Disability benefit reform: is the government hiding behind Atos errors?

Righteous anger by disabled people over Atos incompetence in assessing benefit claims should also be directed at the government

Disabled people protest against cuts in their benefits in Westminster, earlier this year. Photograph: Martin Argles for the Guardian

Atos is a French IT company engaged by the government to run the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) contract to assess claimants for sickness and disability benefits. It is also the target of blame and fury by many sick and/or disabled people suffering at the hands of an inhumane system.

Exactly what a French IT company would know about sickness, disability,welfare benefits and the tough job of administering such claims might be the first question to spring to mind, but the important questions here are not related to competence. The key issue is whether Atos is responsible for a situation causing so much distress and pain to genuinely sick and disabled people. And who benefits by Atos being seen as responsible for this situation?

There are consistent themes among the complaints that sick and disabled people make against Atos. It may seem shocking, but one of the most significant complaints is that many centres Atos use to perform “medical” assessments are inaccessible and lack available disabled parking. Some lack any parking. This has led to fears that using inaccessible centres is a direct tactic to refuse people the benefits they are entitled to.

Another key complaint is incorrect assessment decisions. With a success rate of 40% – according to the DWP’s own figures – and up to 70% in Scotland for those who appeal against Atos’s original decision, costing something in the region of £50m pounds, this is a significant issue for all taxpayers, not just claimants. At a time when the cuts are biting, the cost of living spiralling and government insisting “we’re all in this together”, it should be of particular concern that vast sums of money are being spent on incorrect decisions. Particularly as the government pays Atos per medical and although financial penalties are written into the contract, no money has so far been claimed back. Somewhat confusing considering the government’s aggression in pursuing benefit fraudsters for relatively small amounts of money.

Despite significant evidence of incorrect decisions and the high appeal success rate being commented on since before the 2010 election, the employment minister, Chris Grayling, admits not a “single penny” has been claimed back from Atos and insists it has “met all [its] targets for medical advice”.

Atos is a private company and provides services with the intention of making a profit. It’s unreasonable to blame Atos for doing what it does as a company, but it is perfectly reasonable for people to challenge where Atos or any other private company is not fulfilling its contractual obligations.

Which leads us to the heart of this issue; who lays out those contractual obligations for Atos to follow? Who’s responsible for enforcing them? Who decides upon the descriptors to qualify for each benefit, so unrelated to the world of work that genuinely sick and disabled people are left bewildered by their assessments? Who sets the standards for companies like Atos to adhere to? Who should be enforcing issues such as of lack of access?

The answer to every one of those questions is the government and/or the DWP. These concerns about the performance of Atos were recently raised by the work and pensions select committee, which asked senior Atos executives why the company is “feared and loathed” by disabled people, their families and friends.

Now, if I were a member of the coalition government determined to push these disastrous welfare “reforms” through I would have been turning cartwheels after the answer Atos gave, which was that “claimants do not really understand the role that Atos plays”.

Because if I were in government, if I wanted welfare reforms to be harder to challenge than they already are … well, I couldn’t have set it up better than to place a private company at the heart of the issue. A private company feared and loathed enough to inspire sick and disabled people, with wheelchairs, guide dogs and walkers to picket the offices of this company. Because the more Atos take the flak, the less I as a government minister would have to worry. A totally disposable private company, which can easily be outbid when it comes to renew the contract by another private company no more or less competent than the first one, and likely to be reliant on the same healthcare professionals.

If I were the minister, I couldn’t dream up a more ideal scenario to ensure my wasteful, damaging and expensive welfare reforms went through with as little protest as possible. It’s a tactic as cowardly as hiding behind a human shield … but no one said morality was involved in these reforms, just a drive to save money, slam scroungers and hide behind a “feared and loathed” private firm.

 Kaliya Franklin is a founder of the Broken of Britain campaign on welfare reform and blogs at Benefit Scrounging Scum

The Guardian

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