Atos PIP contract is ‘area of interest’ for spending watchdog

The public spending watchdog has had “discussions” with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) over concerns about a £184 million disability assessment contract awarded to Atos Healthcare.

The much-criticised company won the contract last year to carry out assessments for the new personal independence payment (PIP) – the replacement for disability living allowance – across London and the south of England.

But Disability News Service (DNS), and the crossbench peer Lord [David] Alton, have raised serious concerns about the award of the contract.

Now the National Audit Office (NAO) has confirmed that it is investigating these concerns.

In a letter to the peer, Max Tse, NAO’s value for money director, told Lord Alton that his concern about DWP’s PIP contract with Atos Healthcare was “an area of interest to the NAO”.

He said NAO had had “a number of discussions with the department on its contractual arrangements for the PIP”.

Tse added: “These are ongoing but I hope to be able to respond to you shortly on the issues you have raised.”

Atos won the contract by boasting of its “extensive” network of 16 NHS trusts, two private hospital chains, and four physiotherapy providers, all of which it said would provide sites where the tests would take place.

But in the months after the contract was awarded, all but four of the NHS trusts and both of the private hospital chains dropped out.

Following a Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) request from DNS, DWP admitted that Atos had far fewer sites in its supply chain than it originally stated.

When it submitted a tender for the contract, Atos stated that it had a network of 740 assessment sites across London and the south of England. But DWP has now admitted that Atos only has “up to” 108 centres available that meet its requirements.

Because there are so many fewer centres, thousands of disabled people will face longer journeys to reach their assessments.

Lord Alton said: “When millions of pounds of the public’s money is being diverted to a private company it is crucial that there is accountability, transparency, and public confidence.

“I welcome the NAO’s decision to scrutinise the Atos contract and to assess whether performance matches promise.”

Atos has insisted that no pledges made to DWP were broken and that it was “absolutely usual for there to be changes between point of tender and delivery”, while DWP was “fully aware” that contracts had not been signed with the 22 organisations at the point the tender was submitted.

An NAO spokeswoman said: “At the moment we cannot really say anything more about what is in the letter as no decision has been made.”

News provided by John Pring at http://www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Anxiety from service-users as Atos appears in mental health units

A mental health trust has defended its decision to carry out disability assessments on behalf of the controversial outsourcing company Atos.

Mental health service-users at four sites run by Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust have been alarmed to see Atos-branded leaflets displayed in waiting areas.

The four sites – in Preston, Ormskirk, Lancaster and Blackburn – are being used by trust staff to assess disabled people for their eligibility for the new personal independence payment (PIP), on behalf of Atos.

Atos information leaflets are displayed in the waiting areas at all four of the sites.

Thousands of people with mental distress have been found unfairly fit for work following work capability assessments carried out by Atos, and many have had relapses, episodes of self-harm and suicide attempts, and have needed higher levels of medication and even hospitalisation in the lead-up to those assessments.

One trust service-user said she had had an “awful experience” during an Atos “fitness for work” assessment, and added: “Their presence in the building increases my anxiety and isn’t helping my mental health.

“The hospital is meant to be a place of safety and a place to improve my stability and mental health. This is not the case at this time.”

Mark Hindle, the trust’s chief operating officer, said: “As a trust, we feel that we are best placed to provide these assessments as we have an in-depth understanding of the population and issues around health inequalities across the county.

“We also have the expert knowledge of both physical and mental health illnesses and the impact these can have on a person’s day-to-day living.”

He added: “The trust’s core values will ensure that people attending for an assessment will be treated with compassion, dignity and respect and involved in the assessment; as they normally would be in clinical practice.”

DWP finally reveals ‘shocking’ number of Atos PIP assessment sites

The number of disability assessment centres provided by the controversial IT company Atos will only be one seventh of the number it promised when it won a £184 million government contract, Disability News Service (DNS) can reveal.

Atos won the contract to carry out assessments across London and the south of England by boasting of its “extensive” network of 16 NHS trusts, two private hospital chains, and four physiotherapy providers, all of which it said would provide sites where the tests would take place.

But in the months after it was awarded the contract last summer, all but four of the NHS trusts and both of the private hospital chains dropped out.

