Undead ID cards

ID cards aren’t dead, they’ve just been privatised.

The main feature of welfare reform is replacing a host of benefits with Universal Credit. Not only will those on out-of-work benefits have to switch, but also those on in-work benefits like Housing Benefit and Tax Credits. The DWP want everyone to apply for and update Universal Credit over the internet and part of that is proving your identity through a third party service.

“The identity registration service will enable benefit claimants to choose who will validate their identity by automatically checking their authenticity with the provider before processing online benefit claims.”

The DWP have today announced their choice of commercial providers of this identity service. You get to choose from The Post Office, Cassidian, Digidentity, Experian, Ingeus, Mydex, and Verizon but if you want Universal Credit then you have to do it.

Even more worryingly, the DWP press release states

“The online Identity Assurance model will be incorporated into Universal Credit as it’s developed and rolled-out. Over time Identity Assurance will become available to all UK citizens who need to access online public services.”

The intention is obvious; when all government services require Identity Assurance everyone in the country will have to sign up. A cynical view would be that by starting with benefit claimants who have no choice the scheme gains momentum before other people can object. The “ID card” may be virtual only, but the lack of a physical card doesn’t change the problems inherent in an identity database.

13 November 2012 – Providers announced for online identity scheme [DWP press release]

National ‘virtual ID card’ scheme set for launch (Is there anything that could possibly go wrong?) [The Independent]

Disability hate – from people who should know better

I’ve just been told about this rather disheartening incident involving my dad this morning.

My dad has a friend called Ray. Ray is blind and physically disabled. He has a guide dog, and uses a walking stick too. My dad has serious spinal problems and also walks with a stick. Both of them are entitled to use blue badges for disabled parking.

My dad and Ray went to McDonalds for breakfast this morning. This particular branch has just two disabled parking bays. This is not normally a problem but today when they arrived both were in use. One of the cars, though, contained a woman and a child with a blue badge on display who were sat eating food from the drive-through. My dad had to stop and let Ray and his dog out in the road and then park in a standard bay with further to walk.

My dad stopped and pointed out to the woman that she was blocking a disabled parking bay causing problems and risk for them and that this wasn’t necessary since she wasn’t getting out of the car and could therefore park in a bay further away from the restaurant. (He does this himself when he is not getting out.)

She was immediately hostile, announcing

“You don’t pay for my car.”

My dad pointed out that this wasn’t the point, but then she noticed his walking stick. At this point she actually threatened to physically hurt him, finishing with

“Walk away know while you still can, old man.”

My dad sensibly left it there.

This incident makes me sad because not only was this abuse of a disabled person but it came from the mother of a disabled child who really should know better. The rules for parking don’t explicitly state that she shouldn’t use the bay but they do say that you shouldn’t sit and wait for a non-disabled person and that consideration should be given. (See below.) Even so, she was hostile and abusive when there was no need to be. It also makes me sad that the woman’s first reaction was to defend her possession of the car, clearly related to public attacks on Motability in recent months.

Who can use the badge?

The badge is for your use and benefit only. It must only be displayed if you are travelling in the vehicle as a driver or passenger, or if someone is collecting you or dropping you off and needs to park at the place where you are being collected or dropped.

Do not allow other people to use the badge to do something on your behalf, such as shopping or collecting something for you, unless you are travelling with them.

• You must never give the badge to friends or family to allow them to park for free, even if they are visiting you.

• You should not use the badge to allow non-disabled people to take advantage of the benefits while you sit in the  car. Although it is not illegal for a badge holder, or a non-disabled person waiting for the badge holder to return, to remain  in the vehicle while the Blue Badge is displayed, consideration should be given to using a car park whenever possible.

• It is a criminal offence to misuse a badge. This includes people other than the badge holder taking advantage of the parking concessions provided under the scheme.

Taken from The Blue Badge scheme: rights and responsibilities in England, page 8

 

Poor and disabled? Tories think you’re a troublemaker

I wrote yesterday about the plans by Iain Duncan Smith to restrict what “troubled families” can spend benefits on through the use of smart cards, and why this is a terrible idea for many reasons. It’s even worse than that though. The plan is to get councils to send “troubleshooters” to confront these families and force them to conform to the expectations of the government. The Independent and BBC News both have more details.

