La Familia: The corporate cartel behind the welfare reform agenda

It is depressing to compile a list of the numerous assaults the Coalition has unleashed on disabled people since it took power last May. Some have been well publicised, mostly in the form of regurgitated briefings and press releases from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), whilst others have received little attention from a media almost completely in thrall to the Government’s welfare reform agenda. By my reckoning there have been 23 separate attacks on our hard won rights to independent living, community support, inclusive education, protection in the work place and financial security.

We know what is happening; we are witnessing an unprecedented redistribution of wealth from the very poor to the very rich but this sustained onslaught represents the endgame of a continuum going back almost twenty years. The Coalition is implementing a strategy which had its inception under the Tory Government of John Major and was then enthusiastically embraced by New Labour. The main protagonists, human and corporate, have been subjected to minimal scrutiny in the UK but a trail of greed and complicity is not difficult to trace.

Instead, the issue which has received extensive media attention is that of the ‘migration’ of disabled people from Incapacity Benefit to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), or to the ‘less generous’ Job Seekers Allowance or to no benefits at all.  Ten thousand people a week are currently undergoing ‘work capability assessments’ (WCA) administered by ‘healthcare professionals’ employed by Atos Healthcare, part of the giant conglomerate Atos Origin. It seems reasonable to ask why a French multinational I.T. company has been awarded an £800 million contract to deliver this programme? The answer has its roots in a financial scandal at the heart of corporate America. 

In 1994 health minister, Peter Lilley appointed the Vice President of a major American insurance corporation as an advisor. Working alongside Professor Mansel Aylward, the future Chief Medical Adviser for the DWP, John LoCascio’s brief was to curtail the ‘burgeoning’ numbers of people claiming incapacity benefit. The ripples from this lucrative partnership are still being felt nearly two decades later.

UnumProvident began its life as a respected company specialising in health and income protection insurance. However, a spectacular combination of mismanagement and criminality led to it becoming embroiled in a series of high profile lawsuits. UnumProvident’s response to falling profits was to honour as few claims as possible, even when it was undeniable that people had made valid applications for sickness benefits and help with medical bills. This fraudulent practice was highlighted in 2002/03 when it lost a class action in California, was fined US$31.7 and barred from trading in several states. 

It might have been hoped that given UnumProvident’s disastrous track record New Labour would have stayed well clear. Predictably this was not to be the case. In 2001 a seminar on ‘Malingering and Illness Deception’ was held for senior Labour politicians. John LoCascio and a number of right wing academics and psychiatrists, some with links to UnumProvident, were also present as was Mansel Aylward. Aylward is a leading proponent of the psychosocial theory that people adopt a persona of ‘sickness’ so ‘allowing’ them to withdraw from the labour market.   Whilst this doctrine is clothed in the language of ‘social inclusion’ and ‘well-being’, it is part of a NeoCon narrative that espouses concepts like ‘the mentality of welfare entrapment’. In essence it blames disabled people for the fact that many of us are unemployed and most of us are poor. Those who refuse to be ‘cured’ must be controlled and contained through the use of cognitive behavioural therapy. Rather than challenging this discourse New Labour chose to adopt it as the ideological force behind its own proposals for welfare reform.

In parallel with UnumProvident, Atos Origin also worked assiduously to extend its political influence. Philip Chalmers, former Director of Polling and Marketing for Scottish Labour, became Atos UK Director of Business Development in 2001. It sponsored fringe meetings at party conferences shortly after it acquired the privatised Medical Appeals Tribunal Service as part of its diversification into healthcare outsourcing. Two years later, in 2005, it was awarded a massive contract for delivering the ESA assessment programme, including the development of the discredited LIMA computer software that forms an integral part of the assessment process. The Coalition has now extended the contract with Atos Origin until 2013.  The tender document between the DWP and Atos runs to 501 pages and the government has resisted attempts to disclose much of it, citing ‘commercial sensitivity’. The DWP has the power to monitor this contract but it has not done so in any meaningful way. The model Atos Healthcare is using to carry out assessments bears remarkable similarity with that of UnumProvident’s ‘disability denial factories’ but instead of penalising Atos for its numerous shortcomings it was the DWP’s ‘customer delivery supplier of the year’ for 2010.

Atos Origin and Unum have succeeded in insinuating themselves into the fabric of government. UnumProvident is actively using welfare reform as a vehicle to expand its UK operations whilst Atos Origin has representatives on five parliamentary I.T. advisory groups. Prominent members of the advisory group responsible for impact assessing the WCA have open or covert connections with both corporations. Shortly before a Scottish protest against Atos in January, Ed Milliband visited its Livingston HQ to endorse its sponsorship of the London Olympics and Paralympics.  Mansel Aylward is now Director of the UnumProvident Centre for Psychosocial and Disability Research at Cardiff University and was recently appointed as Chair of Public Health Wales. He is a trustee of a national disability charity which has financial links with Unum and the DWP.

This is the desperate situation we face. On paper it hardly seems a fair fight. La Familia has enormous power, influence and resources. In comparison what do disabled people have? We have ourselves, our allies, our courage and our determination. We are going to need all of the above.  

Sasha Callaghan,

Founder member of the Black Triangle Campaign

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