If, after you’ve read this, you feel moved to do something about it, please start by signing the WOWPetition, by clicking here
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?
The report reproduced (with kind permission) below is a short summary of the vitally important research into the origin of the current government’s campaign against disability and incapacity benefits and the involvement of Unum (formerly UnumProvident) and ATOS. This remarkably detailed work was carried out over the last three years by former healthcare professional and disabled veteran, Mo Stewart*. Mo has worked relentlessly and determinedly, despite her own pain and fatigue, to bring together a vast amount of damning evidence against this cruel system which has and continues to bring misery and even death to people whose only ‘crime’ is to be chronically sick or disabled. What you are about to read below is but a tiny example of far, far more material some of which can be found on her website here or by following the links she provides in her reference list at the end of the articles.
*(Mo Stewart is a former healthcare professional, a disabled female veteran and, for the last 3 years, has researched the links between the DWP, Atos Healthcare & Unum Insurance. To date, the research evidence has been quoted during welfare debates in the House of Lords, the House of Commons and in Westminster Hall. Mo routinely shares all research evidence with academics, medical and healthcare professionals, frontline national charities, selected
politicians and service users.)
THE HIDDEN AGENDA: a research summary by Mo Stewart
(The Hidden Agenda © Mo Stewart – March 2013)
The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) is exclusively conducted on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) by the corporate giant Atos Origin IT Ltd Medical Services, better known as Atos Healthcare. This ‘non-medical assessment’ was introduced in 2008 by the Labour government, and was identified as a ‘medical examination’ to be used to identify genuine claimants for long term sickness and disability benefit. However, what was unknown at the time was the fact that the WCA was a continuation of the planned agenda of the previous Thatcher government, whose ultimate goal was the destruction of the Welfare State.(1) The WCA was promoted as a ‘fitness for work’ assessment for claimants of what was once known as Incapacity Benefit, now re-named as the Employment and Support Allowance.(ESA) In reality, in order to reduce the welfare budget, the WCA was designed to resist as many sickness benefit claims as possible regardless of confirmed and identified permanent illness or disability. By 2010 the planned DWP welfare budget reduction was deemed to be
too slow. The new Coalition Government enhanced the WCA and, following the previous Labour Government’s lead, it became much more difficult to qualify for the ESA(2) as the WCA totally disregarded diagnosis, prognosis or limited life expectancy.
Aided and abetted by the national press, using insidious press headlines to manipulate public opinion(3)(3b), the Coalition Government successfully introduced tyranny, fear and despair to the nation’s most vulnerable people, using a disability assessment model as designed in consultation with Unum [Provident] Insurance; one of the most discredited corporate insurance giants in the world.(4)(4b) At the same time, reported disability hate crimes in the United Kingdom(UK) were rising to record levels.(5) The first two years of independent research into the WCA concluded at the end of November 2011 with the
exposure of two government memorandums provided by Unum Provident Insurance.(6) Initially, the link between the UK welfare reforms and the likely move to an insurance based benefits system was identified by Baroness Tanni Gray-Thompson during the welfare reform debates in the House of Lords.(7) Nine months later, the link between Atos Healthcare and Unum Insurance was exposed by Kevin Brennan MP during debate in Westminster Hall(8) and, more recently, during an emergency Backbench Business debate in the House of Commons(HOC), Michael Meacher MP identified the possible influence of Unum Insurance with the UK Government.(9)
Of course, this destruction of the welfare state could never have been so readily achieved without the unelected former Labour adviser, David Freud. He was ennobled to permit appointment initially to the Shadow Cabinet but, following the 2010 General Election, he was appointed as the Minister for Welfare Reform for the Coalition where he has excelled. Indeed, one of Lord Freud’s most recent claims was that: “Poor people should be prepared to take more risks because they have the least to lose…”(11) Clearly, this man is yet another millionaire Minister who demonstrates no concern, and no comprehension, of human need.
The ongoing DWP medical tyranny, masquerading as welfare reform, has permitted Atos Healthcare to conduct the WCA by employing the totally discredited Bio-Psychosocial(BPS) model of disability assessment that remains free from all public accountability according to the General Medical Council and the Care Quality Commission. The BPS is the assessment model as used by Unum Insurance when assessing healthcare insurance claims, and it is also the assessment model enthusiastically promoted by Professor Sir Mansel Aylward. The Professor is the Director of the Centre for Psychosocial and Disability Research at Cardiff University, initially sponsored by Unum Insurance from its inception in 2003 to 2009.
