Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat it. George Santayana
The signs have been there for a couple of months, but today it happened, Atos were axed from the Work Capability Assessment Contract by DWP Minister for Disabled People Mike Penning. In a statement that spends rather more time trying to blame Labour and Atos than looking at what actually went wrong, Penning announced that Atos will be replaced in early 2015 by a new contractor. Most Atos personnel are expected to transfer to this replacement, however in the longer term Penning anticipates using multiple contractors "to increase competition"
Tweets by the DWP's twitter account @DWPPressoffice stating "Aim is to drive up the number of WCA assessments and cut waiting time" make it clear that there is no intention to reform the WCA, even though disabled people are unanimous in stating that the core problem is the WCA itself, Atos were just the disablist topping.
The statement indicates that Atos will remain responsible for delivering the WCA until their early exit in 2015, though with a "remedial advisory team" pulling manager's strings.
So what does all this mean for those of us who have to live with the damage WCAs do?
The first thing to note is that they're only changing the monkey, not the organ-grinder. It has been clear for a long time that we have had a dual problem with WCA. Atos were the front-end of that problem, with major issues with the attitude of many of their customer-facing staff (the GMC found it necessary to remind Atos doctors that basic honesty was a professional requirement), and a management that was clearly not remotely interested in whether they were meeting basic needs around accessibility and the like, nor any interest in delivering continuous improvement. But behind that problem was the DWP, the structure of the WCA, and the structure of the WCA contract. Research by Kaliya Franklin revealed just how tight were the norms that Atos were contractually held to be DWP (who insist that a 'norm' is not a target, even if you're only allowed to use some of the WCA provisions for one patient in a thousand). And of course the WCA just kept getting harsher and harsher, with the introduction of the imaginary wheelchair, and a perverse insistence that one problem could not affect someone both physically and mentally. @DWPPressoffice's "drive up the number of WCA assessments" is a particularly ominous note when we know a major part of the problem with WCA has been rushed assessments that haven't looked into patient's situations with nearly enough knowledge or detail.
The only companies in a position to replace Atos are likely the other major outsourcing companies: Capita (busy destroying their own reputation on PIP and court interpreter contracts), G4S (already destroyed their reputation over failing to deliver security for the Olympics, then found to have defrauded the taxpayer over offender tagging - and that's without mentioning the forced sedation in South African prisons or the Australian refugee internment camps, or the deaths in care) and Serco (ditto on the offender tagging and the Australian internment camps, with a side dish of falsifying data on a GP out-of-hours service in Cornwall - a contract that was also axed early). Having seen Atos having their brand turned into a toxic nightmare for brutalising disabled people, none of these are likely to be over-eager to involve themselves in WCA, particularly if it is clear the root problems with the WCA are not being addressed. Equally it is clear that the WCA is now so toxic that Atos are willing to buy themselves out of it and take the reputational damage of having walked away/being kicked off a major national contract, rather than face the ongoing month-by-month, day-by-day damage that goes with being the WCA contractor. However, ultimately money is likely to talk. Capita are probably the company in the best position to take over the contract thanks to their involvement with PIP, however PIP delays are growing month by month (even though it is only addressing a fraction of the cases it was supposed to) and PIP may turn out to be even worse than WCA, but about the best that can be said for them is they haven't had the cases of fraud or abuse of people in their care that the other competitors have had.
Introducing multiple contractors likely has rather more to do with hopes of splitting the blame than Penning's claim he wants competition. By creating multiple targets he may hope to split the focus of the disability lobby, but that ignores the way that disabled people have honed their teeth on destroyed Atos's brand as they became media-savvy protesters through sheer necessity. What was done to Atos can be done to any other company that makes the same mistakes in dismissing the voice of disabled people. Facing the possibility of having your brand destroyed is bad enough for companies that already have image problems, facing that possibility for a fraction of the pot is not going to be a winning argument in their boardrooms. And equally, if there is no one company to take the blame, then DWP may find themselves even more directly in the firing line for WCA failures than they already are.
From the DWP point of view, certainly that of IDS and his coterie, the entire issue is likely timing and the election. By making a fuss of sacking Atos now, they likely hope to create an ideal cover story for everything wrong with WCA that will last them through the election. 'Yes, WCA is a mess, but it was Labour's fault, and see, we sacked Atos, the Great Satan, because we really care about those poor, inspiring, disabled people.' And then after the elections they'll be able to blame ongoing issues on 'teething problems' (and the current DWP ministerial crew will likely have moved on to new departments by then). Disabled people know that the truth is that unless there are radical changes to the WCA (such as scrapping it and having the patient's own GP or consultant write the report), then the same tragic catastrophe will repeat itself, particularly if the incoming company will have to do the same inappropriate test in the same inaccessible buildings with the same problematic staff, but IDS has always been a proponent of denying responsibility for whichever DWP fiasco is in the news this week.
Ironically, while Atos are being summarily kicked off WCA, they are being allowed to retain their PIP contracts, even though PIP shows signs of being an even worse car-crash than WCA - perhaps IDS and Penning want to have someone convenient to blame when PIP fails?