Now the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has finally revealed – in a response to a Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) request from DNS – how many sites Atos now has in its supply chain to assess disabled people for their eligibility for the new personal independence payment (PIP).

When it submitted a tender for the contract last year, Atos stated that it had a network of 740 assessment sites across London and the south of England.

But DWP has now admitted that Atos only has “up to” 108 centres available that meet its requirements.

The crossbench peer Lord [David] Alton, who raised his concerns about the contract this week in a letter to the National Audit Office, said the difference between what Atos had pledged to provide in the tender document and what it was now offering was “staggering”.

He said this difference “begs endless questions about the basis of the original tender; the grounds on which that contract was then awarded; and, now, how the DWP can say with any certainty that the radically reduced number of centres will be able to undertake the assessments with efficiency and expedition”.

He added: “Are they saying that the original assumptions were not worth the paper on which they were written?

“As significant sums of public money are involved, I hope that the National Audit Office will carefully examine these questions.”

The disabled Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Lloyd went even further, and called for DWP to re-open the tendering process.

He said: “This figure is shocking. Atos can only now offer a derisory 15 per cent of the assessment centres in London and the south of England that they originally promised.

“I really do believe the DWP should re-open the tendering process, as Atos have spectacularly failed to get anywhere near their original figure for assessment centres.”

Because there are so many fewer assessment centres, thousands of disabled people with significant mobility and care needs will face longer journeys – possibly up to 90 minutes by public transport – to reach their assessments, rather than the maximum of 60 minutes promised by Atos when it bid successfully for the contract.

An Atos spokeswoman said in a statement: “Our success in winning the PIP contract was not based upon the number of suppliers or locations but instead on being able to meet the department’s needs for coverage, which we have.

“No pledges have been broken. It is absolutely usual for there to be changes between point of tender and delivery.

“We were asked by the department to include the names of all those we were in discussion with and they were fully aware that commercial contracts could not be in place at this time.

“We did not win all the lots for which we bid or sign commercial contracts with all those we had discussions with. The volume of assessments is lower than anticipated and this is reflected in the number of hospitals and other centres we now have in place.”

A DWP spokesman said in a statement: “DWP is confident that Atos has the capacity and coverage to meet the demand and that the locations used will meet our standards for accessibility, security and a professional environment.”

News provided by John Pring at http://www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Atos nurses were told: ‘You’re too nice to work here’

Two nurses who resigned from the government’s “fitness for work” contractor Atos Healthcare because it was “cut-throat” and “ruthless” have described how they were criticised by their managers for being “too nice”.

They spoke out only days after the latest report to criticise Atos was published by the Commons public accounts committee, which said the company had carried out “thousands of poorly administered tests each year”.

Last month, opposition MPs also lined up during a Commons debate to criticise Atos for the way it has carried out the contract to assess claimants of the new employment and support allowance (ESA), the replacement for incapacity benefit.

Disabled activists have held a string of protests aimed at highlighting the damage they say Atos has caused disabled people.

The grassroots campaign group Disabled People Against Cuts has accused Atos of finding people in comas and with terminal illnesses fit for work, using “an inhumane computer programme” to carry out assessments, and training staff “to push people off benefits”.

Now two nurses who worked at the company have added their weight to concerns about the way it operates, although Atos has refuted their claims.

One of the nurses says she and other assessors were constantly monitored on the number of claimants they recommended should be placed in the support group.

Jane*, who has posted her own account of her experiences on the Atos Victims website, said: “There was a percentage. If you were above that percentage they would review all of your cases. If you put too many in, you had to be monitored and you would have to get permission to put any more in the support group. There was a limit.”

Although she has no proof, she is convinced Atos has been given targets by the Department for Work and Pensions for the number of claimants it finds “fit for work”.

Those colleagues who were more ruthless with their assessments and found more claimants fit for work were “praised” by managers, she says.

Jane, who worked at Atos for a few months last year, said assessors were “taught to be cut-throat”.

She said: “It was drilled into you that you were not allowed to show any emotion. You couldn’t care. You weren’t allowed to care.”

