Tuesday 25 February 2014

Are Atos about to Bail Out of All Occupational Health?

In one of those sick ironies of the Atos WCA regime, there were several stories of Atos's corporate Occupational Health service finding people unfit for work, only to have their WCA arm find exactly the same person, with exactly the same symptoms, fit for work

A new blog from Dr Greg Wood, the Atos whistleblower, points out that the Atos corporate OH service has quietly migrated itself off the Atos Healthcare website and now lives under an assumed identity as OH Assist with the only mention of Atos on the front page being a tiny acknowledgement that the website is by 'Atos IT Services UK Limited 2014', and in fact that sanitising of any reference to Atos seems to be pretty much site wide.

If you go to the Atos Healthcare website, it now states only that "Atos Healthcare conducts assessments on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions." All mention of corporate OH has disappeared. A quick whois check on the OH Assist domain name suggests it was registered on 5th December, so this has been in process for several months, though it is difficult to tell when the website changes went live.

There are several possibilities here:
As Dr Wood suggests, that the Atos Healthcare brand is now so toxic that they can only preserve their corporate OH service by separating it from their own corporate ID and branding.

A spin off from this would link it to the story broken by John Pring and Disability News Service a couple of weeks ago, Doctor recruitment crisis leaves Atos begging for help, that Atos are finding it impossible to recruit doctors to Atos Healthcare, in which case hiding the corporate OH service's toxic parent identity may be the only way it can now recruit staff,

But there is a third, even more startling, though long overdue possibility, the separation of the corporate OH service onto a different website and the complete firewalling of it away from Atos branding, may be clear indicators that it is being prepared for sale, and that, when combined with Atos's 'Oh, woe is poor little bullied me' whinging in the Telegraph last Friday, strongly implies that Atos may be about to bail out of all involvement with Occupational Health, whether corporate or government led.

It is becoming very apparent that the campaign has worked, that the Atos corporate brand is now so toxic that Atos themselves are becoming unable to conduct work only marginally related to the WCA and may be in the process of selling up and doing a fly-by-night flit in the hope of saving what they can. Of course the tragedy is that the campaign was ever necessary, WCA was always flawed, but Atos had the opportunity to become a force for good in trying to make it work. Sadly they aligned themselves with DWP and against disabled people and sealed their own fate.

Of course the fight against DWP goes on until WCA is replaced with an assessment process that is fit for purpose and which meets the needs of disabled people. So, IDS next?

Monday 24 February 2014

No more repeat Work Capability Assessments until Atos replaced

Some huge news has emerged today after a Freedom Of Information request by the Benefits and Work website.

It appears that the DWP have suspended all repeat Work Capability Assessments with Atos. This means that those who currently receive Employment Support Allowance and are in the Support Group or the Work-Related Activity Group will not be called back for repeat assessment unless the DWP are informed that their health has changed. This appears to be a move to clear the backlog of those in the Assessment Phase of ESA who are waiting for Atos to call them in for a WCA. It is unclear how this might affect the migration for those who still receive Incapacity Benefit. According to Benefits and Work the DWP memo states:
“The number of cases currently with Atos Healthcare has grown. A decision has therefore been taken to control the referral of repeat work capability assessments. Therefore, with effect from 20 January 2014, further routine repeat assessments referrals to Atos will be deferred until further notice.

“Controlling the volume of repeat Work Capability Assessments should help us to reduce delays for new claimants and those that have already been referred.”
Benefits and Work also claim that the DWP did not intend to inform either MPs or claimants. The uncertainty over the timing and outcome of the WCA is a huge problem for most people who rely on ESA and the knowledge that they will be left alone in the near future would be a great help so it is a further sign of cruelty that the DWP don't care enough to inform anyone.

Dr Greg Wood put some speculation into the thinking behind this decision on his blog in the form of a fictional memo - Work Test Whistleblower: A Note For The Minister?

Source: Benefits and Work: All repeat WCA medicals to be stopped

Friday 21 February 2014

Atos Smears Disabled People for WCA Failure

It would have seemed hard for Atos to further worsen its appalling reputation on the Work Capability Assessment, but in a blatant PR puff-piece in the Financial Times it seeks to create an impression it wants to withdraw from the WCA because of repeated death threats to its staff by disabled campaigners.

 According to the FT “Atos Healthcare said the political environment had become untenable and that it was no longer fair to employees to leave them vulnerable to attack. ‘It is becoming incredibly difficult for our staff; it’s pretty unpleasant,’”

it’s pretty unpleasant’ seems rather ironic given the hundreds of thousands of disabled people repeatedly subjected to the incredibly distressing WCA by Atos.

Now death-threats are clearly unacceptable, but what is particularly interesting here is Atos have never before alleged their staff were at risk, and they had the perfect opportunity in front of the Work and Pensions Select Committee barely a month or so ago. When it comes to unacceptable behaviour, the focus has rather been on Atos staff indulging in such unprofessional behaviour as homophobic rants to patients, or attacking claimants as ‘scroungers’ on social media. Indeed the BMA found it necessary to remind doctors working for Atos that basic honesty was a professional requirement.

The true explanation for Atos’ behaviour may be revealed further into the article, where it admits ‘The French IT company has been in discussions with the Department for Work and Pensions with a view to exiting the deal since October last year, because it views the tests as “outdated”. “In its current form it is not working for claimants, for DWP or for Atos Healthcare,” Atos said. “For several months now we have been endeavouring to agree an early exit from the contract, which is due to expire in August 2015.”’

In other words the campaign by disabled people to reveal the truth about Atos and the WCA has been so successful that it has destroyed the company’s reputation in the UK and it is desperate to find a way out.

