilities are fit for work.

The inflexible computer-based system, administered by ATOS Healthcare in sessions that last for just 20 to 30 minutes, has been repeatedly condemned by disability campaigners, and/or by those subjected to it, and at the BMA conference, as a press release noted, London GP Louise Irvine said the WCA system “was causing ‘distress’ to thousands of people with long-term health conditions deemed fit for work, as well as subjecting the doctors involved to ‘McDonaldisation’ of their careers.”

She added, “There is no empathy in the system, it is all accusatory.”

Although David Snashall, a London-based consultant in occupational medicine,  “urged the meeting not to call for the WCA to be replaced, arguing that there was a scrutiny process in place to improve the system,” the BMA supported a motion to demand that the WCA should be ended “with immediate effect and be replaced with a rigorous and safe system that does not cause unavoidable harm to some of the weakest and vulnerable in society.”

Dr. Irvine also noted that, as well as causing uncalled for “distress” to claimants, “40 per cent of those who appealed WCA decisions were successful and this success rate rose to 70 per cent for those who took up legal representation.” These shocking figures – involving tens of thousands of people appealing successfully against their assessments — ought to be sufficient on their own to demonstrate that, as well as being a cruel assault on the most vulnerable members of society, the system is also broken and useless, but the government, typically, appears not to be listening, even though ministers’ arrogance and idiocy is costing a fortune in defending appeals that are subsequently lost – as well as inflicting pointless suffering on people who should be protected.

The BMA’s vote follows a similar vote by GPs at their annual conference in May, as the Guardian explained at the time, noting that GPs “voted unanimously” in favour of scrapping the WCA, to prevent harming “some of the weakest and most vulnerable in society.” As the Guardian also explained, doctors “backed a motion stating that the computer-based assessments were ‘inadequate’ and ‘have little regard to the nature or complexity of the needs of long-term sick and disabled persons.’ They called for the tests to be replaced with a more ‘rigorous and safe system.'”

Andrew Holden, a GP from Petersfield in Hampshire, who proposed the motion, told the GPs conference that “the system was not able to distinguish between patients who really needed help and those who did not,” as the Guardian put it. As he explained, “Since the system was introduced in 2008, people with terminal cancer have been found fit to work, people with mental health problems have complained their condition is not taken seriously and people with complex illnesses say that the tick-box system is not able to cope with the nuances of their problems.”

Responding to the news, John McArdle of the Black Triangle Campaign — so named because the Nazis forced people with mental and other disabilities to wear black triangles in the extermination camps, describing them as “Arbeitsscheu” (the “workshy”) — noted that the WCA “is a smokescreen for cuts to disabled people’s welfare and nothing else,” and pointed out, in addition, that:

The successor to Disability Living Allowance — the so-called ‘Personal Independence Payment’ to be introduced in April next year — with the express aim of cutting 20% from the budget set aside to ensure that disabled people are able to live with a modicum of dignity in a society that has the right to call itself ‘civilised’ society — is similarly nothing but a full-scale attack on the fundamental human right of disabled people to live with dignity in keeping with the U.K.’s obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

McArdle also stated:

We now call upon the BMA to give full effect to [the motion] by calling for a full boycott of the WCA. No doctor should violate the code of medical ethics by supplying their labour to ATOS. We call upon the General Medical Council to revoke, with immediate effect, DWP/ATOS’ assessment centres’ “Approved Medical Environment” status and launch a full inquiry. Doing nothing is no longer an option. People are dying.

We furthermore ask that the BMA calls upon all the other professional bodies and individuals who as Health Care Professionals (‘HCPs’) supply their labour to ATOS, perpetrating and legitimising policies and systems that cause serious, even fatal harm to some of the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society.

My thanks to Johnny Void for alerting me to this story, which was largely ignored in the mainstream media, and was only mentioned in an article in the Guardian by Amelia Gentleman and in a letter to the Guardian by McArdle, and others including Dr. Stephen Carty, a medical adviser to the Black Triangle Campaign, and Linda Burnip, Debbie Jolly and Elinor Lisney, the co-founders of Disabled People Against Cuts.

Amelia Gentleman’s article mentioned the BMA motion in the context of an application for a judicial review of the WCA, submitted by two claimants “on the grounds that the current system discriminates against people with mental health problems.” As she noted, they “are not just challenging what happened during their assessments, but are mounting a challenge to the DWP, which, if successful, would require changes to be made to the system for all claimants with mental health problems.” It is not known when a ruling will be delivered, but the judge, Mr. Justice Edwards-Stuart, who asked “whether the system was flawed only in terms of handling claims from people with mental health problems,” has led campaigners to hope that he will deliver a damaging ruling for the government, as he “described the assessment system as ‘pretty crude’ across the board.”

The activists’ letter, meanwhile, followed up on reports of an unemployed man who set fire to himself outside a jobcentre in Birmingham, because, although he was “recognised by the staff as vulnerable with outstanding health issues,” he “had recently been found fit to work precipitating a move from one benefit to another,” which “had caused payment delays.”

In their letter, the campaigners noted that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was claiming that its “internal figures do not suggest a rise in such incidents in recent months,” but pointed out that “there is no official reporting mechanism from either primary or secondary care, social work or the third sector for such events.”