On one occasion, after she had taken longer than usual to carry out an assessment, she was taken aside by a manager and told: “You’re not there to talk, you’re there to do an assessment. You’re not there to care.

“You are too nice, but that will come with experience. You’ll harden up.’”

On another occasion, she had been forced to abandon an assessment – following the correct WCA procedures – because a woman had become so distressed by the assessment that she began hallucinating.

Jane sat with her in the “quiet room” for 35 minutes while she waited for her family to pick her up.

But when a manager found out how long she had spent with the woman, Jane was given a verbal warning and told: “You have got to stop being so nice. This will go on your record.”

Jane says Atos assessors were taught during their training to try to trip up claimants.

“You had to tease information out of them, so they would drop themselves in it. We were encouraged to try to get contradictory evidence by asking them to discuss their typical day-to-day activities.

“For example, if a claimant with mental health problems reported difficulty interacting with strangers, I was encouraged to find evidence from his typical day, no matter how simple, to prove this was not the case.

“One particular guy became quite aggressive with me. I asked for advice and my mentor told me: ‘Don’t worry, he’s not mad, just bad.’”

After her concerns reached one of the directors, he asked to see her. When she told him she did not feel as if she was helping anybody, he told her: “You are. You are saving so much money. That’s why we are here, to get these people back to work and bring down the level of benefits.”

Jane quit the job with Atos after only a few months, concerned that the work she was being asked to do could put her nursing registration at risk.

She said: “I just don’t think it is a job for a nurse. As soon as I got into the car in the morning, I felt sick, and I just didn’t want to go. It is a job I wish I had never done.”

She believes Atos should be stripped of its contract to carry out the assessments. “They are so ruthless. Somebody said to me that the job is ‘toxic’, and I think they are right.”

A second nurse, Joyce Drummond, who worked for Atos in Glasgow in 2009 – carrying out assessments for incapacity benefit, ESA’s predecessor – says she was also told by an Atos director that she was “too nice”.

She said: “I was so shocked to be told a nurse could be too nice. It was horrible. I thought I would help people get the benefits they were entitled to. When the penny dropped, my conscience wouldn’t let me carry on. I was coming home in tears. I couldn’t do it.”

Joyce agrees with Jane that assessors were taught to “trick” claimants, for example by asking them about their pet if they were depressed, and then noting down if they smiled when they talked about it.

“Everything was just twisted, nothing was like it seemed. Everything was aimed at catching people out.”

She insists that most of the people she saw had a “real reason” to claim the benefit, and there were only a small minority who were “trying to pull a fast one”.

Like Jane, she said she would feel “sick” at the thought of going to work for Atos every morning. Eventually, she left the company, and has not worked since. She believes the strain of working there contributed to her worsening health.

She has since had two assessments of her own from Atos assessors, both of which found her fit for work but were overturned on appeal. She was found fit for work for a third time last June, and is now awaiting her third tribunal.

Joyce believes Atos is “just in it for the money”. “They have forgotten their consciences. The feeling about the place was that somehow the people claiming benefit were different from the rest of us, a lower-class person.

“We were told quite bluntly: ‘They can always appeal.’ There was no respect for the people we were assessing.”

She added: “It is not a nurse’s job. A nurse is meant to have a duty of care for a patient, to have a bit of compassion. They are supposed to be advocates for their patients.”

An Atos spokeswoman said: “We refute these claims. We know how difficult this process can be for people and we employ only highly-trained doctors, nurses and physiotherapists to carry out the work capability assessment, many of whom come directly from the NHS.

“We work extremely hard on providing a professional and compassionate service and our customer satisfaction survey measures how courteous, polite and gentle our practitioners are. Our scores in this area are very highly rated, consistently over 90 per cent.

“We take care to look after our healthcare staff, all of whom are aware of and have access to our employment assistance programme, which provides a confidential free-phone helpline and face-to-face counselling.”

*Not her real name

14 February 2013

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Boycott pledge over amputee charity’s PIP links with Atos and Capita

A leading user-led organisation has sparked a fierce row after it admitted joining “engagement groups” set up by the government contractors Atos Healthcare and Capita as part of the coalition’s disability living allowance (DLA) reforms.

Limbless Association was heavily criticised this week by another user-led amputees’ organisation, Limbcare, after agreeing to provide “stakeholder input” as Atos and Capita prepare to assess the eligibility of hundreds of thousands of disabled people for the new personal independence payment (PIP), the replacement for DLA.

Limbcare said that associating with the companies implementing the government’s reforms would be “toxic”, as Atos and Capita will be “removing independence” from hundreds of thousands of working-age disabled people.

Limbcare, which was set up by disaffected Limbless Association members and trustees, said it would refuse – “under any circumstances” – to work with LA while it was a member of the two PIP engagement groups.

And it has pledged to inform other organisations that work with and for amputees of its stance, including the influential joint committee on mobility for disabled people and the associate parliamentary limb loss group.

Since it made the announcement, it has emerged that a second user-led amputees’ group – the British Limbless Ex Service Men’s Association (BLESMA) – has also joined the two engagement groups.

The number of working-age people claiming DLA and PIP, and spending on DLA and PIP, will be cut by as much as 28 per cent by 2018, according to government figures, with 900,000 fewer people receiving PIP than if DLA had not been replaced.

The decision to work with Atos is particularly controversial, as the company has been at the centre of nationwide protests by disabled activists over its repeated failings in carrying out the government’s “fitness for work” tests.

Even disabled people’s organisations that have been willing to work with Capita have refused to be associated with Atos.

Gordon McFadden, Limbcare’s policy director and a former LA trustee, said he was “absolutely furious” with LA, which aims to provide “a single, unified voice for the UK limb-loss community”.

He said: “For any charity to be seen to be engaging and collaborating with an organisation that is removing independence from [hundreds of thousands of] people is not going to be seen in a very positive light by the disability community.

“I will engage with government and statutory bodies, but these are private companies implementing government policy.”

Dave White, LA’s chief executive, said in a statement: “We understand the initial reaction of those who are not happy with our involvement. However, it must be stressed that all those who have expressed a view to date have done so via social media and we have not received any direct views or reactions to date.”

He said PIP was “a new benefit with an evolving set of guidelines and training notes” for health professionals, and LA hoped to be able to “influence and inform the development” of this guidance.

He said: “The PIP benefit will be implemented, regardless of whether we take part or not and we believe that the only way for our voices, and the opinions and concerns of our members, to be heard is to be involved in the stakeholder consultation process.

“We feel it is better to represent the views of our members from the inside than the outside.”

Jerome Church, BLESMA’s general secretary, admitted that his organisation had also joined the Atos and Capita engagement groups.

He said: “We work closely with as many people as we can. Sometimes it is remorseless work and can be very wearing, but you have got to be in it to win it.”

He said BLESMA had supported many of its members who had had problems with Atos through their assessments for the war disability pension, and that he shared concerns about the impact of the government’s PIP reforms on disabled people.

But he said: “We understand the problems. We still think it is worth trying to confront these problems head-on.”

He said it was “unfortunate” that Limbcare had been so “vociferous” and “unnecessarily harsh” in its criticism of LA.

Geoff Adams-Spink, chair of EDRIC, a new Europe-wide group which runs the DysNet online community on limb loss and deficiency, said the “public spat” between the two organisations was not “seemly or helpful”.

He said there was an argument for engaging with organisations like Capita, but he added: “It would take an extremely persuasive argument to convince me that any involvement with Atos would be in any way fruitful.

“They have a dreadful track record on disability. I don’t think any involvement with Atos would benefit anybody other than Atos.”

But he said the parts of Capita he had dealt with while working at the BBC – he is now a disability equality consultant – had been “quite engaged and engaging and have understood notions around reasonable adjustment and disability equality”.

31 January 2013

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

London 2012 council bans disabled actors from performing Atos play

A council has been accused of “censorship” after banning disabled actors from performing a play that highlights the harm caused by the government’s much-criticised “fitness for work” contractor Atos Healthcare.

The play was to be performed as part of a Christmas celebration for over-50s in the east London borough of Newham, one of the host councils for London 2012, which was itself sponsored by Atos.

