Lucy Frazer, the justice minister, faces warnings that the criminal justice system is reaching crisis point. Thousands of cases have been disrupted, with trials adjourned and delayed, after the main computer system in England and Wales went down at hundreds of courts. The Times reports that one senior figure said the system was “on its knees”.
- Prison visits and meetings cancelled.
- Lawyers and clerks unable to access documents such as witness statements.
- Defendants being asked to check their own driver records for potential disqualifications on the DVLA website.
- Problems in the probation service surfaced eight weeks ago; probation workers are being told to take annual leave as they could not carry out their work.
- 75,000 judges and lawyers who use the criminal justice secure email system were locked out last week.
- The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) said it estimated that about 30 trials had already been adjourned.
Chris Grayling, during his term as lord chancellor, introduced the present IT system as “a several hundred million-pound investment in the Courts and Tribunal Service . . . fully supported by the judiciary and a really important initiative of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats working together in coalition to modernise the working of our courts”.
Comment by Jonathan Black, a partner at BSB Solicitors and former president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association:
“Since 2013, when Grayling was brought in to manage transformation of our justice system, we saw a plethora of projects prefixed with the word transforming, which was window-dressing for selling off.”
Comment by Chris Henley, QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, which represents about 4,000 lawyers:
“The unrealistic planning has all the hallmarks of a Grayling project. He has repeated the trick everywhere he has been. We’ve seen it with the probation contract, private prisons and more recently the railways. We are living with his destructive, nihilistic legacy in all areas of legal aid and the courts . . .
“The closure of so many buildings, the ‘rationalisation’ of staff etc are all premised on the basis that the modernisation programme will create a cheaper digitised replacement system. Lawyers and many judges have no confidence in this planned overhaul of the courts and have serious reservations from a public policy point of view.”
He warned that trials could collapse. “Trials are being adjourned, the IT infrastructure is inaccessible in many places, electronic recording systems aren’t working and barristers can’t access vital documents because court wifi and secure emails aren’t working,” he said. “The system is on its knees.”
Lucy Frazer, the justice minister said that all judges would receive a personal letter from Sir Richard Heaton, the permanent secretary at the MoJ, who would also meet the chief executive of Atos, one of the network suppliers. She added that the department was exploring whether the suppliers’ contracts included “penalty clauses” to try to retrieve some of the costs incurred by the IT failures.
A spokesman said that the secure email system, supplied by Egress, had been restored. The desktops using wired connections to the main MoJ network, provided by Microsoft and Atos, were still down. Microsoft and Egress referred inquiries to the Ministry of Justice. Atos declined to comment.
Work capability assessments, introduced under the last Labour government, were first carried out by Atos, which had a £100 million a year contract in 2012 – and later earned much more. The firm made a £42million profit in 2010 and paid its chief executive Keith Wilman £800,000, a 22% pay rise on the previous year. Since then other providers, including Capita and Maximus, have also been making these assessments. For several years there has been evidence from a wide range of sources that they are not being carried out efficiently. A few examples follow:
Doctors backed a motion at the annual BMA conference in 2012 stating that Atos’s assessments were “inadequate” and “have little regard to the nature or complexity of the needs of long-term sick and disabled persons.
In their evidence to the Fifth Independent Review of the Work Capability Assessment (2014), the BMA repeated its 2012 call for government to end it “with immediate effect and replace it with a rigorous and safe system that does not cause avoidable harm to the weakest and most vulnerable in our society”.
2015: An academic paper, published in the BMJ’s Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health in which examined 149 English council areas, found that nearly 600 suicides in England may be associated with the government’s “fit-for-work” tests.
Oxford and Liverpool researchers looked at three years’ data and also found the Work Capability Assessments could be linked to a rise in mental health problems. The BBC reported in 2015 that the study found the areas with most WCAs showed the sharpest increases.
2016: The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities found that UK welfare reforms have led to “grave and systematic violations” of disabled people’s rights.
Changes to benefits “disproportionately affected” disabled people, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) found. The 2016 investigation was launched after receiving evidence from disability organisations about an “alleged adverse impact” of government reforms on disabled people. UN committee members visited London, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast in October 2015 to identify any gaps in human rights protection for disabled people. As part of its inquiry, the CRPD also looked at a range of recent welfare reforms and legislation including the Welfare Reform Act 2012, Care Act 2014, and Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016.
The BBC reported the UN inquiry’s conclusion that changes made to housing benefits and criteria for parts of the Personal Independence Payment, combined with a narrowing of social care criteria and the closure of the Independent Living Fund, “hindered disabled people’s right to live independently and be included in the community”.
Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green rejected the UN report’s findings, but it has now been announced that after a high court ruling on 2017 regulations, introducing criteria which discriminated against those with impaired mental health, decisions on personal independence payments will be reviewed.
2017: Directors and other officers of the Department of Work and Pensions receive new year’s honours for services to ‘welfare reform’, as a reader draws attention to an undated article in the Dorset Eye, by Douglas James, listing 82 people who have died or committed suicide soon after dealings with agencies such as ATOS and the government’s Department of Work and Pensions. A search was made for news of the first five on the Dorset Eye list and links to fuller accounts were added. Most of the people were aged 30-40.
2018: Private Eye 1462 reported in January that despite long-drawn-out resistance from the DWP, Atos and Capita, the Information Commissioner’s Office has now ruled that the DWP must reveal monthly reports These include details of complaints against assessors, the length of time taken by t-assessments and how many fail – i.e. are overturned on appeal.
In December the Commons Work & Pensions Select Committee report revealed that:
- it had heard disturbing evidence,
- accounts of medical assessments range from frustrating to gruelling,
- there were remarkably high, if slowly improving, levels of unacceptable reports,
- not one doctor had been involved in the assessments and
- Capita’s own auditing found that at points in the contract almost 60% of its reports were “unacceptable”.
MP Tom Brake speaks out:
“Many constituents are in despair when they contact me after an inaccurate report. Reports of face-to-face assessments need to be unbiased, fair and above all accurate. It was important to flag up these discrepancies directly with ATOS. The Government need to ensure that assessments are recorded to prevent alarming inaccuracies. I will continue to put pressure on the Government to reform the current system. At the moment too many people have lost faith in the system.”
Last resort: after many disastrous years – like Windscale nuclear reactor station – in June Atos Healthcare announced changes to its name – but not its practice.
As directors and other officers of the Department of Work and Pensions receive new year’s honours for services to ‘welfare reform’, a reader draws attention to an article in the Dorset Eye, by Douglas James, listing 82 people who have died or committed suicide soon after dealings with agencies such as ATOS and the government’s Department of Work and Pensions.
A search was made for news of the first five on the Dorset Eye list and the links to fuller accounts added. Most of the people were aged 30-40.
Terry McGarvey, 48. Dangerously ill from Polycythemia, Terry asked for an ambulance to be called during his ATOS Work Capability Assessment (WCA). He knew that he wasn’t well enough to attend but feared that his benefits would be stopped if he did not. He died the following day. http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/terry-mcgarvey-man-ill-attend-3178486
Elaine Lowe, 53. Suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and fearful of losing her benefits. In desperation, Elaine chose to commit suicide. http://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/suicide-bid-of-woman-who-feared-losing-her-incapacity-benefit-8761182.html
Mark Wood, 44. Found fit for work by Atos, against his doctor’s advice and assertions that he had complex mental health problems. Starved to death after benefits stopped, weighing only 5st 8lb when he died. http://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/11043378.Man_starved_after_benefits_were_cut/
Paul Reekie, 48, the Leith based poet and author. Paul suffered from severe depression and committed suicide after the DWP stopped his benefits due to an Atos ‘fit for work’ decision. http://www.edinburghnews.scotsman.com/news/claim-welfare-reforms-drove-writer-paul-reekie-to-suicide-1-2269052
Leanne Chambers, 30 from County Durham. Leanne suffered depression for many years which took a turn for the worse when she was called in for a WCA. Leanne committed suicide soon after. http://www.thejournal.co.uk/news/north-east-news/boyfriend-missing-leanne-chambers-speaks-4465236
Karen Sherlock, 44, from Portsmouth. Karen suffered from multiple health issues but was found fit for work by Atos and denied her lifeline benefits. She fought a long battle to get placed into the Employment and Support Group (ESA) and died the following month of a heart attack. http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/327050/My-ill-wife-had-to-fight-for-benefits-up-until-she-died
A year ago the BBC said that over 2000 people died after being found fit for work and losing benefits, according to Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures. Between December 2011 and February 2014 the equivalent of about 90 people a month died after their Employment and Support Allowance claim was ended. The DWP said no link could be assumed between the deaths and claimants being deemed fit for work.
After a Freedom of Information request suggested the information about deaths linked to Work Capability Assessment is being ‘covered up’, three political parties have called for an independent enquiry into deaths linked to government reforms.