However, prior to his move to the Centre, the Professor was the DWP’s Chief Medical Officer who, in 1994, was in post when Unum Insurance was invited to become corporate ‘advisers’ to the UK government.(12) Whilst the BPS model is an interesting theory, the selective use of the BPS model of disability assessment, as used by both Unum Insurance and Atos Healthcare, was exposed long ago as an invention of the insurance industry.(13)(14) By concentrating on the psychological model of disability, to the detriment of the social model, the WCA was always destined to promote unacceptable results for many thousands of ESA claimants. In one six month period alone 37,100 people had waited up to a year to have their ESA benefit reinstated following appeal, yet no-one is asking what would have happened to these genuinely sick and disabled people if they had not had the strength to pursue their claim to appeal?(10)
Indeed, a recent Panorama documentary: ‘Disabled or Faking It’,(15) demonstrated quite categorically the dangers of the WCA with seriously ill patients, diagnosed with life threatening conditions such as heart failure and end stage emphysema, being found fit for work.(15) However, with the national press still refusing to expose the identified influence of Unum Insurance with the DWP welfare reforms, the British public remain in ignorance as the government covertly convert the UK welfare state into the American healthcare system, ultimately to be funded by private insurance.(12)(13)(14) Meanwhile, Unum Insurance is happy to continue to offer new careers to former government ‘advisers’. (16) The WCA is an American imported ‘disability assessment model’ and has no medical credibility whatsoever, as confirmed by the British Medical Association(17), yet it is enthusiastically employed by the DWP and causes devastation to those least able to protest. This ‘medical assessment’ is working very well as the thousands of genuine claimants that have either died, committed suicide, been forced into poverty due to mounting debt, or who have developed a mental health problem due to anxiety are now the disregarded victims.(10)
Many had been in receipt of Incapacity Benefit before being re-assessed by Atos Healthcare, using the fatally flawed WCA, only to fail to qualify for benefit following ‘assessment’. The Internet provides evidence to this government imposed suffering at a cost to the tax-payer of £110million per annum for the confidential Atos contract and an estimated £60 million pounds per annum, and rising, for the costs of the appeal tribunals. Yet, still, Members of Parliament (MP) continue with their very courteous and diplomatic debates(8)(9) as the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and, especially, their corporate partners all celebrate the ongoing planned destruction of the welfare state that appears to be unstoppable.
What is still disregarded is the fact that Professor Sir Mansel Aylward’s research activities were funded for six years by Unum Insurance.(12) Indeed, due to his significant contribution to the future reduction of the DWP welfare budget by promoting the use of a ‘non-medical’ assessment, the Professor was rewarded with a Knighthood for “services to disability assessment.” Therefore, his support for the BPS disability assessment model was presumed to be guaranteed. Yet, when confronted six months ago, the Professor actually confirmed that he now considered the BPS model to be “unsatisfactory” and that he believed it “no longer addresses the real needs of disabled people and the exclusion of disabled people from society”.(18) Of course, the question remains as to why there was no official DWP announcement following this amazing change of ‘expert’ professional opinion, as the entire national press totally disregarded the press release that was distributed last September following Sir Mansel’s unexpected statement. Perhaps the Professor was safe in the
knowledge that the press release would be ignored, and perhaps this is why he continues to travel widely, still lecturing about the virtues of the totally discredited BPS model of disability assessment? The most recent lecture was at the Health and Wellbeing at Work Conference in Birmingham, from 5th-6th March 2013,(19) where Professor Sir Mansel Aylward was listed as a keynote speaker on the subject of: The New Public Health Agenda: Its Impact on Health and Wellbeing at Work. Given the title of his speech, one can only presume that the Professor has yet to advise other professionals of his reported change of expert opinion.(18)
This is how the UK welfare state will be destroyed. There is a BPS ‘expert’ in place, and an American corporate insurance giant has influenced the UK Government to totally disregard human suffering, in favour of a reduced welfare budget, using an identified bogus ‘medical assessment’. Unum Insurance have begun their mass marketing to encourage able bodied members of the British public to invest in their ‘Income Protection Insurance’ or their ‘Back-up Plan,’ that’s only available via the workplace, and these are the healthcare insurance policies that the company has historically tried very hard to resist funding when a claim is made.(20)(21) Given that the unacceptable practice of Unum Insurance was previously exposed by MPs during a House of Commons debate in 1999(22), the question remains as to why was this highly discredited American corporate insurance giant ever permitted to influence UK welfare reforms and why the national press, en masse, refuse to expose this insurance company’s confirmed influence despite it being identified by a BBC News report in 2007?(23)
The recent exposure of a 2005 internal Unum report, that actively boasted that the company was ‘driving government thinking’ regarding the reform of Incapacity Benefit (24) leads to the much more sinister possibility that the DWP are simply administrators of these brutal welfare reforms, and that the perpetrators of the devastation caused to the victims of this UK government funded medical tyranny are, in fact, Unum Insurance. Michael O’Donnell was the author of the 2005 internal Unum report that was written when he was the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for Unum Insurance. Michael O’Donnell is now the CMO for Atos Healthcare…..
