A senior doctor working for Atos Healthcare told colleagues he was “sickened” that disabled benefit claimants can now demand to have their “fitness for work” assessments recorded, according to a leaked email seen by Disability News Service (DNS).
Geoff Douglas, who has been assessing disabled people for their eligibility for disability benefits for more than 10 years, sent the email in reply to an Atos manager who had complained that colleagues were refusing to carry out audio-recorded work capability assessments (WCAs).
The manager said in her email that a colleague was having “major difficulties getting any HCP [healthcare professional]to undertake a recorded assessment”.
But in his reply, copied to colleagues at the Atos assessment centre in Birmingham, Douglas said he was appalled that claimants were now able to demand to have their assessments recorded.
He wrote that “although I do them, it sickens me that clients, who apparently have a perfect right to not turn up and to not fill in an ESA50 form [the questionnaire every claimant has to fill in], now have the right to demand a recording”.
He also described Atos as “without doubt the most incompetent, inefficient and uncaring organisation with which I have ever been involved”.
It is just the latest in a series of embarrassing incidents in which Atos assessors and other staff have been shown in a less than flattering light over their attitudes to benefit claimants and the assessments, which test eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits.
Douglas, a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, complained in his email that the task of assessors was “becoming ever more complex and ever more futile, as we bend over backwards to satisfy the demands of a government that wants and needs cuts to the welfare budget”.
He said the time they were given to carry out the assessments was “unrealistic”, and added: “If I do it quickly, I have not covered all the issues. If I award even a few derisory points, I have not justified them sufficiently.
“If I award nothing, the client goes to an appeals tribunal that is singing from a different hymn sheet.”
He added: “If someone complains, I have to justify my very existence to people at Atos who neither know me, nor support me, nor care. Meanwhile my work load increases and my remuneration decreases as each year goes by.”
When contacted by DNS, Douglas said: “I am not really interested in discussing it. It was something that was internal. Everybody has exasperation with people from time to time. I am really not very happy to discuss Atos.”
The email was leaked to DNS just days after the government admitted that it had made it easier – at least in the short term – for claimants to insist that their WCA was recorded.
Disabled activists have repeatedly accused the government and Atos Healthcare of putting obstacles in the way of claimants who want their WCAs to be taped, to protect them from assessors who do not record their evidence accurately and fairly.
An Atos spokeswoman said: “We do not comment directly on leaks.”
But she added: “Any issues raised by our doctors, nurses or physiotherapists are dealt with through the proper channels.
“We audio record assessments where this request is made ahead of time and in accordance with our contract with the DWP.”
A DWP spokesman said: “This is for Atos to respond to. We don’t comment on leaks.”
Meanwhile, Labour MP Sheila Gilmore secured a short Commons debate this week to discuss the audio-recording of assessments, and told MPs that it was still difficult for a claimant to have their WCA taped, even though this would improve the quality of assessments and cut the number of appeals.
The Conservative employment minister Mark Hoban admitted in response to Gilmore that Atos only has 52 recorders across the country to cope with more than 11,000 assessments a week.
13 June 2013