They added:

Michael Marmot, a world expert in public health epidemiology, last week stated that we are in “a public health emergency … if you look across Europe at unemployment rates, a 1% rise in unemployment in a country is associated with a 0.8% rise in suicides”. According to the Campaign for a Fair Society, 25% of the cuts are falling disproportionately on 3% of the population, namely sick and/or disabled people in receipt of state support. The true figure for self-harm and attempted suicide among benefit claimants may be somewhat higher than the DWP statement would have us believe. Its statement lacks any credibility.

Suicides amongst those cut off from benefits and tyrannised by the government’s pursuit of them as “Arbeitsscheu” have been reported sporadically throughout the last year, and I added my own analysis last June, in an article entitled, Brutal Benefit Cuts for the Disabled Are Leading to Suicides in the UK. Moreover, unless the WCA is scrapped, and the government rethinks its entire approach to disabled people — many of whom have been thrown into abject poverty through the stripping of all government support (those with a partner earning just £7,500 a year, for example), there will be more deaths, and the blame will fall on the government ministers who decided to blame the disabled and the unemployed for Britain’s economic woes, rather than the true culprits — their thieving friends in the City of London.

Note: For further analysis of the crisis facing the disabled in Tory-led Britain, see the following reports from the Guardian: Disabled people hit especially hard by cuts, finds report, and Disability cuts: ‘Thousands of us will become prisoners in our own homes’, which draws on the recent report by disabled activists We Are Spartacus, Reversing from Recovery, demonstrating that, by reducing access to the Motability scheme for disabled people, the government “will create a domino effect, including the loss of more than 30,000 new car sales each year, over 3,500 jobs, £342 million contribution to GDP and £79 million in tax receipts.

Please also sign and share the e-petition calling for the government to “Stop and review the cuts to benefits and services which are falling disproportionately on disabled people, their carers and families.”

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

25 Responses

  1. veganpanda says...

    It’s great that the BMA have come out against the dreadful ATOS tests, but I think they’ve left it too late!

    All those who were on Incapacity Benefit have already been though this test & had their money removed, also many on Disability Benefit have been through this too. You’re then asked to reapply for the new temporary benefits & many people suffering are not strong enough to go through all that or more!!

    The Tories have such a lot to answer for, we’ll soon need to get ready for the next set of riots…

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for that, veganpanda. The next questions, then, are: how is everyone surviving, after they have had their incapacity or disability benefits removed? How many people are left with no support at all?

  3. Dr Rita Pal says...

    Brilliant piece. Well done.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    You are more than welcome, Rita. I try to keep this government’s callousness under the spotlight as much as possible, but that, of course, is more than a full-time job, given the extent of their assault on the poor, the young, the old, the unemployed, the sick and the disabled.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I’ll read and share this when I get home. Many on my page will be interested. It’s worth breaking my temporary FB Silence for, although I have done so earlier today.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Neil Wilson wrote:

    Always good to see this particular subject getting attention. been following it through black triangle, atos victim support and others, and have been through the whole wca, appeal process myself. Nice one Andy, spread the word.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    Indeed! Although I’m on vacation, I haven’t left Uppsala. I take long walks, but alas cannot share from my Iphone.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Hamja Ahsan wrote:

    I had an ATOS test – thought it was a joke – but I didn’t appeal as I felt suicidal and worthless and had been on disablity welfare for too long –

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    For a good compilation of posts from many sources, see the cynical-semi-satirical FB page ATOS MIRACLES. The firm’s miracle ‘cures’ are meant. A bit of gallows humour.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I hope you are feeling better now, Hamja.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Hamja Ahsan wrote:

    They asked me if I could sit on a chair and I said Yes. And then they asked me if I could read a book and I said Yes.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:


  13. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I shared this with a commentary by me, about the notion of Work Capacity, similar to the notion used in the Netherlands when I lived there, Sweden, and at least California in the USA. I speculated on a connection with the American insurance giant, Unum:

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, George, Neil and Hamja. Good to hear from you all. I’m doing my best to keep on top of all the horrendous human rights abuses inflicted by this government on those who are least able to defend themselves, but as I’m sure you’re all aware, that’s a huge mission, given the extent of their disdain for the most vulnerable members of society.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    And of course, if anyone has stories to share, that are Dickensian or Kafkaesque, then I’m happy to help publicise them.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Charmaine Dolan wrote:

    Thanks Andy. Another excellent article.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Charmaine. I’m trying to do my bit to keep this government’s abuse of the disabled under scrutiny. I’ll be interested to see what the UN Human Rights Council has to say on the matter, following a briefing by Dr Pauline Nolan, Policy Officer for Inclusion Scotland, in April, and the government’s own claims about its activities, submitted in May. There’s an article here:

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Charmaine Dolan wrote:

    Thanks Andy will share this.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, Charmaine. Much appreciated.

  20. ‘Doctors Urge Government to Scrap Callous Disability Tests’ ~ New Post by Andy Worthington | Black Triangle Campaign says...


  21. Kristian says...


    Many thanks for highlighting this.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Kristian. Happy to do whatever I can to help.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:


  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, George. I’m very glad to note that the Black Triangle Campaign picked up on it:

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    My pleasure, Andy.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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