There are rumours circulating that Atos might be about to get the sack from their role assessing sick and disabled people to supposedly determine if they could work. The Guardian reports:
“A leaked Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) financial review says ministers across government are working together to build up competition to the multinational company by commissioning other private firms to add “further capacity” to the assessment system. The DWP will then enable “these providers to take over the whole contract” from Atos after the present agreement expires in 2015.”
Unfortunately the main candidates for the job are G4S, Serco, A4E and Capita. None of these inspire confidence and in fact these names will justifiably inspire anger and hatred in most people that I know. But the problem is not just with Atos. The problem is with the Department of Work and Pensions, politicians (both Conservative and Labour) and with the whole concept of testing sickness and disability and fitting people’s problems into boxes in order to say yes or no to supporting them. Atos have helpfully put the problem in their own words in a blog post pleading with protesters not to blame them.
“However, Atos Healthcare has no control over welfare policy, the design of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA), or the specific eligibility criteria for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). These are set by government. Our healthcare professionals use their clinical judgement in order to apply the government-designed criteria and they do not have the scope to make any assessment outside of these guidelines.”
Now I am not siding with Atos here, they are definitely responsible for huge suffering inflicted on people at their most vulnerable and no amount of claiming that they don’t set the rules, or that they are only following orders, is going to change that. However they are correct to say that the eligibility criteria are set by government. More importantly, they are accurate in stating that Atos assessors do not have the scope to make any assessment outside of the guidelines.
This is actually a very important admission. You see, there have been consistent accusations that Atos staff work to targets when deciding whether to recommend that someone is able to work or should receive support because they are not. That is, that they are told how many people must go on to receive the social security that they are entitled to and how many must be denied that support. Both Atos and government have denied that there are targets but this is through twisting words rather than actually being true. The DWP may not have targets but they do have “Statistical norms” which say how many people they think should be placed in the Support Group, the Work-Related Activity Group (given some support but continuously pestered to find a job), or kicked off sickness benefits and on to Job Seeker’s Allowance. Pressure is put on Atos to conform to these statistical norms – the logic being that Atos must be doing something wrong if they do not meet them. In turn Atos place pressure on their staff to keep the numbers of people recommended to get support down to absurdly low levels. Dr Greg Wood, a former assessor for Atos, and Kaliya Franklin have both done a lot of work to investigate and expose how this works in practice and I have included the links at the end of this blog post.
So Atos absolutely are complicit in denying support to people in desperate need, and they know it and their staff know it, but at the same time replacing Atos with Capita will definitely not solve the problem since the replacement will be held to exactly the same requirements.
While many believe that this problem with the Work Capability Assessment can be fixed, I am not one of them and so although I will support those who are working towards making the WCA fit for purpose, I also firmly believe that the whole thing should be scrapped. It would be a step forward to believe the reports of the doctors and other medical practitioners that care for sick people and only rely on a specific test for those who do not have access to this for whatever reason, but even that is not enough. I believe that to achieve full support and equality as a society we must introduce a Universal Basic Income / Citizen’s Income that would be paid to everyone regardless of whether they work or not, and not conditional on ability to work or willingness to work. We would still perhaps need some form of checking for disability benefits (currently DLA or PIP) which are paid on top of wages or sickness benefits to those who need it, but even then we should believe people’s own doctors where possible.
Dr Greg Wood: