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I’ll tell you upfront what one of the worst things about this story is. It’s that I don’t feel comfortable naming the time or place of my first encounter with an ATOS Medical Assessment Centre. Certainly, I’ll be clear about it in a letter to the relevant MP, and to the organisation itself, and with no hope of being heard, to the Department for Work and Pensions, whom I hold solely accountable for what I witnessed today.
Also, the actual assessment I witnessed, by two sympathetic, understanding, quiet, professional, helpful Eastern European Doctors seemed fine. It was the only bit of sanity in an experience that has left me with the impression of an enormous, industrialised processing of sick people by one organisation; ATOS, doing the bidding of a dangerously distant government department, the DWP, pursuing a dispassionate ideology incapable of engaging with the individual needs of those being palpably dragged through assessment.
A little background; I attended as a ‘plus one’ for a friend of mine who has been in receipt of a benefit for many years that is being subsumed into the Employment and Support Allowance. I went along because some of the drugs my friend is on prevent them from driving, or staying awake, and my friend often suffers from a terrible memory, so I planned to prompt when my friend got stuck, and take in as much of what happened today so that I could remind them of it afterwards.
I wasn’t really looking forward to the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) and I know my friend wasn’t either, as it has been hanging over them like a weight for a number of weeks. Without drilling down into all the detail, my friend relies on this benefit to survive with their children, and although my friend is probably eligible for Disabled Living Allowance, or Personal Independence Payments as they are set to become, I have not been successful at pressuring my friend to apply for them. A lot of people are reluctant to label themselves, or to be judged by others, given the stigma that is increasingly attached to recipients of disability benefits by an ignorant public.
So, this story has had all the names, some sexes, and some other details changed for public consumption, but I’m leaving in the facts as I witnessed them. It was horrific, and I’ve been seething with a dark anger about the events, kicking myself about not taking the phone numbers of the other witnesses, or the names of the staff involved. If only I hadn’t been so wrapped up in looking after my friend and their concerns about today, I could’ve acted like a better citizen, although after today I’m not even really sure what that means, and whose standards that could possibly be judged by.
The story starts in the waiting room of an ATOS assessment centre. Present are A lady and her daughter, who I shall call Mrs and Ms. Nice. They are a quiet couple, apprehensive. The mother cares for the daughter and had helped her crutch her way into the barren, industrial waiting room, and was sat trying to reassure her daughter that it was going to be ok. After later conversation, it turned out Mrs Nice has been to three tribunals for members of her family and friends, all of which have been successful in overturning incorrect DWP decisions on DLA awards, so she is no stranger to the system.
Also present is Builder John, a man who comes to play a pivotal role and who doesn’t even want to be there. John is self-employed and is used to earning lots of money every week through contracting his services out. Unfortunately John is awaiting surgery for an injury that is preventing him from engaging with the very physical nature of his job. John doesn’t want to be there, but has no choice but to do so to carry on qualifying for the measly £140 a fortnight in benefits that he will lose if he doesn’t, metaphorically speaking, jump through hoops. John cannot understand why there is a procession of sick and disabled people being dragged through assessments. He speaks of a happier time, before he was forced to claim benefits for those pesky asides like eating food, when he was blissfully ignorant of just how unfair the system is.
Also waiting are Mr Shirt and Ms. Shirt. Ms. Shirt enters unsteadily on one crutch with Mr Shirt’s support, and after discovering that she is half an hour late, having got the time of the appointment wrong and with one arm shaking uncontrollably as a result of her disability, Ms. Shirt bursts into tears and nearly stumbles over in the waiting room, setting off a chain of events that lead me to witness something unsavoury, cynical, corrupt and distressing.
Mr and Ms. Shirt are sent away for being late, but shortly afterwards, one of the other actors in this piece, “ATOS Receptionist” makes a phonecall to try and accommodate Ms Shirt getting an appointment later that afternoon. With good intentions, Receptionist calls another person who has an appointment that afternoon to cancel their appointment, and sends another player, “Security Man” to intercept Ms. Shirt as she struggles back into her car, apparently to let her know that if she can hang around for half an hour or so, she can stay and see the Doctor after the next appointment has finished.
The time of the appointment Ms Shirt is given turns out to be exactly the same time that John Builder and Ms Nice have been given as *their* appointment time, too. Mr Shirt looks gravely concerned when he learns this fact, he’s clearly been trying to reassure Ms. Shirt that everything’s going to be ok, but he no longer looks like he believes it, and Ms Shirt sits on her hand in an effort to control the obvious, wild tremor in her arm.
The catalyst characters arrive next. Mr and Mrs Cancelled. Mrs Cancelled answered the phone when Receptionist called to make room for Ms. Shirt in the already triple-booked afternoon slot. Mrs Cancelled is apparently no stranger to this assessment centre. She’s already had some of her benefits stopped, and has had to get Mr Cancelled to start and finish work early to accompany her to this re-assessment. She failed to convey to Mr Cancelled that she’d been told not to come in this afternoon, because one gets the sense she hadn’t fully understood how long the wait would be if she did choose to attend, despite being told not to. She attends, out of a fear you can see in her face of continuing to have no money at all, stretching the resources of Mr Cancelled, who is philosophical about the burden placed on his wages, but who chooses to express a perfectly reasonable opinion that his wife is being messed around with when her appointments are being scheduled and rescheduled, with knock-on effects for his employment and pay and convenience. Mr Cancelled makes it perfectly clear that he does not think the ATOS staff are to blame for this, but that it is the stupid DWP system that is causing this upset, pressure and hardship.