Atos could simply have said ‘We are being asked to implement a policy that doesn’t reflect the needs of those subjected to it,’ and guaranteed themselves a PR win for being mature enough to admit when they are wrong; but, in an absolutely classic example of bullying behaviour, Atos seeks to turn its disabled victims into the aggressors for forcing the truth of their behaviour into the public conscience, and there we find the true measure of Atos.

Wednesday 5 February 2014


On Monday night, Peter Stringfellow pointed to Mik, MJ and me on live TV and said:

I'm looking at people over there who obviously deserve everything they can get.

Apparently what we didn't deserve was a place at the grown up table to discuss the issues that affect us. Sue has blogged about how she was pulled from the line up with 2 hours notice. meaning there were no benefit-claiming disabled experts to talk about the cuts. People have pointed out that White Dee claims ESA for depression; so there was at least one disabled person on the panel. But firstly, we don't know if she identifiess as "disabled". It's possible she doesn't because so many people view being disabled as such an horrific and revolting thing. Secondly she claims benefits; but she's not an expert on them. People like Sue and me are. We can tell you the fraud rates for disability benefits off the top of our heads. We can gives you names of people who died from their conditions while supposedly "fit for work".

(OK, I know I'd never get invited to be on the panel if there was literally anybody else available. Media types only call me when their first choice is unavailable. I know I'm not cool or popular or particularly liked among the prominent left. And that's OK; I've never been popular and I'm used to it.)

But given that disabled people are more hit by the cuts than any other group of people; they shouldn't have just kept Sue and Dee in the line-up: They should have had additional disabled people up there too. There's a saying among disability rights activists that's been around as long as I can remember; it's possible the statement is older than I am. That saying is "nothing about us without us". And Monday night's debate was almost exclusively about us, but apart from Dee (and Mik managing to get about 3 seconds of soundbite out) it was definitely without us.

But I want to go back to Stringfellow's comments about what we "deserve" and what we "get".

When he said it; I laughed. Loudly. But then I always laugh loudly. My laugh carries for miles; just ask most of this country's comedians. I laughed so loudly that it was my only verbal ejaculation of the evening that was picked up by the microphones. (And I really put effort into heckling in an attempt to be heard; the laugh was just my normal laugh.)

I laughed because the support we get is being cut to the bone. Employment and Support Allowance cuts, Disability Living Allowance cuts, council tax benefit cuts, the bedroom tax, severe disability premium cuts, social care cuts, NHS cuts. Do we deserve that?

What we do currently get - and what we get an increase in every time papers run front pages calling us "scroungers" - is hate.

Disabled people get called "scrounging cunt" in the street for going out while visibly disabled. WtB's Pippa got followed home by someone shouting "fucking DLA stick.". I've been told that I should have been killed at birth to save the taxpayer money.

What we get is told that we're not allowed nice things. When I first got an iPhone I sustained abuse for it. The person abusing me didn't care that it was a Christmas present to replace my broken CrapBerry; disabled people are simply not allowed to own nice things. The media has an obsession with benefit claimants and the size of our TVs. Last autumn I had a TV crew in my living room. Before I was willing to start talking to camera I made them show me the shot so I was sure my telly couldn't be seen. My TV is shit: You can't have the aerial cable and an HDMI cable plugged in at the same time or they cause each other interference. But you can't see the fault from just looking at it (unless you're trying to watch a DVD with the aerial cable plugged in), so if my telly had been shown during my 4thought; the next day the Daily Mail's front page would've said "outrage as benefit claimant owns flat screen TV." Poor people owning stuff really seems to get under people's skin; no matter the circumstances in which they acquired said things.

There have even been cases of people who don't claim a penny in benefits getting abuse for being "scroungers" for merely looking disabled.

Do we deserve that?

Do we deserve to never be able to afford holidays? To only be able to afford Primark clothes? To not be able to upgrade to a TV without a fault? To know that this financial struggle is going to last your whole life because you're an "incurable"?

Katie Hopkins kept claiming that she was there to represent "hard working Britain". What about the 58 year old with cancer who has been working hard and paying National Insurance premiums for 40 years, but has just been refused ESA? That is the whole point of National Insurance. Because disabled people weren't allowed to be part of the debate; no-one pointed out that the system is there precisely to protect hard working Britons.

Hopkins also brought up the number of people being found "fit for work": Because there were no experts on disability benefits on the panel; no-one pointed out that that includes fatally ill people like Larry Newman or Cecilia Burns. I tried heckling "that includes terminally ill people!" But when I watched the show back, I realised that I hadn't been picked up by any of the mics around the room.

She then went on to claim that chancers are pulling out of the ESA process before being assessed by Atos because they're frightened of being caught out. There are all sorts of reasons people stop their claims, including dying. Again I tried heckling "that includes people who've died!" But again went unheard by the audience at home.

Coming from a stand up background, I hate hecklers. I hated having to heckle. But seeing as the producers wouldn't let any disabled people up on the stage to rebut these distorted claims, I was left with no choice but to try shouting.

Before the cameras started rolling, the floor manager told us that if we had something to say; we should say it. She said she didn't want people to leave feeling that they'd not had their voices heard. The lack of disabled people's representation up on that stage meant that voices like mine weren't heard. With the exception of Dee, Jack Monroe and Annabel Giles; the voices we heard from were people who have no idea how miserable life on benefits is, and how cruel people can be to those perceived as "scroungers". Yes, a couple of other people said that they know people on benefits and are aware of their struggles; but trust me: Unless you've lived this, you really don't know just how horrific it feels.

Benefits Street might have made this country obsessed with talking about benefits. It might have made benefits issues a guaranteed ratings winner. But unless you let the people affected by these issues use their own voices in these debates; you've just got people pointlessly arguing for an hour. 'Nothing about us without us' my backside.