Atos is a French multinational IT services and consulting corporation. The Atos Healthcare division has become known in the UK in recent years, generally for negative reasons, since it won the contract to administer the Work Capability Assessment on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions – for its role in implementing the DWP’s criteria for the treatment of disabled people has caused much controversy. Atos’ contract with DWP is said to be worth £400 million. If that sounds prohibitively expensive, think about the additional £60 million of public money which is was being spent on administering appeals, because so many decisions are contested. The British Medical Association has described the assessments as “not fit for purpose.” Atos has indeed made some highly dubious decisions.
Today, a widower was talking on the radio about the distress caused to himself and his wife who had previously undergone a double heart and lung transplant. She died just NINE DAYS after the government stopped her benefits and ordered her to go back to work. At her Atos assessment she scored zero points on the Work Capability Assessment and fifteen points are needed if a claim on grounds of ill-health is to continue. This particular patient was on 10 prescription drugs a day, suffering high blood pressure, renal failure and regular blackouts. Atos incredibly found her fit for work even though as her widower said, “but there was no way in a million years she could work.”
There have been other tragic cases; Labour MP Michael Meacher described the death of a young man with epilepsy shortly after he was classified fit for work and saw his benefit cut by £70 a week.”He became agitated and depressed and lost weight, fearing that he could not pay his rent or buy food. Three months later, he had a major seizure that killed him,” Meacher said. “A month after he died, the DWP [Department of Work and Pensions] rang his parents to say that it had made a mistake and his benefit was being restored.”
The government’s own figures revealed that 1,300 people had died after being told they should start preparing to go back to work, and another 2,200 had died before their assessment was complete. The British Medical Association called for the tests to be scrapped to prevent harm to the most vulnerable people in society. If a GP gives their patient a medical certificate stating they are unfit for work it seems utterly ludicrous that this decision can be overturned, by someone far less medically qualified, by the simple process of filling in a form. A nurse who worked for Atos was so appalled by her instructions to assess a patient, she blew the whistle, telling the press that candidates were marked down if they: looked well-presented, with neat hair and make-up, turned up with a toddler, could sign the application form. She said, “If someone had a pet, they were able to function and if they smiled while talking about a pet, I had to mark down that they smiled spontaneously and were therefore not depressed. It was so unfair. There could be a very depressed or ill person sitting in front of me but on paper, thanks to the leading questions I had to ask, they could be judged fit to work.”
The wider picture of course is the government’s continuing demonisation of benefit claimants in their determination to dismantle the welfare state. The figures spent on Atos and appeals mean it is hardly about economics. And anyway where are all the mythical jobs that the formerly sick need to find. To pressurise seriously disabled people into work when there are already 2.5 million unemployed and eight people chasing every vacancy makes no sense at all. And Atos’ continued propensity to make these duff decisions means we are all asking the question put by Conservative MP Heather Wheeler, “At what point do we say that this isn’t working?”