What I didn’t write about yesterday is the definition that the government are using for troubled family, and that definition is very bad indeed. The Conservative Party have turned to research by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to decide who might be “troubled”. The government have decided that a troubled family is one that meets five out of seven criteria:

  • Low income
  • No one in the family who is working
  • Poor housing
  • Parents who have no qualifications
  • The mother has a mental health problem
  • One parent has a long-standing illness or disability
  • Unable to afford basics, including food and clothes.

Government Lies

In fact these criteria boil down to one thing: poverty. And the ESRC have come right out and stated that the government have basically made up their own minds about what it all means. They said “In the term ‘troubled families’ it deliberately conflates families experiencing multiple disadvantage and families that cause trouble.” The definition that the government are using does not mention child truancy, criminal records, ASBOs, police call outs, drug abuse, or any of the other things that they claim to be addressing.

It is quite likely that none of these conditions are under the control of the family themselves, and yet under government plans they can be penalised for it. Even worse than that, though, is the presence of illness, disability and mental health on that list. These are definitely not under the control of the people involved, but it is clear from what Eric Pickles told The Independent that the government do blame these people. Pickles said that these families must end an “it’s not my fault” culture of excuses and must stop avoiding taking responsibility for their own lives. He said that there would be “less understanding” and a tougher approach.

Victim Blaming

This is blaming the victim, plain and simple. It fits right in with the Bio-Psychosocial model of disability that the government have adopted after decades of being advised by insurance company UNUM. The model basically says that disability is all in the mind of the disabled person and they only need to adopt a better attitude to overcome barriers to work and other activities. This is the model that has seen so many people judged fit for work in their Work Capability Assessment by Atos, and now we see it being used to clamp down on poor people who the Tories find distasteful. Instead of helping them, which costs money, they are punishing them because they don’t fit their Victorian ideal of “deserving poor”.

 

120,000 troubled families could be legally banned from spending benefits on alcohol and tobacco [Telegraph]

Problem families told – ‘Stop blaming others’ [The Independent]

Councils back troubled families scheme [BBC News]

No alcohol or tobacco

“No alcohol or tobacco”

That’s what you get printed on vouchers for emergency food supplies  from Co-op and Tesco given out by a charity where I live. And now, it seems, it could apply to all benefits paid to “120,000 problem families” if Iain Duncan Smith has his way. According to The Telegraph:

Iain Duncan Smith has asked his officials to see if so-called ‘problem’ families should receive their welfare payments on smart cards, rather than in cash.

The cards would only be able to pay for “priority” items such as food, housing, clothing, education and health care.

The Work and Pensions secretary wants to stop parents who are alcoholics or who are on drugs from using welfare payments to fuel their addictions.

The team of civil servants in his department have been asked to come up with proposals by the end of this month.

We can find the government’s definition of these 120,000 “problem families” in an article from The Independent back in June:

Under government criteria, a troubled family is one that meets five out of seven criteria: having a low income, no one in the family who is working, poor housing, parents who have no qualifications, where the mother has a mental health problem, one parent has a long-standing illness or disability, and where the family is unable to afford basics, including food and clothes.

There are many problems with this definition but it can be summarised thusly:

“So basically anyone without the good manners to be born healthy, rich and privileged.” – @IamMrJ

The Problems

Leaving aside for a moment the morality of dictating what people can buy, the first problem I can see with this scheme is that it will favour big businesses and supermarkets and leave small local shops and markets by the wayside. There will be costs involved in accepting these payment cards which small shops will be unlikely to be able to afford, as well, I’m sure, as checks to make sure that shops honour the restrictions . Street markets are usually cash only which would bar people from getting cheap local fresh fruit and vegetables too.

The second problem is related; because of barriers to accepting the smart cards or to restrictions on what can be purchased people will be barred from shopping around for cheaper food and some will be prevented from purchasing specialist items that are required for their health but are not prescribed or considered by government to be necessary.

The third problem, and possibly the biggest problem I see is that sick or disabled people often have no choice in where they shop. The limited ability to travel or to carry things can mean that the nearest shop is the only one they can use. If small shops are not able to accept these cards then there may be no other source of food open to these people.

https://twitter.com/Spoonydoc/status/257067504952803328

Many sick or disabled people order their shopping over the internet; in fact this is often a requirement since care plans have written internet shopping in so as to cut costs of providing carers for shopping trips. This will probably be less of a problem since supermarkets will accept cards but the question remains as to whether or not they will accept them over the internet.

