Two employees of the company that carries out the controversial “fitness for work” tests for the government have been caught making offensive comments about their disabled customers on a social networking website.
Atos Healthcare, the company that conducts the work capability assessments (WCA) on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), has launched an investigation.
The comments – posted on Facebook – were spotted by activists opposed to government efforts to cut the number of disabled people on out-of-work disability benefits by forcing them through the much-criticised WCA, which tests eligibility for the new employment and support allowance (ESA).
The incidents are particularly significant because disabled people forced to undergo the assessments have repeatedly complained about the attitude of Atos staff.
One of the two Atos staff members now being investigated says on his Facebook page that he is an administrator at one of the company’s medical examination centres.
Describing his job, he says he does “everything office-wise and having to put up with parasitic wankers at the same time”.
The other staff member caught out is a nurse, who says on her Facebook page that she carries out WCAs for Atos.
She has repeatedly posted messages that refer to disabled people who attend her assessment centre as “down and outs”.
On one occasion, she writes: “Thank god it’s Friday last day in this god forsaken place with the down and outs!”
In another post, she says: “Oh god another day here with the down and outs. Arggggg! Help me.”
Disabled activist John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, a group set up to campaign against the unfair use of the WCA to reclassify disabled people as “fit for work”, said the behaviour of the two Atos employees demonstrated that the company’s culture was one of a “systematic violation of the human rights of disabled people”.
He said doctors and nurses working for Atos were “just there to lend this company a veneer of credibility”.
He added: “It is the culture of a conveyor-belt in a factory, absolutely without any humanity. This is the dehumanisation of care and concern for one another.”
An Atos Healthcare spokeswoman said: “Atos Healthcare is investigating the claims made about inappropriate comments written by a couple of its employees on a social media website.
“Atos Healthcare is committed to providing a high quality, professional service to the DWP and expects the same of all its employees. Where it is found that these standards are not adhered to, this is taken very seriously and appropriate disciplinary action taken.”
A DWP spokeswoman added: “We take any allegation of inappropriate conduct amongst our subcontractors very seriously and expect Atos Healthcare to investigate this matter thoroughly.”
A complaint about the nurse’s comments has also been lodged with the Nursing and Midwifery Council.
Meanwhile, Liberal Democrats are to debate a motion calling for major changes to the WCA, at their party conference in Birmingham next month.
The motion has been proposed by Liberal Youth (LY), the party’s youth and student wing. The motion, together with a subsequent amendment also backed by LY, calls on the coalition to improve the assessment and ensure it is “less stressful”.
The amended motion also calls on the government to scrap its proposed “arbitrary” time limit on how long disabled people can claim the “contributory” form of ESA – just a year for those in the “work-related activity group” – a measure that has been subjected to heavy criticism from many disabled campaigners.
The motion also notes that 70 per cent of those who appeal after having their ESA claims rejected have that decision overturned, although this figure is lower for those who do not have expert representation at the tribunal. It calls for all claimants to have “adequate support and legal representation” for their appeals.
11 August 2011