Atos, the company that conducts Work Capability Assessments (WCA) for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), is sponsoring the Paralympics. The irony of this is almost beyond words. A company causing fear and distress to countless disabled people is attempting to improve its image by associating itself with the achievements of other disabled people.
The devastating impact Atos is having on the lives of many individuals cannot be overstated. Take my friend Yvonne, for instance.
Yvonne is a person who has always put more into life than she expected to get out of it. She has enhanced the lives of countless people, whilst enduring more than her fair share of pain and illness.
Born with a heart and lung condition, Yvonne had a double lung transplant twenty years ago. She is now experiencing all the problems of organ rejection. Her condition is deteriorating and she knows she probably won’t live for more than two or three years. The anti-rejection medication has caused various problems, including breast cancer, for which she had surgery and radiotherapy. Her condition is such that on her frequent visits to the transplant clinic at Harefield in Middlesex she gets hospital transport from North Wales.
Yvonne was recently summoned to a Work Capability Assessment. She approached it, as she approaches everything, with a positive attitude and faith in the person who would be carrying out the assessment. What actually happened shocked her. She found the whole experience humiliating and distressing. The physical tests exacerbated the pain of a collapsed lung which she had sustained a short time before.
Yvonne has just been informed that she has been placed in the Work Related Activity Group, which means that she is required to attend interviews at Jobcentre Plus, to prepare her for a return to work. This is patently ridiculous, but she doesn’t know if she has the energy to appeal. She is now worried about paying her rent, and it seems the final years of her life may be blighted with anxiety and hardship. All she wants is the minimum support to enable her to live her last few years without fear of penury. It seems that UK plc, or Team GB, or whatever we’re calling ourselves this week, can’t afford that.
Thanks to a report by the National Audit Office, we now know that Atos is not only damaging to the wellbeing of disabled people: it is also poor value for the taxpayer.
According to Tom Greatrex MP, “The taxpayer is effectively paying for this service twice – once through the £112 million a year Atos receives from the DWP, and then again through the £60 millon a year spent on appeals and clearing up the mess that results from Atos assessments.”
For months disabled people, their friends and families have been desperately trying to get this issue the attention it deserves, with very little help from politicians. Recently though, two TV documentaries exposed the cruel nature of the system. Panorama highlighted several individual cases, including a man with a serious heart condition declared fit for work only to die shortly afterwards.
Channel 4’s Dispatches went undercover in Atos and found that, although the official line is that there are no targets, assessors are under pressure not to put more than 12 per cent of claimants into the ‘support’ group. This means that the vast majority of people assessed will either be declared fit for work immediately, putting them on Jobseekers Allowance, or like Yvonne, placed in the Work Related Activity Group. No matter what anybody says, this is all about the government’s austerity programme, taking money from those who can least afford to lose it.
But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that whilst Atos is implementing this inhumane system, it is doing so at the behest of the DWP. Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling could, if they chose, call a halt to this debacle and create a system with some humanity and compassion.
There is to be a debate on the WCA and Atos in Westminster Hall on 4th September, so one can only hope that enough politicians have enough interest, and enough compassion, to speak out loud and clear, and demand urgent change.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is a regular contributor to Ekklesia.