Breaking Addiction

If the idea of this scheme is as reported, to stop feeding addiction, then it will be pointless anyway. Addiction is powerful and removing funds doesn’t mean that people won’t be addicted any more. If someone is dependant on nicotine or alcohol then providing benefits on a restricted smart card will not prevent them from obtaining these things if they have to. It will lead to a black market – to bartering of valuable items for cigarettes and alcohol, or to selling of benefit funds for much less than the real value resulting in less money for the benefit recipient. It could well lead to theft to feed the addiction. It will certainly drive some into prostitution. Drug dependency drives people to desperate measures and they won’t always be rational.

Pleasure and Entertainment

Finally we must ask why society deems it acceptable to tell those who are least fortunate that they must not have any pleasures or enjoyment. It seems that those who must rely on benefits are resented and even envied for what they have. Some is illogical; for example Motability cars are not a luxury, they are required for people who cannot walk to get to medical appointments or to go shopping and the cars are leased not given. Internet connections may be the only way that some people can shop, communicate, pay bills, claim benefits or get support and yet some people still think that an internet connection is a luxury that those on benefits should not have. People who have TVs and perhaps TV subscriptions are resented, but for those who are forced to stay in the home by illness or have no funds to go out it may be the only thing to occupy their time. Should these people be forced to sit and stare at the wall for the rest of their lives? We seem to have broken the concept of national insurance. When a person who has worked and paid their dues becomes unemployed or unable to work and receives benefits they are resented for claiming benefits that they have been paying for while working. Must they too give up all pleasure in their lives? We can be certain that restrictions along these lines will exacerbate or even cause mental health problems.

The government hasn’t addressed the reasons for smoking and drinking either, and it’s not just about addiction. Smoking is an appetite suppressant  When food is expensive and income is so low parents often buy food for their children while smoking to mitigate their own hunger pangs. Alcohol is a pain killer and a sedative; like it or not for some people despite all of our medical advances alcohol may be the only way that they can have a few pain-free hours or relax enough to go to sleep.

Nanny State

Others have said this better than me:

https://twitter.com/DickMandrake/status/257065327022718976

https://twitter.com/DocHackenbush/status/257064611390562304

https://twitter.com/DocHackenbush/status/257065034595827712

 

I shall end with this. Another extremely worrying element of this is what the cards would pay for:

“education and health care”

Now why would we need to pay for those?

 

120,000 troubled families could be legally banned from spending benefits on alcohol and tobacco [Telegraph]

Problem families told – ‘Stop blaming others’ [The Independent]

What’s the difference between 1930s Germany and modern-day Britain?

Before we start I would like to point out that I am not a historian and I am not a sociologist and as such I have done my best to present the information here as I understand it. With that out of the way, I’ll start with an overview of how disabled people were treated in Germany during WWII.

1930s Germany

Nazi Euthanasia Propaganda
A poster about how expensive disabled people are.

The Aktion T4 programme ran in Germany from 1939 to 1945. In the 1920s  Alfred Hoche and Karl Binding, part of an extreme eugenics movement, advocated killing those who were judged to have “life unworthy of life.”  In the 1930s there were huge cuts to state institutions causing overcrowding and Nazi propaganda emphasised the cost of caring for mentally ill and disabled people. In 1939 parents of disabled child Gerhard Kretschmar wrote to Hitler to ask him to permit their child to be killed. Hitler agreed and immediately set up a committee whose job was to organise more such murders – Aktion T4. When the war started parents were told that their mentally ill and physically disabled children were being sent to special treatments centres. In fact they were murdered without the knowledge of the parents. The programme was soon extended to adults, starting in Poland then in Germany. Throughout the programme Hitler knew that there would be huge opposition to such killing and so he never put his orders in writing. The one exception was a secret letter written to authorise the formation of the Aktion T4 programme, mainly because his justice minister would not cooperate without one. The programme operated in secrecy until it was too late for most people. Under the programme at least 200,000 disabled people were murdered over six years, either through lethal medication, starvation or gas chambers.

Modern Britain

Now we jump forward to Britain today. The events I describe in the paragraph above are unthinkable. No government minister, no tabloid newspaper, no man in the street would advocate such things, right?