Unfortunately, Receptionist chooses to interpret the valid concerns of Mr Cancelled as a personal attack. Nobody else in the room understands why, and the surly, abrasive, combative face that Receptionist presents changes the course of the rest of the day. It’s probably a face that has become necessary to present to difficult clients. It’s a face that, reassures Receptionist, is not for the genuine claimants – she thinks it’s a massive waste of time and effort that the deserving poor are subjected to these humiliating, inconvenient, and often painful assessments, too. Receptionist’s true views, however, are informed by DWP rhetoric about statistics. The same statistics that are so clearly unsafe in the hands of the Iain Duncan Smith, the man who has constructed a House of misinformation, and not yet taken to task over it by the Department for Work and Pension Committee, though they have asked him to answer for his misinformation on repeated occasions.
Mr Cancelled is asked, in no uncertain terms, to leave with his wife, who seems distressed and confused and willing to leave to avoid causing more conflict, and to avoid upsetting her husband further. Her husband loudly proclaims that they will leave, his language may now be peppered by distressed obscenity but all he really wants is some clarity about when his wife’s next appointment will be. Receptionist can not give a date, nor reassurance that that appointment will not also be cancelled. Ms. Shirt realises that her assignment to an appointment is what has caused this mess, and starts to cry again. Ms Nice starts to cry too, and John the Builder stares on in disbelief. Mr Shirt is banging his head quietly against the wall behind his chair, and is heard to say “How did we come to this?”.
Mr and Mrs Cancelled close the door behind them from the waiting room, but they are pursued down the corridor by Security Man. He says “AND I’LL TELL YOU ANOTHER THING”, for some inexplicable reason, he has chosen not to just let them leave, but to take issue with the fact that Mr Cancelled is upset that his wife keeps having her appointments change. Even though Mr Cancelled specifically said he knows it isn’t the personal fault of Receptionist and Security Man, they both seem to have taken it so. There is shouting from the corridor outside, and then the sickening sound of a scuffle, as Mrs Cancelled’s carer and husband is apparently tackled by Security Man, simply for having the audacity to speak out. John the Builder joins them in the corridor, quick to his telephone, where he films the ensuing, angry shouting and the insane exchange of angry words between a man upset about his wife being caused more pain, and a man, acting unprofessionally and physically, upset that his organisation might be deemed to be responsible for this. Mr Shirt checks through the window of the door. Ms Nice is now inhaling heavily, clearly in the throes of a panic attack, while Mrs Nice, also close to tears now desperately tries to calm her down. Ms Shirt is crying, shaking, uncertain. John the Builder tries to remonstrate with both parties in the corridor to diffuse the situation.
It’s simply insane. In Britain, in 2013, there is an industrial, machinated subjugation of ill people to demeaning, degrading, invasive medical assessments being enforced at the behest of a pathological DWP and implemented by an arrogant, uncertain ATOS.
John Builder returns to the reception room, an angry but drawn expression on his face. He expresses his frustration that neither Receptionist nor Security are to blame for this crazy mess, but as he is defending the difficult situation they are in, they return to the room.
“STOP TALKING!” Mandates Reception. There is a pause in the room, a little confused. Mr Shirt points out that John Builder was just trying to defend the position of Receptionist, but John’s temper is blown. In an emotive outburst, John tells Receptionist he won’t be told to shut up. Rightly, he gives what-for, in that most British of manners he explains he is perfectly entitled to talk to other people, to Mrs Nice and Mr Shirt in the waiting room, that this is not a fucking concentration camp. The words hang, pregnant, because that is exactly what it fucking feels like.
Receptionist explains that it isn’t her fault, that the huge number of false claimants are the reason that the DWP has to test everybody to make sure the system isn’t being sucked dry. Mr Shirt looks crestfallen, and after Receptionist and Security simmer down, he explains to everyone else in the room that DLA fraud rates are 0.5% and that ESA fraud rates are 0.3%. This seems like a tired, rehearsed skit from him, and he borrows a pen from Mrs Nice, and a couple of post-it notes, on which he scribbles “wowpetition.com”.
John Builder, Mr Shirt and Mrs Nice express their utter disgust at the government, both Conservative and Liberal Democrat bits of it, although they all agree that they can’t understand how looking after vulnerable people became so distasteful to government, and how people who’ve paid into the social security system are now being subjected to this cynical, judgemental, prejudiced, ignorant DWP system, administered by an inappropriate, unprofessional, reactive and dangerously ignorant private company that keeps getting it wrong.
It’s a disgrace, it’s the most depressing scene I think I’ve ever witnessed, and the dehumanisation of all involved has left me with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Is this really what we have come to?