People who are fit and healthy are unlikely to have heard of the company Atos. But anyone who has had to apply for sickness benefits may find that the name triggers – according to one MP – a sense of “fear and loathing”.
To receive Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), the vast majority of claimants have to pass a Working Capability Assessment (WCA) – a short medical test carried out by government contractor Atos Healthcare. The WCA is so consistently failing to recognise those who are in dire need of support that it is hard to understand why society is not in uproar. The cost to the government alone is staggering. Appeals against incorrect WCA decisions are costing £50m a year, with tribunals having to sit on Saturdays and increase staff by 30% to deal with the backlog. Appeals find in favour of the claimant in at least 30% of cases, according to the government’s own statistics – although Neil Bateman, a welfare adviser featured on a BBC Panorama programme, believes this rises to a staggering 80-90% if the appellant seeks the help of an experienced adviser.
Atos, a Paris-based IT company, has been carrying out the WCAs, allowing the government to phase out incapacity benefit and replace it with the ESA. They have recently been awarded a further govt contact worth £400M to continue running these tests. The record of Atos Healthcare – a division of Atos – over the initial period of the policy’s roll-out has been heavily criticised by disability charities. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) announced the award of three contracts in England and Wales, with Atos unexpectedly winning the lion’s share of the work. The smaller of the three contracts, covering Wales and parts of central England, was won by the outsourcing company Capita.
During the test, benefit claimants are interviewed by Atos staff – a mix of doctors and nurses – for between 20 minutes and two hours. Staff engage claimants in an often very relaxed conversation, gathering information about the medical problems, and calculating how capable the claimant is of performing simple tasks; a computer programme offers prompts to ensure that all the relevant material is inputted.
Charities have warned that glitches in the system have meant that many seriously ill people have been judged fit for work. Over a third have appealed, with 40% of decisions overturned by tribunals.
The tribunals service spent an estimated £22.15m on processing appeals between May and September last year. The service has had to double its capacity in the social security section to deal with the large number of appeals, recruiting an extra 170 paid medical panel members. The government accepts that the system has not run smoothly, and set up a review last year, headed by Prof Malcolm Harrington. His initial recommendations have been implemented by Atos, although he stated in July 2012 the system was improved but was still “patchy”. However, auditors have found “weaknesses” in the contract between the government and Atos.
In August 2012, the National Audit Office said the DWP had failed to penalise Atos for “underperformance”, and had not set “sufficiently challenging” targets. The NAO criticised the DWP for not seeking “financial redress” for these delays, saying just 10% of the penalties triggered by poor performance had been applied. The spending watchdog added that the DWP’s negotiating position has been undermined by “inaccurate forecasting” of the number of people likely to need a medical test.
The government are also replacing the working-age disability living allowance (DLA) with a new personal independence payment (PIP), from next year and aims to cut spending by 20% over the next three years. DLA, which pays out a maximum of £130 a week, is a welfare payment designed to help people look after themselves and aimed at those who find it difficult to walk or get around.
Richard Hawkes, chief executive of the disability charity Scope, said the tests were deeply flawed. “The government and Atos, the contractor that carries out its fitness for work test [WCA], have come under a great deal of criticism about how this assessment is being delivered to disabled people.” Yet in less than a year from now, disabled people could have to go through two deeply flawed assessments in the same month to get the essential financial support they need to live their lives. Disabled people are incredibly anxious and afraid that the switch from DLA to PIP is just an excuse to cut the support they need.”
A spokesman for the charity Disability Rights UK, which lobbied the government to make the test fairer, said: “We are looking to ensure all companies assessing disabled people sign up to principles to ensure the assessment process works as well as possible. Contracts are worth millions but are designed to remove support from thousands of disabled people and are likely to provoke strong feelings. This is especially among disabled people who have not had needs identified in other assessments. We hope DWP and contractors will work very closely with advice organisations like ours to ensure independent, expert information is available to all 2 million people going through the new tests.”
Campaigners say achieving the level of saving required would mean cutting about 500,000 people from the benefit roll, which would lead to arbitrary judgments being made.
A parliamentary question found that 31 people have died in the three years to last October while appealing against decisions that they were able to work. It has also been revealed that between January and August last year (2011), on average 32 people died every week who the government had declared could be helped back into work in the medium term.
It is this government’s laissez faire attitude to whether those thrown off sickness benefits are able to move into the workplace that makes campaigners believe that underlying the harshness of this medical test is a desire to reduce the welfare bill at any cost. No wonder sick and disabled people throughout the country live in real fear of when the next brown envelope from the DWP will drop through their door.
Atos continues to devastate people’s lives. Many have committed suicide because of its testing programme, and over 1,000 people have died of their illnesses soon after being found ‘fit for work’.
The medical test in its current form isn’t fit for purpose, and the government’s contract with Atos Healthcare isn’t providing the value for money that taxpayers deserve. It is reasonable that the government suspends its relentless reassessment of 11,000 sickness benefits claimants every week until practical changes can be made to the medical test that protect the genuinely sick and disabled.
If you are asked to go for a test:
- Take a friend with you. Ask them to take notes.
- Look up the questions beforehand on the internet.
- The Citizens Advice Bureau or your local benefits advice may be able to help you.
Making an appeal to the Social Security and Child Support tribunal
Disabled People Against Cuts is about disabled people and their allies. DPAC is UK based but we know that disabled people in other countries are suffering from austerity cuts and a lack of fundamental rights. We welcome all to join us in fighting for justice and human rights for all disabled people.
Disability Rights UK Factsheets provide basic information about benefits, tax credits, social care and other disability related issues for claimants and adviser and are free to download.
Citizens Advice Bureau – provides free, independent, confidential and impartial advice (use search box to find your local CAB office)
Benefits and Work – independent and accurate information about how to claim and keep your benefits with guides you can trust