Published: 6 September, 2012
by TOM FOOT
A HEALTH professional signed off work by her doctor in “excruciating pain” lost all her benefits and was judged fit to work following an assessment by Atos.
The mother – she lives in Camden but wants to remain anonymous – said had been pushed to the limits of despair by the Government’s £100m contractor.
Atos Healthcare – the agents of the Coalition’s welfare reform and Paralympics partner – is under intense criticism for assessments campaign groups say is forcing seriously ill people over the edge.
The mother has worked all her life until a serious workplace injury forced her to quit. She regularly sees a hospital pain management team for her pain but after being assessed by Atos she was told she no longer qualified for Employment Support Allowance (ESA).
Her child tax credits, housing, council and employment benefits were cut off in the same week.
She said: “I am in extreme, excruciating pain. But for three months I didn’t have any money at all. At first I thought this was a joke. I was asking for help from friends – but the worst thing was I couldn’t give my two children anything during the holidays.
How do you explain to a child about this sort of thing?
“I was so proud to work – I went to school, university, I have studied. Now the kids are crying for you and it makes you so upset. When they stop one benefit, the others also stop.”
She added: “These assessments – the trouble you have to go through – they are leaving people with mental illness.
“I cannot carry shopping bags. I can’t stand for long and cook so I sometimes buy ready meals. I told them this and they said: ‘Oh, because you can put things in the microwave you can go to work.’
“They score you on communication, sitting and standing, about whether you can read your email, can you talk on the phone, walk 200 metres?
“It is like speaking to a robot – they ask you what you can do, but not how you are. I was assessed by a nurse – fitness to work should be assessed by a doctor.”
Disability benefit assessments were formerly done by a registered GP.
After challenging the decision, she was told her appeal papers had been lost. With help from the Kentish Town-based campaign group WinVisible, some of her benefits have been restored.
Clare Glassman from WinVisible said: “One of the main problems is that Atos do not get penalised when they get things wrong.
Women are terrified and it is very, very serious. They don’t count pain levels or the difficulties of getting around. None of that. Being in a wheelchair is now classed as being mobile.
“The BMA [British Medical Association] has called for these assessments to be scrapped. We have got results for some people, but there needs to be a wholesale change because this is happening on a massive scale.”
She said she had spoken to women living in Camden who had physical disabilities but also “terrible psychological” injuries that were not taken into account under the new system.
She said “equality” – a principle championed by New Labour – was being used to argue that it was “patronising that the severely disabled cannot work”.
A week of protest ended on Friday when more than 400 protesters demonstrated outside the Atos headquarters in Triton Square, Euston.
On Monday, Tory chancellor George Osborne was booed by tens of thousands of Paralympic fans as he handed out medals in the Olympic Stadium.
A spokeswoman for Atos said: “We don’t make benefit decisions – we are small part of the overall process. We send a report off to the Department and they decide these are parameters set by the Government – that is all Government policy.
She added: “At Atos we have proudly supported the Paralympics Movement for a decade. We hope people will view the Games, as we do, as an opportunity to celebrate sporting achievements.”
“We fully respect people’s right to peaceful protest and we understand this is a highly emotive issue.”