That’s not quite true though. Most of the pieces are in place. We have propaganda pushing the idea that sick and disabled people are scroungers, workshy, lazy. This propaganda is coming from government ministers, their special advisers, and tabloids like the Daily Express, The Sun, the Daily Mail. Even broadsheets like the Times and the Telegraph have contributed. Such propaganda has even been raised by MPs in the Work and Pensions Select Committee and ministers told to stop. The propaganda is working too, with hate crimes against disabled people up in vast numbers.

We have many people fighting to legalise assisted suicide, inadvertently promoting the idea that life for some people is not worth living. Sure, we’re only asking for voluntary euthanasia, but what other factors might be in play? Pressure to stop being a burden, financial problems, cuts to care all contribute to a desire for death. If euthanasia becomes legal what is to stop people from being pushed to kill themselves? It may be overt or it may be through suggestion and through making their lives hell. (This is more my fear of how it could go wrong than any judgement on my part for or against euthanasia.)

We have cuts to local authority care budgets, starting in Worcestershire, that mean anyone whose care costs more than sending them to an institution will lose some care. The politicians argue that it’s a choice because people can choose to move to a care home or to cut some of their care provision. But what to cut? Eating? Washing? Dressing? Using a toilet? We have already seen people lose in court after fighting to not have to wear a nappy. Adults are expected to soil themselves rather than get help to use a toilet. We have also seen the loss of the independent living fund. The net result is loss of care or institutionalising people. Most care homes are run by private companies and neglect does not seem uncommon. I think more abuse and neglect is likely especially when companies are cutting costs because they have underquoted better homes.

We have sick and disabled people being  judged as fit to work and told to claim job seeker’s allowance and look for work, and we have even more seriously sick and disabled people being placed in the Work Related Activity Group. Both groups are subject to The Work Programme where they are expected to undertake unpaid work experience for large companies, and government plans are to make such work placements of unlimited duration. Work makes you free.

Under these plans anyone who is seen to not be cooperating with The Work Programme and other work related activities will see their benefit income slashed. Those on Job Seeker’s Allowance can have their entire allowance removed entirely for weeks, even six months. Those on Employment Support Allowance (e.g. too sick to work) will see three quarters of their allowance removed. Of course anyone who has been judged as fit to work or has been placed in the WRAG is expected to be capable of going on work placements even if their assessment was wrong and they are waiting a year for an appeal, and even if people are seriously harmed by trying to work. The result is that those who don’t destroy themselves trying to find jobs that don’t exist or going to endless work placements will instead not be able to afford food, clothes, fuel bills, rent and more. Many will be able to use food banks but some will not be physically able to get to them and food banks rely on charity from other people who are struggling too.

The result

Is it such a large step for disabled people to be dying? No. It’s already  happening. Reports in April claimed that 1,100 people had already died after being placed in the work related activity group. That’s more than thirty people a week. This is what Chris Grayling calls “Tough love.”

Some government ministers make policy decisions without thinking about the consequences of what will happen in practice. Others are fully aware of what will happen and just don’t care. Either way, they are often covered by claiming that their policy in itself does not harm people, even though the flaws with implementation allow people to fall through the net and come to harm. Government ignore evidence. They dismiss statistics, they blame the previous government, they claim that processes are being sorted out now, they claim that any harm is the fault of the sick or disabled or unemployed individual. The Government are hiding behind Atos and A4e who are “just carrying out orders” but they way they carry out those orders makes things even worse. Government ministers have the same attitude as many other people in power – they can say “make it happen” and the minions do the dirty work.

In 1930s Germany the government themselves ordered the rounding up and the killing of disabled people. In modern-day Britain the government can claim that it is not their fault, even that it should not happen, but private companies and the chasm of bureaucracy between various government departments are what kill people. Starvation, homelessness and neglect are what will kill people. The implementation is different and the scale is different but the attitude and the outcome are the same.

 

Further Reading

Godwin’s law must die [A Latent Existence]

Action T4 [Wikipedia]

Disabled benefits claimants face £71 a week fines for breaching work plan [The Guardian]

32 die a week after failing test for new incapacity benefit [Mirror]

Early day motion 295 [Parliament]

Work-or-starve plans for seriously ill welfare claimants might backfire [Eklesia]

Past Caring? [We are Spartacus]

 

No wheelchair for you!

