Friday 31 August 2012

The Atos disability denial factory


I have had to be extremely careful writing this, since it has been reported that Atos have a track record of using the legal system to shut down websites that criticise their Work Capacity Assessment programme. The article is interspersed with red text disclaimers for the Atos legal team, sorry for the inconvenience. Atos lawyers, please note that the observation about shutting down websites is not a first hand assertion or opinion, it is substantiated reportage (click the green link).
In 2008 the Labour government awarded a contract to the French outsourcing company Atos to manage a programme of Work Capacity Asessments for claimants of disability benefits.The Tory led coalition then expanded the contract and extended it to 2015. According to the Independent, the current WCA current contract is worth £110 million a year. Atos Lawyers, there is nothing controversial in this opening paragraph, all information is in the public domain.

The objective of the revised Work Capacity Assessment programme sems to be to reduce the number of people claiming long term disability benefits, by transferring them to Job Seekers Allowance. The Department of Work and Pensions drew up the specifications of the outsourcing contract. A Channel 4 Dispaches report secretly recorded Atos trainers instructing new assessors that there were specific targets to not find more than 12% of claimants to be eligible for the support group and that the target had been set by the DWP. Atos and the DWP denied the claims that there is a specific target, but it is impossible to deny that during the training process many Atos assesors were made to believe that there are specific targets. Atos Lawyers, the bulk of the criticism in this paragraph is aimed at the DWP, the discussion of the secret recordings is based on the Channel 4 dispaches recordings (green link) and is followed up by the Atos denial.  

The Daily Express reported a DWP spokesman as saying "We’re overhauling the whole system of incapacity benefits to place the emphasis on what work people can do, not what they can’t". A justification narrative that was repeated by David Cameron at the opening of the 2012 Paralympic games in London when he said that "It’s about the inspiration and it will change people’s minds and that’s what matters. It’ll teach people about what they can do, rather than what they can’t do".  Atos Lawyers, there is no inherent criticism (or even mention) of Atos in this paragraph, simply a criticism of the Tory/DWP justification narrative.

The fact that Atos have been allowed to sponsor the Paralympic games is controversial, given the fact that they have found terminally ill cancer patients and severely diabled people "fit for work" and that a Daily Mirror investigation found that an average of 32 people a week were dying after being put in the "work-related activity group" after their ATOS Work Capacity Assessment. The Mirror investigation failed to determine the number of people dying after being found "fit for work" or whilst attempting to appeal their WCA assessment, since the DWP doesn't keep such records. Atos Lawyers, all of the claims in this paragraph are supported by reliable sources (green links), the only opinion I have expressed here is that sponsorship of the Paralympic games is "controversial", hardly grounds for a libel case or an attempt to have this blog unilaterally shut down.

The Citizens Advice Bureaux have recorded a huge upsurge in the number of people seeking their help to overturn Atos assessments, which takes up a huge amount of their time and prevents the CAB from dealing with other cases. Of the 127,000 WCA tribunals in the 2010-11 period, CAB report that 47,000 were successful, these statistics indicate a 37% failure rate. The CAB stated that people regularly complain of "[Atos assessors] that don't listen to the claimants answers", "rushed assessments that do not cover all the claimant's health problems" and "answers attributed to claimants that they insist they did not say". Atos Lawyers, none of these are my own assertions, all of the data and the reported complaints about Atos assessments come from the Citizens Advice Bureaux (green link).

It appears that significantly more WCA decisions are overturned at tribunal with representation. the website Bristol 24-7 reported that 46% of WCA appeals in the Bristol area are overturned at tribunal but that the figure "soars" to 82% when the appellant has representation. Atos Lawyers, the conclusion that appeals against Atos decisions are significantly more successful when the appellant has representation is extrapolated from the figures in the cited webpage (green link).

The Guardian have reported that the huge number of tribunals to appeal Atos WCA assessments are costing the taxpayer £50 million a year. Atos Lawyers, another substantiated claim (green link).

The Labour MP Tom Greatrex has been one of the leading campaigners against the Work Capacity Assessment project. He requested that the National Audit Office investigate the Atos contract after Tory ministers claimed that details, including information about financial penalties, were "commercially confidential". The NAO came back with a damning report which found that less than 10% of the financial penalty clauses in the contract had been activated and that the DWP's bargaining position had been severely undermined by the setting of insufficiently challenging targets. Atos Lawyers, once again, substantiated claims (green link).

At the 2012 annual GP's conference, British General Practitioners voted unanimously in favour of scrapping the Work Capacity Assessment regime.  Laurence Buckman, chair of the BMA's GPs' committee said that "When 40% of appeals against the assessments are successful at tribunal hearings, something is clearly very wrong with the system" and that "The government needs to look again at the whole assessment process and replace it with one that is fit for purpose." Atos Lawyers, all of the claims and quotes in this paragraph are substantiated by the Guardian article (green link).

It has been reported in the Guardian that twelve Atos doctors are under investigation by the General Medical Council (GMC) and if they are found not to have put the care of patients first, they could be struck off the GMC medical register. The Guardian stated that "it is understood that the majority of allegations concern the treatment of vulnerable people capability assessments were carried out" with the caveat that the GMC refuse to comment on individual cases. Atos Lawyers, again, this is reportage based on a Guardian article. All of the assertions in this paragraph are clearly based on the Guardian report.

  It has been alleged that some Atos staff used Facebook to make obscene and degrading remarks about disability claimants, which included calling them "parasitic wankers" and "down and outs". Atos Lawyers, there is a source for these allegations (green link) and I have resisted the urge to speculate about whether these comments may be indicative of the mentality of the wider Atos workforce.

Niel Bateman, a solicitor that handles ESA appeals, stated that on two occasions his clients had successfully appealed against Atos decisions on the grounds that the Romanian doctor assessing them wasn't even licensed to practise in Britain at the time. Perhaps the most absurd Atos employment case so far is that of the Nigerian qualified doctor Dr Usen Samuel Ikidde, who was given a formal warning by the GMC in January after he was found to have worked for Atos whilst on sick leave from an accident and emergency department. A man that pretends to be sick, so that he can claim his NHS salary whilst simultaneously earning another salary at Atos, assessing whether people on disability benefits are actually sick or not. Atos Lawyers, both of these stories were reported in the Guardian here.

Atos have a contract worth £110 million a year, yet the tribunals stemming from their assessments are costing the taxpayer another £50-60 million a year. The Labour MP Tom Greatrex describes this arrangement as "paying twice to try to correct the mistakes in the initial assessments or the process that leads to the assessments and decisions". The absurd thing is that the taxpayer is paying twice for a service that doesn't even need to be carried out in the first place, since claimants must provide a wealth of evidence from their GP and specialist doctors in order to claim disability benefits in the first place. The Work Capacity Assessments seem to be a case of the government employing Atos to overturn the substantial evidence provided by GPs and specialists on the basis of a short interview and a computerised assessment. It is absolutely no surprise at all that so many cases are being successfully appealed at huge expense to the taxpayer.

Atos are to blame for this fiasco, but a much larger proportion of the blame must go to the government and the DWP that devised this scheme in the first place, drew up a rubbish contract and then failed to trigger financial penalty clauses in the contract once things started to go wrong, leaving the taxpayer, not Atos, to pick up the £50-60 million cost of these mistakes.

Atos Lawyers, I have attempted to provide reliable sources for every assertion made in this article. If you contest any of the assertions made here, I would appreciate it if you would focus upon the mainstream media organisations that originated all of these stories, rather than attempting to have my blog shut down.

No comments: