When Rethink Mental Illness asked activists with experience of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) to talk to MPs, I jumped at the chance. I feel incredibly strongly about the inadequacies of the WCA and the Atos staff who administer it, and not just because of my own rather traumatic assessment. I have never met a sick or disabled person, online or in person, who has had a good WCA. No one ever speaks of finding the assessment useful, supportive or anything other than stressful and degrading. The problems with the system are well known, yet change is slow. What better opportunity to make a difference than to share my story with the people who make policy?
At Rethink HQ in Vauxhall I joined a little group of activists including Dick Acworth, who had worked really hard Rethink’s UnfairWCA campaign. Dick, whose son has bipolar disorder, has a current online petition requesting that migration of people with mental health problems from the old Incapacity Benefit to Employment and Support Allowance be halted until the assessments are fixed.
It was only when we came together for a briefing with Rethink staff that I fully understood we would be participating in a completely new publicity event and that although they were hopeful, no one was sure whether it would really work. A room had been reserved at Portcullis House, where many MPs have office space, and invitations issued for an “MP Capability Assessment” (MPCA). Three members of Rethink staff were ready to “assess” participating MPs, using questions selected from the real WCA to highlight their arbitrary and sometimes offensive nature. After each MPCA activists would be on hand to share their personal experiences after which Rethink staff would explain the UnfairWCA campaign. 34 parliamentarians had responded to the invitation but given the demands on their time, campaign manager Lara thought 15 would be a respectable showing. This, we reasoned, would be a manageable number within our room booking, especially since most MPs had indicated they could spend no more than a quarter of an hour with us.
Our three “assessors”, clearly taking the event very seriously
In a taxi crossing Westminster Bridge, squeezed in between campaigns staff and publicity banners, I suddenly wondered whether I should have been more prepared. What did I really want MPs to know? What was the message I wanted to push? Should I have prepared some sort of mental script?
I needn’t have worried; it turned out that all I needed to do was tell the truth. The facts of my assessment – from the refusal of Atos staff to state their full names or qualifications, to their stunning lack of knowledge and sensitivity – was a shock to the Members I spoke to. I described being seen as obstructive despite answering questions truthfully and MPs were able to relate this to having failed to fit the tick box scoring in their own “assessment”. They were staggered to hear that a thorough description of my disablement lead to the response, “Yes, but everyone has good and bad days” and an eventual score of zero points. I can honestly say that every MP I spoke to displayed greater empathy and better understanding of invisible and fluctuating disability than Atos staff.
Several MPs told me how much they had learned from the event. Constituents tend to involve their MP when they need support for appeal or tribunal but the mock assessments and personal testimonials rounded out their mental picture of the sharp end of the benefits system. A number of MPs I spoke to came to the conclusion that the system is set up both to “fail” as many people as possible, and to discourage people from challenging decisions. We were surprised that rather than spending 15 minutes at the event, Members wanted to engage for much longer. Most of “my” MPs were probably with me for a quarter of an hour even after their assessment, and although reluctant to do so Rethink staff had to move participants along so I could speak to the next mock claimant. Eventually our room booking lapsed, but with several MPs yet to be “processed” we carried on the coffee area.
Every time I handed an MP onto Rethink staff they were given information about Dick’s campaign and the recent Judicial Review. Back in May the JR gave legal confirmation that aspects of the WCA are particularly unfair on claimants who may be cognitively impaired by mental illness or learning disability (the DWP is, of course, appealing this decision). MPs were asked to be photographed with a placard, stating either that they support change to the unfair WCA or that they “agree with Dick” and his petition. Almost all MPs agreed to take one of the two pledges.
Andy Slaughter MP for Hammersmith takes the pledge
Exhausted, but elated at how well MPs had responded, Rethink staff and activists celebrated with group photograph in the coffee area – below a large portrait of Iain Duncan Smith. The irony was not lost on us!
“How many did we have through the door?” I asked Lara, as she totted up figures on her attendance sheet. Amazingly 33 MPs, including representatives from the three main parties as well as Caroline Lucas, the UK’s only Green MP, had attended our event. It’s probable that we were largely preaching to the converted, but I left feeling confident that the converted are now much better informed which makes them more able to promote the interests of sick and disabled people at committee hearings and debates. The event was so successful that Rethink are already thinking of holding another round of MPCAs. If you want your MP to attend a future assessment, watch this space or keep an eye on http://www.rethink.org/ or Rethink’s Twitter feed on @Rethink_