My old broken power wheelchair
My old broken powerchair

I wrote back in March about the death of the power wheelchair that I had been given and my quest to obtain a new one.  It was old but it served its purpose in letting me go further from home and use public transport without requiring another person to push my wheelchair. Since my ability to walk is fairly limited I do need a wheelchair when I am out of the house. There are four ways that I know of to obtain a manual or powered wheelchair.

  1. The NHS
  2. Lease one from Motability using the mobility component of DLA
  3. Buy one
  4. Get a charity to buy one

It should be obvious that buying one is not really an option for most people living on sickness and disability benefits. Many people who need a high end power wheelchair do lease one from the Motability scheme however that option is not available to those who already use their DLA to lease a car through the scheme, or who do not receive DLA at all. In some circumstances a charity might be willing to foot some or all of the bill for a power wheelchair. Specialist charities for certain diseases or impairments might do this although in practice most do not have this option either. In my case there is a charity that helps people in the area that I live in who might be able to pay for part of the cost of a power wheelchair for me but since charity funds must be carefully looked after they require me to need a wheelchair but be unable to get one from the NHS before they will help. That leads me to the main option, to ask for a wheelchair from the NHS.

Soon after my power wheelchair broke an occupational therapist referred me to Worcestershire Wheelchair Services and I was told that I would get an assessment but that I would have to wait a long time. In the meantime I bought a manual wheelchair using my credit card. I have a bankruptcy in my past because of my illness so that credit is at an interest rate of 34% APR.

I knew when I was referred for a wheelchair assessment that I would not qualify for a power wheelchair because I only need a wheelchair when out of the house but that was OK because once I had an assessment I could turn to my local charity. As I understood then from other doctors and therapists I should qualify for a manual wheelchair, although probably one with small wheels that required an attendant to push it because self-propelling a wheelchair soon hurts my arms as much as walking hurts my legs. (This is why I purchased a self-propel chair, since I would like to be able to turn myself around even if I mostly have someone pushing.)

Then, today, I received this letter from Wheelchair Services. (Click to enlarge.)

Letter from wheelchair services

The letter informed me that I would not receive any wheelchair from the NHS because in Worcestershire they are

“Currently only able to supply wheelchairs to people who meet higher level needs i.e. to those clients who have a permanent mobility problem, who are unable to walk and who require a wheelchair within their own home.”

So, because I can walk or stagger around at home, I will not receive any kind of wheelchair to help outside where I cannot walk more than a few metres or stand up for more than a few seconds – not even a manual wheelchair. They won’t even visit to assess me. There are also many people who need a power wheelchair but are unable to get one from the NHS because they, like me can walk to some extent around their own home. In a lot of these cases they would use a wheelchair inside if only they could fit one in their home, but because they cannot they too are denied any help from wheelchair services. I know of several people who are currently trying to raise funds through donations to purchase their own power wheelchair because of this.

I’m not too worried about this in my own case because I have the manual wheelchair that I bought, and I have my wife to push it much of the time, and I still hope to get help from a local charity. I am far more worried about all the other people who haven’t been so fortunate and have no chance to buy a wheelchair, no charity help, no car and no one to offer lifts. I struggle to understand the justification for the NHS in Worcestershire not giving a wheelchair to people who need one but only when outside. If applied nationally, this policy would trap tens or hundreds of thousands of people in their own homes, unable to go out to medical appointments, to buy food or to visit family and friends. I don’t know how long this policy has been in place in Worcestershire but I hope that it is the only area doing this.

Worcestershire Wheelchair Service informed me that their qualifying criteria have been this way for a number of years due to low funding. Worcestershire is not looking like a good place for a chronically sick or disabled person to live right now; Worcestershire council are planning to remove funding for care at home for a large number of people and send them to live in care homes instead. This is a huge backwards step, a removal of freedom for a lot of people and reverts to the old method of locking those with disabilities away from society. This policy on wheelchairs will ensure that more people are trapped at home and so require care from the local authority, which in turn may put them into a care home.

Are we as a country really so short of money that this is the route we want to take?

Ungrateful

I am chronically sick. My illness forces me to rely on income from benefits because I am unable to work. I have just been told that to object to the monarchy and to hold political views while I live in this country where the welfare system looks after me is ungrateful. I can’t begin to address how wrong that idea is.

It stems from the same point of view that says I should lie in bed all day and think about how terrible I am to need taxpayers money to support me. The idea that I do not work so I have no right to any quality of life, to leave the house or to have any enjoyment in life.

It is the same point of view that says that I live on taxpayer’s money, so every tax payer has a right to question how I spend my income, and that I should never spend it on anything nice or entertaining.  The point of view that is jealous of my Motability car because I obviously don’t deserve it and I shouldn’t have a better car than someone who works. (Never mind that the car provides a way for me to get to my medical appointments and to do things for myself rather than require yet more help from the state, and that I lease and pay for it out of a benefit that I already receive.)

These are the views that lead to sick and disabled people being reported for benefit fraud because someone saw them walk a short distance or carry out some task that other people feel makes them fit for work, without any idea of variable health conditions, good and bad days, of doing something despite the pain or the payback later because the task must be done.

These are the kind of views that have allowed the government to actively remove much of the support given and the progress made over the last thirty years in the lives of sick and disabled people. These are the kind of views that lead to disabled people being locked away in care homes to die quietly without bothering anyone. This government has reversed things so much that councils are actually moving sick and disabled people into care homes to save money. Back to the age where they are out of sight, out of mind.

These are the views that led the Nazis to murder 240,000 disabled people between 1939 and 1945, so forgive me if I complain about the government and hold political opinions of my own. I have good reason.

Worcestershire County Council to put disabled into care

Lest We Forget: Eradicating the ‘Useless Eaters’ in the Third Reich [PDF]

More hate from the Daily Express

Daily Express headline: 4M SCROUNGING FAMILIES IN BRITAIN

This is depressing but it’s a perfect example of the hate coming from the tabloid papers. The Daily Express main headline for the 2nd September 2011 is “4M scrounging families in Britain.” The text goes on to explain that there are nearly four million households where no one works.

Where do I start with this?

I don’t have the figures to hand, but I am sure that a fairly large number of those households are people who are too sick or disabled to work. There are approximately 2.5 million unemployed people in the UK, so even being generous and assuming that none of those on job seekers allowance are couples and so they are all living one per household, that leaves at least 1.5 million households that are living on Incapacity Benefit, Employment and Support Allowance or Income Support.

The editors of the Express must know this, so they have deliberately chosen to call people who are too sick or disabled to work “scroungers.” The word scrounger is a derogatory term intended to portray people as deliberately taking from others. Except they are wrong. I haven’t met anyone who is too sick to work that wouldn’t work if they could. Most of us who are sick or disabled are desperate to do something meaningful and worthwhile instead of feeling useless. Then there are the 2.5 million unemployed people – at the last count there were only half a million job vacancies for them to apply for. Half a million might be able to get work – assuming no turnover from other jobs into those vacancies – and the other 2 million can’t have a job. An insignificant number of those people might have the skills, ideas and circumstances to be self employed.  The editors of the Daily Express have no idea of how many households are made up of people who are able to work but do not want to. In the end it boils down to a deliberate attack on people unfortunate enough to have to live on state benefits, and the use of a derogatory term like scrounger is simply spreading hate. There is no excuse and the Daily Express should apologise.

 

Atos moves to shut down criticism

Atos are the French IT outsourcing company whose Atos Healthcare arm have been running Work Capability Assessment for the Department of Work and Pensions.

Lots of people are unhappy about Employment Support Allowance, about the assessments, and about the way that Atos run them. There have been protests outside Atos offices using slogans such as “ATOS kills” to express their feelings. Lots of people have explained why they are unhappy with Atos in blogs, on social networks, and in support forums.

It seems that Atos don’t like this. They have started issuing legal threats, and they have succeeded in shutting down some of their opposition. Various websites and forums have spoken out against ATOS and collected personal stories about them. After ATOS first received a take down request in May 2011. Atos lawyers recently threatened legal action against Paul Smith who runs the “Atos Register of Shame” website, accusing him of libel and claiming that “This is a direct attack on Atos and the name of the website in and of itself is implying that Atos carries on its business in a manner which is shameful.” You can see a take-down letter from Atos here.  http://issuu.com/atosvictims/docs/legal_letter_from_atos?mode=a_p

They have also shut down a support forum for carers, CarerWatch, by contacting their server host directly and having it taken down. This has removed a vital support network from many carers, presumably because of private discussions about Atos in members only parts of the forum. Apparently people are not even allowed to talk about Atos now, despite needing to do so to support each other when going through tests administered by Atos.

Following this action against them, CarerWatch have published their reply to Atos, which I reproduce here. (I hope they won’t mind.)

21st Aug 2011

FAO  – ATOS Legal Department

CarerWatch is an internet forum for sick and disabled people and their unpaid family carers. This is a private forum and only members are allowed to make/read posts.

We understand from the organisation that hosts our forum that they received a letter from your solicitors threatening to sue us for libel. The provider immediately closed our site down.

We have many members who are very fragile and the sudden disappearance of a support group has caused a lot of distress and fear. Some are ringing us in tears. We cannot get in contact with all of them though as we have lost their contact details through the closure.

All this distress could have been avoided if you had had the courtesy to contact us first and tell us what had been posted on our site that you considered libellous. Obviously if any post was possibly libellous we would have removed it and all this distress could have been avoided.

We imagine this distress is unintended and hope you will work with us in looking at the problem and finding a solution.

Please note that this letter, and any reply received from yourselves, will be posted on our website. It is the only means left to us to reach some members and keep them updated.

It is vital we have our forum up and running again to reach those that are isolated.

Frances

On behalf of CarerWatch members

 

Obviously, I don’t want my website taken down. I have been careful to state only known facts here. These are the facts that I know.

  • Atos Healthcare carries out Work Capability Assessments for the DWP.
  • The contract is worth approximately £100 million per year.
  • There has been a sharp rise in people found fit for work
  • There has been a sharp rise in people appealing that decision
  • 40% of those that appeal, win, rising to 70% with legal representation.
  • Although the decision over “fit to work” lies with the DWP,a government review found that the DWP are institutionally incapable of overriding the Atos Health Care Professionals. The Atos recommendation is, in effect, the decision.
  • Atos employ Health Care Professionals to carry out the assessments. HCPs are a mix of doctors, physiotherapists and nurses. Only people with certain problems will definitely see doctors.
  • Atos use their own Lima computer system to record the patient’s answers. Lima has been widely criticised.
  • The HCP fills in Lima by choosing keywords and statements from a list and then justifying them.
  • An Atos recruiter said “We don’t call them patients . . . We call them claimants.”
  • Twelve Atos doctors are under investigation by the GMC over allegations of improper conduct.
  • Two Atos employees are under investigation after referring to patients as “parasites” and “down and outs”.
In the end, although there is much to criticise with the way that Atos carry out ESA WCAs, they may really only be doing what the government expects of them. The descriptors that are used to make the decision of whether a person is fit for work or not are set out in the by the government. (See The Employment and Support Allowance (Limited Capability for Work and Limited Capability for Work-Related Activity) (Amendment) Regulations 2011) I personally question whether Atos accurately records if a patient fits the descriptors or not, and their ability to do so given the way that Lima Works or the staff that are used. Even if they do make an accurate record in line with the government’s descriptors, it is questionable whether the descriptors are an accurate description of being fit for work or not. Even then, it seems that decision makers at the DWP are “institutionally incapable” of taking into account all of the relevant information for the case as they are supposed to, instead simply rubber stamping the recommendation made by Atos. It would seem that the appeals tribunals are making a fairer judgement on this issue than Atos or the DWP.

Why won’t ATOS let us record our Work Capability Assessments?

As you will know if you have read my recent blog post “What’s wrong with ATOS“, there is often a large disparity between what is said during a Work Capability Assessment and what ATOS actually reports to the department of work and pensions. The reports take no account of context in answers (“I can do x IF…”) and often fail to note that an action or activity may be possible for a patient, but will have consequences for their health and may not be repeatable. As a result claims are often appealed and ultimately referred to a tribunal.

At that tribunal the patient must demonstrate that the ATOS report is not true for the above reasons.  It is permitted for the patient to be accompanied by a friend to witness the assessment, but an audio recording would be the ideal proof. Unfortunately ATOS have made it nearly impossible for anyone to record their assessment.

Many people have attempted to record their assessment using mobile phones, digital sound recorders or dictaphones. Nearly every time ATOS have halted the assessment and refused to continue while being recorded. On some occasions the patient has relented and stopped recording, on others they have been asked to leave and their report has stated that they did not attend their assessment, resulting in their benefit being stopped.

In a response to a Freedom of Information request made at the end of 2010 the Department of Work and Pensions provided the official guidelines to ATOS staff regarding recording of assessments. The most important parts are quoted here.

“Such a request can only be agreed with the prior consent of the HCP, and then only if stringent safeguards are in place to ensure that the recording is complete, accurate and that the facility is available for simultaneous copies to be made available to all parties present. The recording must be made by a professional operator, on equipment of a high standard, properly calibrated by a qualified engineer immediately prior to the recording being made. The equipment must have facility for reproduction so that all parties can retain a copy of the tape. The responsibility for meeting the cost of the above requirement rests with the claimant”

“It is for Atos Healthcare, in conjunction with their legal advisers, to determine the action to be taken in the event of a claimant making an audio or video recording without the prior knowledge and consent of the HCP, or without ensuring that the safeguards defined above are in place”

“If you suspect a customer of trying to film or record an assessment the following action should be taken

Advise the customer that such action is not permitted, explain why not, and ask them to switch the device off. If the customer refuses to comply:

  • The assessment should be suspended
  • Inform your site manager and/or medical manager immediately”

From this it is clear that recording by the patient will not be permitted, will result in the assessment being stopped and might result in legal action by ATOS. What is strange is the circumstances in which they will allow recording. It must be

  • Recorded by a professional operator
  • on professional equipment
  • immediately duplicated in front of ATOS staff
  • paid for by the patient

This is obviously impractical to arrange and priced far out of reach of the patient,  who is receiving Employment and Support Allowance to live on, at approx £60 – £100 per week.

In a court case in June 2008 a judge ruled on a patient who had been denied benefit and lost his appeal after ATOS reported that he did not attend because he attempted to record his assessment.   The judge ruled that he should be allowed to start his assessment process all over again, because he had not been advised that he could arrange for recording of the assessment in stricter circumstances. What is interesting is the other comments by the judge in his findings.

45. The appellant makes a number of good points in this context. He draws attention to the considerable (and probably prohibitive) cost that would be involved for an individual living on benefits in meeting the Department’s restrictive criteria. He rightly points out that those conditions (which include the presence of a qualified engineer) are actually stricter than those in place for police interviews with suspects. He might also have added that the Department’s own protocols for interviewing claimants under caution in the course of benefit fraud investigations do not require the presence of a qualified engineer (although dual-tape machines and sealed tapes are used).

Let me repeat that: ATOS’ requirements are stricter than those for police interviews, and stricter than their own interviews for benefit fraud applications.

So, we get to the really important question. Why do ATOS make it so difficult to record assessments?

There is one relatively good reason. They are worried that a single recording taken by the patient could be digitally altered and then presented before a tribunal as proof. They wish to counter this by having a duplicate recording in their own possession. This does seem a reasonable request, but their chosen methods are over the top and unnecessary.

ATOS also state that “Medical Services view unauthorised and secret recording to be an invasion of privacy.” Now, if this were a private conversation between two friends, that might be the case. But this is not. This is an assessment carried out on behalf of the government and with life-changing consequences for the patient.  It often starts a process which ends up in the legal system. In these circumstances, it is wrong to claim that recording is an invasion of privacy. In an assessment as grave and important as this, are they really saying that the assessor is going to say something which should not be reported, and that he won’t do so when officially being recorded? Because to me, that suggests that they think their staff might be unprofessional in their behaviour.

I think ATOS is clearly wrong to obstruct recording of Work Capability Assessments. At best, this is an uncaring attitude which shows lack of respect for the patient or of any concern over the outcome of their benefit claim. At worst, this is wilful obstruction of justice and a prevention of a proper outcome at a tribunal. There is a simple solution to this. ATOS should allow every patient to record their interview in any way that they wish to, openly so that their staff need have no concerns about privacy. If they are worried about a recording being altered to be used against them, then they should also record every interview themselves. They need not go to the expense of dual recording equipment if they allow patients to make their own recording.

Of course, they won’t do this. ATOS must be fully aware of the failure rate of their assessments and the large number of successful appeals against them. They know that if a large number of recordings were to be made, they would be shown up by the vast contradiction between what is said and what is recorded. They would be shown to be either incompetent or to have an agenda against benefit claimants.