As Atos is forced to rebrand and pull out of Work Capability Assessment, Gill George discusses the misery they have inflicted and argues we need to take on the Tories as well.
‘OH Assist’ is the new name for Atos’ corporate occupational health arm. This is a little bit like Windscale being renamed as Sellafield after the worst nuclear accident in British history. The Atos brand has become toxic, and its owners are scrabbling to leave it behind.
What’s gone wrong for them? Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) is meant to provide financial support to people who are not well enough to work, but the Tories have worked out that you can pretend people are fit and stop their benefits. Atos has been doing the Tories’ dirty work for them.
A big problem for Atos is that a bunch of people dying on you tends to get you bad press. Terry McGarvey died last month, the day after he dragged himself into an Atos Work Capability Assessment, terrified of losing his benefits if he failed to turn up. He was taken by ambulance straight from the assessment to hospital. Last October, David Coupe died of cancer: blind, deaf and in terrible pain, but Atos said he was fit to work and slashed his benefits. Linda Wooton, a double heart and lung transplant patient from Rayleigh, Essex, died just nine days after Atos declared her fit to work. There are many similar stories.
And then there are the shocking statistics behind the individual deaths. At least 1,300 people have died after being placed in a ‘Work-related Activity’ category, with Atos claiming they will get better and become fit for work. A further 2,200 died before their Atos assessment process was completed. As many as 7,100 have died after being found unable to work – but they were still dragged through a capability assessment despite suffering from severe illness. As many as 31 people have died while waiting for the outcome of their appeals against being found ‘fit to work’. A memorial page for the victims of benefits reform reports that 20 people have now committed suicide. Incalculable human misery lies behind the statistics.
The Work Capability Assessments run by Atos have become a production line of misery. The Government has launched an all-out assault on the 1.6 million incapacity benefit claimants, forcing them through these shoddy assessments at the rate of 11,000 a week. The purpose is to drive people off benefits – to pretend that people who are seriously ill or disabled are fit to work. The assessment is a crude computer-based ‘tick box’ approach. There are countless reports of medical evidence being ignored. People with severe congenital disabilities or terminal illness are being told they are fit to work. Bizarrely, many people with progressive conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and cystic fibrosis are put in the ‘will get better’ Work-related Activity group. A study carried out by Citzens Advice Bureau found that half of the reports produced by Atos contained serious inaccuracies. Even the DWP has disagreed with 158,300 decisions made by Atos that people were ‘fit for work’ when quite clearly they were not. An additional 600,000 have appealed against their benefits being cut, with a success rate now running at over 40% despite the barriers erected by the DWP to make appeals financially and personally punitive.
Of course, the Tories couldn’t care less about quiet misery – but they don’t like it when people organise and fight back. There has been a growing groundswell of opposition to Atos and the farcical system it runs. A whole host of websites have sprung up, advising ESA claimants and exposing the horrors of the Work Capability Assessments. Angry protests against Atos have escalated, with DPAC and Black Triangle playing a prominent role. Disability campaigners, anti-cuts activists and socialists took part in the impressive national day of action against Atos on 19th February. Atos was confronted by 144 demonstrations across the country. In Southend Atos staff walked out to join the protest. Many Atos workers are sickened at the process they have been a part of, and a growing number of Atos staff have also experienced abuse and even death threats from claimants left destitute and desperate.
Pressure from below has lead into more ‘respectable’ pressure on Atos and their Tory paymasters. Several MPs, including Dennis Skinner and Michael Meacher, have played a prominent role in exposing Atos. Charities such as Parkinson’s UK, the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, and the MS Society have condemned the farcical assessment process. The entire Work Capability Assessment process has been discredited. Atos has become a dirty word.
Our side is winning this one hands down. Atos announced on 20th February – the day after the national protest – that it was pulling out. A spokesman for Atos criticised the assessment process, saying: “In its current form it is not working for claimants, for DWP or for Atos Healthcare.” Well, we could have told you that, mate. They’re probably not too worried about the welfare of claimants, but the whole affair has clearly caused serious harm to Atos’ reputation. The spokesman added, “For several months now we have been endeavouring to agree an early exit from the contract, which is due to expire in August 2015.”
As Atos ran for cover, so did the DWP. Tory Disability Minister Mike Penning announced on 24th February that sick and disabled people claiming ESA will no longer face automatic re-assessment, at least until another firm is brought in. Only new claimants or those whose circumstances have changed will have to undergo these vile capability assessments. Thousands of people every week will be spared this degrading and frightening experience. Penning is the fall guy for Ian Duncan Smith, who is keeping a low profile and pretending that this shambles is nothing to do with him.
This is a victory for us, and it’s a victory that has been won through the self-organisation of disabled people and people with severe illness, and by countless others standing in solidarity with them. The Tories and Atos are left humiliated. The real day-to-day experience of thousands of people is better because we fought back.
We’ve won the battle, but this particular war isn’t going anywhere soon. The contract for Work Capability Assessments will be awarded to another company. Names in the running include Serco and G4S. Both have a record of charging the government for supervising ‘tagging’ of people who didn’t actually exist; both have run brutal regimes at refugee deportation centres. Their record is not an encouraging one. Atos itself will roll out the controversial care.data project and has already been given a £400 million contract to carry out 75% of tests for the new Personal Independence Payment, the replacement for Disability Living Allowance. The Government’s objective in getting rid of DLA is a 20% reduction in the cost of this essential support for disabled people.
This is the real problem. Atos is a nasty company, but was following orders. Ian Duncan Smith’s Department of Work and Pensions set the criteria and targets that Atos followed. The Tories have a wider agenda for disabled people. Research carried out by Scope and the think-tank Demos has shown that 3.7 million disabled people will collectively lose £28 billion as a result of benefits changes. The drive to cut ESA has been just one strand of the attack. The scrapping of DLA and its replacement by PIP is another. The Tories have effectively got rid of the Independent Living Fund for very severely disabled people, devolving responsibility to local councils that have no money to provide this support. Disabled people will be hit also by the change to local housing allowance; the bedroom tax; the abolition of the independent living fund; the 1% cap on benefit uprating; and the localisation of and 10% cut in council tax benefit. Michael Meacher has described this as “a staggering expropriation from arguably the most deprived and disadvantaged section of the entire population”.
It’s possible, of course, that a future Labour Government will reverse Tory attacks on disabled people, and will also reverse the intended destruction of the welfare state, the NHS and local government services. Sadly, there’s no reason to suppose that a Labour Government would do this. Ed Miliband said last week that Labour would “have to do more to control social security spending.” Miliband and Balls alike have stated repeatedly that they will not reverse Tory cuts. And of course it was Labour that privatised Work Capability Assessments and gave the contract to Atos in the first place.
Our history shows us that workers get gains by fighting for them. It’s blindingly obvious that we need a society that looks after us when we’re sick or disabled. Our fight for that will have to continue.