From the Welfare News Service, 18 October 2013.
Over 150,000 people have complained about Work Capability Assessments conducted by private french firm Atos Healthcare, who carry out ‘fit for work’ tests on sick and disabled benefit claimants on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Figures obtained by Sky News show that the advice charity Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) have been inundated with complaints and desperate appeals for help from people who have failed assessments, many of which have serious long-term health conditions affecting their ability to work.
The CAB warn that severely sick and disabled people are being denied benefits as a result of a one size fits all ‘tick box’ medical assessment which is “unfit for purpose” and does not adequately take into account how people’s poor medical conditions limit their work capability.
Atos are no stranger to controversy and have become the target of disability campaigners, who have staged a number of protests demanding that their involvement in assessing sick and disabled benefit claimants be ended and that the current assessment system be scrapped.
Atos say that they are simply following a system devised by the DWP and are not ultimately responsible for determining benefit entitlement. Those decisions are made by a Department for Work and Pensions decision maker who rely heavily upon the outcome and report provided by Atos, but other medical evidence may also be used in determining a person’s entitlement to sickness benefits.
Disability rights campaigners together with the British Medical Association (BMA) and prominent Labour MP’s, have called for the controversial Work Capability Assessment (WCA) to be scrapped and replaced with a system which works for those affected and is both fair and accurate.
Campaigners were given some welcome news when Labour pledged to axe Atos from the WCA, if they win an outright majority in 2015. But if recent polls are anything to go by, Labour have a huge challenge ahead of them if they are to convince voters that they are worthy of governing alone.
Neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats have matched Labour’s pledge to axe Atos and the private health firm have already been awarded with part of the assessment contract for new disability benefit Personal Independence payment (PIP).
Some doctors are now asking as much as £130 to provide medical evidence in support of their patients who have been denied benefits and whom have chosen to appeal the decision. Others are refusing to provide any assistance whatsoever as they claim they do not have the time because of being under “huge and increasing” pressure.
Changes to the Employment and Support Allowance appeals process mean that people who have had their benefits stopped or reduced must now request that the decision be first reviewed by a DWP decision maker before they can apply to appeal to a social security tribunal.
This initial process is known as ‘mandatory reconsideration’ and appellant’s will have no entitlement to sickness benefit during this time but must instead claim Jobseekers Allowance (or nothing), even if they feel they are not capable of working or looking for work. Critics claim that this is trapping vulnerable sick and disabled people into saying they are ‘fit for work’ when they may not be.
Newspapers have been awash with reports of benefit claimants who have sadly lost their lives after being found ‘fit for work’ by Atos and the DWP, and yet despite government reassurances that the system is improving, the number of people who have had decisions overturned in their favor remains stubbornly high: roughly 38% of appeals which go to tribunal.
It is in the public interest that both Atos and the DWP get decisions right first time as it costs taxpayers an estimated £66 million per year in appeal costs. Critics of the government say that changes to the appeals system is a cynical attempt to bring these costs down instead of addressing a system which is ‘fundamentally flawed’.