CLACKMANNANSHIRE'S Disability Awareness Group (DAG) have cautiously welcomed the news that fit-for-work test firm ATOS are to walk away from their government contract, writes Lesley Morin.

Over the last few years the company have been heavily criticised for the way they have handled the Work Capability Assessments (WCA), which have been described as “ruthless” and “disgraceful” by some observers, although many others believe the government is to blame.

Forty-seven-year-old Clackmannan resident Graham Baird, who has volunteered for DAG for over 10 years, criticised the firm’s work. He said, “You have people who have been declared as unfit for work by medical experts in the past, that ATOS have now deemed fit to work.

“Therefore the criteria for assessing someone’s work capability has changed. It concerns me that if professionals have previously ruled someone as having a lifelong incapacity to work, then those same people may now have wrongly been declared as fit to work when actually they are not.” One of the main criticisms of ATOS is that their work is seen to require personal medical expertise, when their workers only require basic “clinical knowledge”. Graham believes that this is reflected in the fact that over a third of appeals against their initial judgment have been successful.

However, ATOS have defended their work by insisting that they do not set the criteria for assessments – the government does. And a spokesperson for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) confirmed that ATOS is only responsible for advising the DWP on the outcome of assessments – with the final ruling being made by the DWP themselves.

A spokesperson for ATOS said, “Contrary to popular belief, it is in our interest to do a good job for the people we see. We are measured on our customer service, quality and timeliness and we are scrutinised to ensure that we are consistent, fair and respectful to those we see. We have no targets in relation to the outcome of benefit claims either at an individual or overall level.” Despite this, ATOS have been condemned for the way they go about their business, including the insistence that some incapable claimants must fill out lengthy forms.

Although Graham believes the government is due its share of the blame, he reckons ATOS are fully accountable.

He explained, “ATOS aren’t entirely blameless. In accepting that contract they must have known the impact it would have on the most vulnerable people in society. Companies like them should have some sort of social responsibility.

“But there’s no point in bringing in someone now, who’s going to do the same or worse. The government needs to adopt a person-centered approach rather than a money saving one.” Despite the company seeking an early end to their contract after around 160 staff members were abused physically and verbally in separate incidents last year, ATOS say that they will still handle all claims from the DWP until another company is found to do so.

However, they also stated that the DWP had deferred routine repeat assessments until further notice, meaning that some claimants will be spared from going back for tests in the meantime.

CASE STUDY “I feel the system is unjust because it doesn’t cater to people’s individuals needs and circumstances. But then it’s the government that has done that. ATOS may have played their part but the government sets the rules.” “For 17 years my husband worked until he took seriously ill. That illness left him with lifelong complications and as a result he was classed as no longer fit to work by doctors.

“When we heard about the government reinforcing WCA through ATOS after all these years, obviously we were concerned because it seemed they were out to make budget cuts and we would be on the receiving end of that – and we were right.

“After being reassessed, my husband was still told he was unfit to work. Yet despite this, he was placed in a work activity group – intended to help people get back to work – and told that he would have part of his benefits cut after a year.

“They said he had to be placed in the work activity group (although he wasn’t required to attend), as he didn’t qualify for the support group where you either need 24-hour care or to be terminally ill. This, to me, seems like an admission that they know the criteria set is too black and white – as anyone with any understanding of a disability knows it is not.

“Furthermore, they said the reason he wasn’t entitled to ESA beyond a year was because I work full time. So essentially we are being penalised by a government who tells us to work, for working. We did try to appeal against the decision in the hope his benefits would be reinstated but you never seem to have a hope in these circumstances.

“When you have worked for 17 years, paid tax and insurance, surely you should be entitled to an income if you take ill through no fault of your own? To suddenly have part of that taken away, when times are hard for everyone as it is, has obviously been difficult.”