Further questions about the council’s motives were raised when the announcement that the Olympic Stadium – in Newham – would be hosting the 2017 International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships was made on the day the play was due to be performed.

Sir Robin Wales, Newham’s mayor, said that hosting the championships would “underline our commitment to enhancing opportunities for people with disabilities”.

His council had claimed that the play was “not sufficiently entertaining or festive” to be performed for the audience of over-50s.

The Act Up! Newham Community Performance Group was due to perform a shortened version of Atos Stories, a play written by two activists – one of them disabled – and based on the experiences of disabled people who have been assessed by Atos.

The group – most of whom are disabled people – now plan to perform the full-length play for the first time early next year.

The play was to have been part of the line-up at Newham council’s Over 50s Celebration at Stratford town hall yesterday (19 December).

The council had asked Act Up! to perform several months ago, in exchange for providing free rehearsal space.

But just two days before the event was due to take place, the council told Act Up! – Newham’s only inclusive theatre group – that it was cancelling the performance.

Members of the group were “shocked and outraged” at the council’s decision and held a protest outside the event, handing out leaflets to members of the audience as they arrived.

Yvonne Brouwers, chair of Act Up!, who has directed and produced the play, accused the council of “censorship”, and added: “It’s a wonderful play. It is about social justice. What is wrong with that?”

She pointed to the Christmas stories of Charles Dickens, including A Christmas Carol, which discussed issues of social justice.

In a statement, Act Up! added: “We all felt that the council’s argument that the play was ‘too political and not festive enough for the over 50s event’ did not make sense.

“Many Christmas stories are political and it is patronising of the council to decide for themselves what ‘over 50s’ would enjoy.

“We believed that they cancelled the play because of the subject matter, as it is about disabled people’s struggles against Atos and the work capability assessment.”

A council officer had emailed Brouwers to say that the council was “not satisfied that the performance will be sufficiently entertaining or festive for a group of older people celebrating Christmas”.

She claimed council officers had “requested details of the proposed performance for logistical reasons”.

Brouwers said she had refused a request to show the council the script, but had assured them there was “no chance” the play would run over the 30 minutes allocated to them, and that the group had been “working really hard in order to make the play as entertaining as possible for the event”.

A member of the Atos Stories Collective wrote on its blog that the group was “shocked” by the cancellation of the performance, and added: “We wrote Atos Stories because we were mad at Atos.

“We wanted people with disabilities and without to have [a] vehicle to challenge the work capability assessment in a creative and dramatic way. We thought Atos might stop that from happening. We never thought a local council would.”

Ju Gosling, director of the Together! 2012 disability arts festival, which was based in Newham, said the council’s reaction had been “ridiculous” and “Scrooge-like in the extreme”, and added: “It is hard to believe that it is not connected with the fact that Atos was a Games sponsor.”

She said: “It is extremely disappointing that in the year of the Paralympics and the Together! festival, something like this should have happened.

“Social justice absolutely underpins Christian belief and some of our most famous festive works – such as A Christmas Carol – are very much about social justice.”

She said Together! would be working with Act Up! to find it a venue to perform the play in Newham in the new year.

A Newham council spokesman denied that the decision to cancel the Act Up! performance was linked to the IPC’s 2017 announcement.

He said Act Up! had been “asked to provide details of their proposed performance but this was not forthcoming”.

He said: “We do not consider political satire or potentially distressing material to be in keeping with the theme or tone of this event.

“Officers have therefore decided to cancel this element of what will be a festive and light-hearted event.”

He said the council had “worked well in the past” with Act Up! and “would hope to do so again”.

News provided by John Pring at http://www.disabilitynewsservice.com

SNP ducks question over Atos sponsorship of Glasgow 2014

The Scottish National Party (SNP) has refused to say if “fitness for work” contractor Atos should be allowed to sponsor the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, even though more than half of its MSPs have publicly criticised the company.

Glasgow 2014 looks set to face even fiercer protests than London 2012 over the decision to accept sponsorship money from Atos, which carries out the much-criticised work capability assessments (WCAs) that decide eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits.

The London 2012 organising committee LOCOG was heavily criticised for signing up Atos as a sponsor, but continued to defy critics by publicly praising the company and the crucial role it played in providing IT systems during this summer’s Olympic and Paralympic Games.

LOCOG faced repeated calls to justify the involvement of Atos – particularly its close links with the Paralympics – with campaigners holding a week-long series of protests they called the “Atos Games” to coincide with the first week of the Paralympic Games.

Now the organisers of Glasgow 2014 look set to take a similar route to LOCOG, and are facing the same battle to justify sponsorship by Atos, which will provide similar IT services in Glasgow to those it delivered this summer in London.

Sasha Callaghan, programme director for Disability History Scotland, said: “Whether they like it or not, there are going to be more protests and probably much more bad-tempered than we ever saw in London.

“Disabled people are not just going to sit back and take this. Push people over the edge and you see what happens. I don’t think this will stop at just peaceful direct action.”

She warned of a “perfect storm” in the run-up to Glasgow 2014, as tens of thousands of disabled people in Scotland will be facing new assessments – carried out by Atos – for personal independence payment (PIP), the replacement for disability living allowance (DLA), as well as the continued fallout from the WCA process.

Callaghan said Glasgow 2014 had to accept that it had taken a “political decision” to accept sponsorship from Atos and would “have to live with the consequences of that”.

She said: “DLA/PIP will ratchet up the protests. The time-line for the Commonwealth Games runs like a thread alongside it.

“The Commonwealth Games will be going with the Atos logo at the same time that people will be failing the WCA and their assessment for PIP as well.”

Protesters – and many MPs and MSPs – have criticised the way Atos has carried out WCAs, and its failure to find accessible offices in which to carry out the tests and to train its assessors properly.

Campaigning disabled people’s organisations such as Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and Black Triangle believe the assessments, as carried out by Atos, are putting thousands of sick and disabled people under serious and unnecessary strain, forcing them further into poverty, and are even responsible for many deaths, including some people driven to suicide.

John McArdle, a founding member of Black Triangle, which is based in Scotland and has been at the centre of the Atos protests, said: “There will definitely be protests. We are not going to wait until 2014 to do it. There will be direct action happening.”

Even though 36 of its 67 MSPs have signed parliamentary motions critical of Atos over the last five weeks, the SNP has so far refused to say if it believes Atos is a suitable sponsor for Glasgow 2014.

Jamie Hepburn, one of the MSPs who signed a motion criticising Atos, and deputy convener of the Scottish parliament’s welfare reform committee, said: “There is no doubt that Atos could and should be doing better but it is the UK government’s cuts campaign that is truly devastating people’s lives.”

But an SNP spokeswoman refused to say whether the party thought Atos was a suitable sponsor for Glasgow 2014.

A spokeswoman for the Scottish (SNP) government also refused to answer that question, but said that “securing the right sponsors is vital to the success of the event and to reduce the need for additional public funds to stage the games”.

A Glasgow 2014 spokeswoman said Atos had “demonstrated unwavering commitment to driving forward the Paralympic movement by providing dedicated practical support to athletes for the last ten years”, and that organisers were “very proud to have global IT experts Atos as part of our family”.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Atos gets it wrong on one in five ‘fit for work’ recommendations

New government figures show that one in five decisions to find someone “fit for work” made by the company that carries out the controversial disability benefit test is wrong.

The statistics, released this week by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), show that “healthcare professionals” employed by Atos Healthcare are far more likely to make a mistake when finding someone fit for work than when finding someone not fit for work.

Of the claimants Atos found fit for work (for claims starting between October 2008 and November 2011), 20 per cent of those decisions were overturned either by DWP staff or appeal tribunals.

This means that, of the 771,100 people Atos decided were “fit for work”, 150,500 were later found – whether by DWP officials or a tribunal – to be eligible for employment and support allowance (ESA), the replacement for incapacity benefit.

Of those 150,500 people, 13,800 disabled people were placed in the support group, for those disabled people with the highest support needs, who are not expected to carry out any work-related activity at all.

But Atos has been much more accurate with its assessments when recommending that claimants should be placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG) – for those disabled people eligible for ESA but expected to move gradually towards work – with 97 per cent of its decisions found to be accurate, and when placing people in the support group (99 per cent accurate).