The difficulty remains that no-one is asking the relevant questions. Perhaps MPs should be asking the Prime Minister why he’s been funded by ‘healthcare companies’ to the value of £750,000(27) since he became Prime Minister (25) or why every report produced by the President of the Appeal Tribunals, all of which identified the Atos Healthcare WCA assessments as “failing to coincide with reality”, was totally disregarded by the DWP? (12)
Until and unless more significant questions are asked in the House of Commons, victims of this government funded medical nightmare will be forced to turn to the law for help, just as in America.(26)
Until and unless the national press demonstrate that the UK really does benefit from a free press, and not a government controlled press, the most vulnerable of all British people will continue to suffer and the British public will continue to be deceived.(12)
1) Margaret Thatcher’s role in plan to dismantle welfare state revealed:
(2) Cuts to UK benefits: http://www.centreforwelfarereform.org/library/type/text/cuts-to-uk-benefits.html
(3) ‘Ello, John, got a new Motability motor? http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2047593/Motability-schemes-starting-resemble- worst-excesses-Arthur-Daley-.html
(3b) Half a million incapacity benefit claimants are fit for work, Government’s own figures show: Daily Mail: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2115476/A-incapacity-benefit-claimants-fit-work-Government-s-OWN-figures show. html#axzz2JqkmNFAR
(4) New York Attorney General Spitzer’s ruling: http://www.insure.com/articles/healthinsurance/unum-settlement.html
(4b) The Ten Worst Insurance Companies in America – The American Association of Justice
(5) Hate crimes against disabled people soar to a record high:
(6) The truth behind welfare reforms: http://www.whywaitforever.com/dwpatosveteransreport20111120.html
(7) BnsTanni Gray-Thompson: House of Lords, welfare reforms
(8) Private Members’ Debate: Atos Healthcare: 4th Sept 2012
(9) Backbench Business: Atos Work Capability Assessment debate: 17th Jan 2013
(10) British people are committing suicide to escape poverty. Is this what the State wants?
(11) Lord Freud’s welfare ‘lifestyle’ comments show ‘nasty party is back’, say Labour:
(12) Government use might of American insurance giant to destroy UK welfare safety net – update 27th Oct : http://www.whywaitforever.com/dwpatosveteransreport20121027.html
(13) An academic responds to statement by Prof Aylward:
(14) A Tale of Two Models: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/disability-studies/archiveuk/jolly/A%20Tale%20of%20two%20Models%20Leeds1.pdf
(15) Panorama: Disabled or Faking It?
(16) Peter Dewis: Steppin’ Sideways from Government to Unum:
(17) GPs call for work capability assessment to be scrapped:
(18) Former DWP medical boss makes WCA pledge to protesters:
(19) Health and Wellbeing at Work Conference, NEC Birmingham: http://www.healthatwork2013.co.uk/
(20) “The denial on the part of Unum in the Mondolo case appears to mirror denials of other Unum disability claims historically, going back several years. To that end, the Court noted Unum’s history of biased claims administration.” (MARCH 2013)
(21) CBS News 60 minutes: DID INSURER CHEAT DISABLED CLIENTS:
(22) Permanent Health Insurance debate, Westminster Hall, 21st December 2009
(23) BBC Ten ‘o Clock News report: 6th Nov 2007 http://www.meactionuk.org.uk/UNUM_on_BBC_News_061107.wmv (BBC NEWS report – video)
(24) Unum bragged about ‘driving government thinking’ on incapacity benefit reform:
(25) MPs’ links are so unhealthy: http://www.express.co.uk/comment/expresscomment/378233/MPs-links-are-so- unhealthy
(26) High Court rules Work Capability Assessment arguably unlawful:
(27) NHS reform leaves Tory backers with links to private healthcare firms set for bonanza: