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Forget school sports: the Paralympic row could be far more toxic

24 August 2012

3:16 PM

24 August 2012

3:16 PM

The Paralympic flame is now burning in Trafalgar Square ahead of the Games’ opening ceremony on Wednesday. As it was lit, Boris Johnson encouraged London to ‘re-ignite the spirit of the Golden Games’ for the Paralympics, which London looks ready to do, given the record sales of 2.3 million tickets (a lesson in endurance and determination to succeed in spite of many obstacles in itself, given the quality of the Locog website that sells those tickets).

As with the Olympics, even though the Paralympics are not about politics, they still offer an opportunity for some to make political points. During the first Games, the arguments focused largely on school sports and were as amusing as they were vitriolic. But the political row that threatens to flare up during the Paralympics is far, far more potent.

The main sponsor of these games is Atos, which provides the unpopular work capability assessments for the Work and Pensions department. Atos would probably always be unpopular because it is doing a difficult job which involves telling people things they might not want to hear, but its main problem is that it doesn’t seem to be very good at handling this extremely sensitive task.

The tests themselves – which, as I always remind Coffee Housers, were set up under Labour – have a number of flaws which risk undermining what is a very important drive to return those who are fit to work back into employment while protecting those who are too ill or severely disabled. Disability campaigners, who are already pretty upset about Atos, are extremely upset that this company is sponsoring a games for people with disabilities. UK Uncut has decided to get involved, too, planning protests at Atos centres across the country during the Games which may or may not be particularly helpful to the cause of those pushing for fairer fitness-to-work assessments, given UK Uncut’s record.

Accepting this sponsorship was a decision for Locog, not ministers, but Chris Grayling, the employment minister who oversees the back-to-work agenda, and the Prime Minister will still find themselves defending Atos and their own reforms with a great deal of care and trepidation over the next couple of weeks: this is a far more emotive area than playing fields.

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