The figures suggest that Atos is straining to find as many disabled people fit for work as possible.

Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP and chair of the Commons work and pensions select committee, said: “This is evidence that whatever is happening, whether it is the contract [between Atos and DWP] that is at fault or indeed the way the [assessment] is being interpreted by Atos staff, they are getting it wrong in a very high proportion of cases.

“And to find out that almost 14,000 people were found fully fit for work when they should have been in the support group… that is a lot of people.”

An Atos Healthcare spokeswoman said: “All benefit decisions are made by the DWP. We apply their criteria and policy to all of the assessments we provide which is why they are in line with the final decisions made in the majority of cases.”

The DWP has so far not been able to say whether it is concerned by a failure rate of one in five.

But a DWP spokesman said: “As the table shows, 80 per cent of Atos fit for work recommendations are agreed with at the final outcome.

“The final outcome figures include both the decision maker making a different decision and the decision being overturned at a tribunal. Previous appeals figures have shown that, overall, 15 per cent of all fit for work decisions are overturned at a tribunal.

“Very few people would appeal a support group or WRAG decision, so there is bound to be a difference in the numbers.”

Atos has faced repeated complaints and protests by disabled activists over its performance in carrying out the contract to perform work capability assessments, first introduced in October 2008.

Campaigners and some Labour politicians have criticised Atos for finding many people with serious health conditions “fit for work”, and so ineligible for ESA.

Last month, the user-led grassroots campaigning organisation Disabled People Against Cuts held a week-long series of protests to complain at Atos’s sponsorship of the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

North Ayrshire and Arran, told the meeting: “It is absolutely appalling that this government has proceeded with these proposals which must be going to have an absolutely devastating effect.

“Local authorities are not going to be able to take up the slack, even if they wish to.”

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Disabled claimants feel ‘persecuted’ by WCA system, say MPs

A disabled Labour MP has delivered a passionate appeal for the government to fix the “fundamental” problems with its “fitness for work” assessment.

Dame Anne Begg, who chairs the Commons work and pensions committee, was speaking in a Commons debate for the first time since a serious injury in February that left her hospitalised.

She said that disabled people felt “persecuted” by the system that assesses their eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA), the new out-of-work disability benefit.

Dame Anne told MPs in a debate on the performance of Atos Healthcare, the company that carries out these work capability assessments (WCAs) for the government, that there was “something fundamentally wrong” with the system, and the contract that had been awarded to Atos.

She said: “It is not enough for government to say that the genuine claimant has nothing to fear. In too many cases, genuine claimants are not scoring any points in their initial assessment.”

She pointed to the British Medical Association’s vote to scrap the WCA, and to the increased workload of GPs due to treating patients whose health has deteriorated because of their experience with their WCA.

Dame Anne said: “When my constituent, who has lost his job because he has motor neurone disease, scores zero on his WCA and is found fully fit for work, there is something wrong with the system.

“When that same constituent appears in front of a tribunal and in less than five minutes is awarded 15 points, there is something wrong with the system.

“When some people would rather do without the money to which they are absolutely entitled rather than submit to the stress of a WCA, there is something wrong with the system.”

She added: “When someone with a severe illness has to fight for a year through an appeal to get the correct benefit, only to be called in almost immediately for another assessment, there is something wrong with the system.

“When people feel so persecuted, there is something wrong with the system.”

Dame Anne also pointed to the high percentage rate of successful appeals against being found fit for work, and the lack of an incentive for Atos assessors to “get the assessment correct first time”.

She said: “It is time for the government to act, because there is something fundamentally wrong with the whole system.”

The debate was secured by her fellow Scottish Labour MP Tom Greatrex, who has asked scores of questions about the WCA and the performance of Atos over the last year.

Greatrex was deeply critical of the government’s management of the Atos contract and its failure to fine the company for the large number of successful appeals.

He said there was a need for a process that “works in the interests of taxpayers, and of individual claimants and applicants”, and that “helps people who can work and does not hound those who cannot”.

Several MPs – in a debate dominated by Labour members – gave examples of disabled constituents who had been found unfairly fit for work, and had been forced to appeal to claim the ESA they were entitled to and needed.

The Plaid Cymru MP Hywel Williams said there “can hardly be an MP who has not had a constituency case involving Atos and the work capability assessment”.

He said there were “persistent complaints that Atos is working to targets to fail people”, and that disabled people were facing “continual reassessments”.

Another Labour MP, John McDonnell, said that his early day motion calling for Atos’s contract to be withdrawn, and for the WCA to be replaced by a new system, had secured the signatures of 103 MPS.

He said: “Surely after that, and following debate after debate and the protests on the streets, the government must reassess the role of Atos, and establish a new system based… on reputable, fair and equitable criteria.”

He said he shared the “disgust” of many disabled people’s groups that Atos had been allowed to sponsor the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and supported the week of protests against Atos – organised by the grassroots campaign group Disabled People Against Cuts – that took place last week.

In one of his final actions as employment minister, before his promotion to justice secretary, the Conservative MP Chris Grayling told MPs that the WCA system had been “created by Labour four years ago when they were in government, and it is a system that we have consistently tried to improve”.

He added: “It is really important to emphasise that the reassessment of people on incapacity benefit is not a financial exercise and that there are no financial targets attached to it.

“It is about finding the right number of people who can make a return to work. It is not an exact science – it never was and never could be – but it is all about trying to help people back into the workplace if they can possibly return to it.”

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

London 2012: LOCOG boss praises Atos, as protesters pledge to ‘hound and harass’

The chief executive of London 2012 has praised the Paralympic sponsor Atos, less than a day after nearly 100 activists – including a retired Paralympian – launched a week of protests over its involvement in the games.

Paul Deighton, chief executive of the London 2012 organising committee LOCOG, had been asked by a foreign journalist whether it was wise “in hindsight” to accept Atos as a sponsor, because of the controversy surrounding its work for the government assessing disabled people for out-of-work disability benefits.

But Deighton launched into an impassioned defence of Atos, saying it was an “incredibly valuable technology partner”, providing the IT systems for both managing the accreditation process and providing competition results for London 2012.

He said Atos was an “absolutely critical and valuable” part of delivering the Paralympics, and that without Atos and the other London 2012 sponsors “neither games would be what they are”.

The previous day, the grassroots campaign groups Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and UK Uncut were joined by the accessible transport organisation Transport for All for their own spoof “opening ceremony” of the “Atos Games”, five days of protests aimed at highlighting the damage the company has done to disabled people across the country.

The ceremony beside City Hall, the London mayor’s headquarters, featured three disabled activists being awarded medals for the Atos Games, before they were “reassessed” by Atos and told they were “undeserving of state support”, and could no longer be an “active, contributing member of society”, and had their medals cut off, and their benefits removed.

Tara Flood, who competed in three Paralympic Games, and won gold, silver and bronze medals in the pool in Barcelona in 1992, was awarded the Atos “gold medal”.

She said afterwards that it had been important for her to take part in the protest, as a retired Paralympian, so that the public was able to “link disabled people’s disgust” with Atos to the London Paralympics.

Flood said it was important for the government to realise that it “can’t only be proud of elite, medal-winning athletes. Someone like me, as a retired Paralympian, can make sure everyone makes that connection.”

DPAC stressed that it recognised “the commitment, the effort and the sacrifice” of Britain’s Paralympians, but that Atos had “hounded and harassed disabled people the length of this country” and was now seeking “to bask in the reflected glory” of Paralympians by sponsoring the games.

DPAC described at the ceremony how people in comas and with terminal illnesses had been found fit for work by Atos assessors, and how the company tries to “convince us that they respect the commitment of disabled athletes” while “trampling all over disabled people’s commitment to overcoming barriers and having aspirations beyond eating and sleeping”.

DPAC also warned that Paralympians would soon find themselves being reassessed by Atos for their disability living allowance (DLA), as DLA is gradually replaced from next year with the new personal independence payment, with an estimated one in five losing their support.

And it warned that DPAC would “hound and harass Atos the length of this country… in parliament, in the courts, online, and on the streets”.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com