2 MIN RANT: Atos are clearly not ‘fit for work’ so why are we still paying them £100million a year?

Imagine this scenario. Your boss pays you £100million to complete a task. Your failure rate is so great – around 70% – that it costs half that again to clear up your mistakes. He gives you another £100million; the same thing happens. He gives you another £100million; the same thing happens. How long would expect to keep your job?

Atos Healthcare, a privately run French company of medical experts IT professionals are still being contracted to determine whether British benefit claimants are ‘fit for work’ or not with their controversial Work Capability Assessments. But 70% of appeals against them are successful. Where proper representation is not available it is around just 60%, according to the Guardian, which incidentally makes it even more insulting that legal aid for welfare claimants is being cut.

First of all, it’s hard to see how this will actually save the taxpayer money. It is costing the taxpayer £100million a year to contract Atos, and it is costing the taxpayer another £50million to clear up mistakes by Atos. The reason for the extra £50million? They’re terrible at telling the sick from the healthy. Why? Because over a third of them are not even medical professionals. They don’t know how to diagnose an illness, and they don’t know how to spot a healthy person faking an illness.

Taxpayers – some of whom are also benefit claimants, by the way – have already paid for the NHS, and we trust it. All our NHS GPs are experts in medicine, and they have all trained for years. Sometimes they’ve known the claimant all his or her life. They know past illnesses, and past recoveries. They know if they’ve made false claims of sickness in the past, or if they have a history of being a bit of a hypochondriac. They know what symptoms a particular illness has; symptoms a false claimant might not know to fake. Why on earth would we think it easier for a fraudulent claimant to fool a real, live, flesh-and-blood GP than an automated computer system? Is it because the GPs are going to be so busy doing their own commissioning that we have to get an IT company to diagnose illness? Perhaps we should get nurses to re-programme the computers and get hospital cleaners to drive ambulances while we’re at it.

But the incompetence and the financial cost to the taxpayer is nothing to the human cost. Larry Newman, who had been diagnosed with a degenerative lung condition but was awarded zero points for his Work Capability Assessment by Atos, was told he wasn’t eligible for benefits, and that he only had three months before he should expect to start work again. He died before the three months were even up, and his widow Sylvia Newman said her husband’s dying words were to joke: “It’s a good job I’m fit for work.” If Atos had accessed Mr Newman’s medical records – as he had explicitly given signed permission for them to do – they would clearly have seen how unwell he was. According to Mrs Newman, they didn’t bother to look at them. She says they didn’t even take his pulse or look at the scars on his chest. This is why GPs themselves have expressed concern at Atos’ disregard for their knowledge and work: health conditions that require complex understanding can’t possibly be analysed by check boxes in a computer system, and when patients lose their access to support they need it can have an enormously detrimental affect on their recovery.

This is particularly significant for cases relating to mental health. There have been countless suicides and attempted suicides as a result of Atos’ Work Capability Assessments. People have been sectioned after being found “fit for work.” It ought to be obvious from this alone that the tests used by Atos are simply not fit for purpose.

Here are just some of the complaints. People report only being asked questions which are not relevant to their illness, and not being allowed to actually talk about the things that are. People’s official medical records often get ignored. The advice of GPs, social workers, and mental health workers often gets ignored. People get called to Work Capability Assessments in buildings without disability access. 20% of Atos Healthcare’s medical centres do not have wheelchair access. Only one Atos centre has disabled parking available, 31 Atos medical assessment centres are not on the ground floor, 16 centres do not have chairs suitable for disabled people (for example chairs without arms, which make it pretty hard to stand up or sit down again), 27 centres do not provide drinking water irregardless of how long the claimant is made to wait for their assessment, and it is not clear whether the centres are required to provide toilets at all, disabled or otherwise: many service users have complained that their centre did not. These are things that private companies and individuals often don’t think about, because they don’t appreciate the complex needs of the disabled – and why would they? – but a doctor, or medical professional, would surely not expect an incontinent person to wait for an appointment without access to a toilet, or a person who suffers panic attacks to wait, in a stressful situation, without access to water?

In fact, I have never heard a good report of an Atos assessment, although Atos insist that 90% of their service users are satisfied. Atos officials insist that all complaints are “taken very seriously and fully investigated” but an incorrect Work Capability Assessment result can literally be a matter of life and death. What good is a full investigation into a complaint if you’re already dead?

The astonishing incompetence of Atos should alarm everyone, not just benefit claimants. The whole point of welfare means that you never know when you, or someone you love, may need it. It is something we all pay into, so that we all have access to it. The lucky ones, surely, are those of us who never need to claim our money’s worth back?

But if you’re one of those who feels you’re being fleeced, think about this: the government is paying £100million of your money to a foreign company whose mistakes cost us £50million to fix, just for the sake of getting a handful (1% of all claimants*) out of the system. Which it won’t do anyway: the number of fraudulent benefits claims in the UK has, after all that, remained the same. It seems obvious who any anger should be directed towards.

*DWP’s own figures.


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