Concerns Increase over ‘Unprofessional’ and ‘Biased’ Atos Assessments
August 8, 2012
The Fresh Outlook
The Fresh Outlook examines Work Capability Assessments (WCA) for disabled people receiving out-of-work benefits as concern about assessors Atos increases.
Atos is the company brought in by the government to assess the number of people on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) (formerly Incapacity Benefit) on behalf of the department of Work and Pensions (DWP). The assessment system employed by Atos had been widely criticised with many problems arising. It has been reported that Atos has been paid £100m a year to conduct Work Capability Assessments (WCAs) for those on ESA, and this week has been granted the 400million Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment scheme as well.
Atos conducts face to face assessments for people accessing ESA (the benefit for disabled people out of work), but continues to draw intense criticism due to the high rate of inaccurate decisions, successful appeal rates (around 30%) and waste of restricted resources. This has led to accusations that Atos assessments are being driven by figures and targets, not by supporting disabled people who either need continued fanatical support or are able to return to work. Just last week there were reports of employment minister Chris Grayling who allegedly tried to censor a Ministry of Justice video informing people how to appeal against Atos assessments.
The Fresh Outlook spoke to the creator of the site After Atos, who said: “The costs and contracts to Atos … do not add up. Even more contracts have been awarded, a further 400m. £13,000 is give for just a referral fee to someone to attend a work programme. Yet … millions are cut from police, emergency services and fire brigade … These taxes are given to private companies rather than the services that they are there for.”
After Atos aims to collect data of people’s experiences of Atos assessments in an unbiased way, without political slant of opinion. The site has purposely remained independent, as the creator feels that an unbiased ethos is important in order to give the site credibility. She also pointed out that she has kept the site completely anonymous, as in the past those who have used names have been personally attacked, had accounts hacked and even had their benefits reviewed and stopped as a consequence.
We asked a spokesperson for After Atos for her opinion on the Atos assessments. She said: “The Atos assessments are unprofessional and biased towards the government aims and targets to get the disabled off benefits. I am a qualified health professional, a registered mental health nurse and did general nursing as part of my training, qualification and professional work.
“The Atos … assessment tool is based on functionality, not on the medical condition.”
The spokesperson went on to claim that Atos do not currently keep records of the assessments unless explicitly asked to do so before the assessment begins. They also have no post-assessment review system of their own. Once a decision has been made to remove funding from a disabled person, no system is put in place to make sure they can coupe or have managed to find work. The spokesperson was very critical of this, saying: “The company has a responsibility to every single person that their product or services affects – no matter how remote.”
The British Medical Association (BMA) have also raised concerns, highlighting a statement from one of their members, which said: “London GP Louise Irvine said the WCA system was causing ‘distress’ to thousands of people with long-term health conditions deemed fit of work, as well as subjecting the doctors involved to ‘McDonaldisation’ of their careers. She said 40% of those who appealed WCA decisions were successful and this success rate rose to 70% for those who took up legal representation. Dr Irvine said ‘there is no empathy in the system, it is all accusatory’.”
The spokesperson form After Atos also expressed concerns about the worrying levels of training the Disability Health care assessors have: “The assessors are supposed to be qualified health professionals such as doctors, general nurses and physiotherapists. Although it appears that people who are unqualified are getting through. If the person is trained then they should know most basic conditions. However, the Atos programme teaches and trains the professional to go against their [duty of care].There seems to be an appalling state of qualified medical and nursing professionals ready to sacrifice their principles and practice and patient care for the sake of their Atos post and money.”
A statement from Atos healthcare states: “Disability benefits assessors, get somewhere between four and 19 days training,” but the BMA have demanded that the WCAs by Atos should be ended “with immediate effect and be replaced with a rigorous and safe system that does not cause unavoidable harm to so of the weakest and vulnerable in society”.
The criticism is particularly pertinent as this week Professor Malcolm Harrington, who headed an independent review into the Atos assessments, has announced he will be stepping down. He has called for a big overhaul of the process of testing claimants’ ability to work to make it more “fair and humane”.
As well as the WCAs, the government have awarded a further assessment scheme to Atos, enabling them to asses Personal Independence Payment (PIP) recipients. Richard Hawkes, chief executive of Scope has said:
“The government and Atos, the contractor who carries out its fitness for work test, 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.”
The concerns surrounding Atos assessments can arguably be best summed up by Neil Coyle of Disability Rights UK, who said: “The assessments are supposed to test capability for work but routinely fail to identify the impact of impairments and health conditions on disabled people’s day to day lives. The appeal volume and cost speaks for itself: 40% of appeals are successful and cost about £28 million last year. This money would be better spent fixing the test or supporting some disabled people into real employment through the Access to Work scheme.”
By Sarah Leyland
[Image courtesy of Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty]