Protesters across the country have targeted the offices of the company paid hundreds of millions of pounds by the government to test disabled people’s eligibility for benefits.
Much of the anger was directed at the company, Atos Healthcare, for its work testing people’s “work capability” for the Department for Work and Pensions.
The work capability assessment (WCA) is supposed to test whether disabled people are eligible for employment and support allowance (ESA), the replacement for incapacity benefit.
But the test, and the work of the healthcare professionals who work for Atos, have been heavily criticised, both by disability organisations and Professor Malcolm Harrington, who carried out an independent review of the WCA.
One of the protests on 24 January saw more than 50 campaigners march on the central London headquarters of Atos Origin, the parent company of Atos Healthcare.
Police officers prevented the protesters from entering the building, and wrestled one activist to the ground after he tried to force his way into the reception area, but there were no arrests.
A smaller group of activists later invaded an Atos testing centre near Marylebone station. Police officers arrived as protesters were leaving the building, but it is not thought that anyone was arrested, although police were not able to confirm this.
A series of other protests – many targeting Atos – took place on the same day, including demonstrations in Livingston in Scotland, Burnley and Leeds.
In the small Gloucestershire town of Lydney, nearly 30 protesters – most of them disabled people – took part in a peaceful protest about the government’s spending cuts.
Protester Tina Hogg said: “It just shows how worried, frightened and angry people are. There is an indignation and a righteous anger.”
The disabled artist Penny Pepper said she was at the London protest to remind the “government and their lackeys” that disabled people “do have a loud voice and a presence, because all too often we are targeted as a soft option to attack”.
Last November, Atos announced a three-year contract extension worth £300 million to “deliver medical advice and assessment services to support the UK government’s welfare reform agenda”.
Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, which played a key role in many of this week’s protests, said: “Benefit claimants are being forced into even greater poverty to fuel the greed and excesses of corporations like Atos making huge amounts of money by wrongly assessing disabled people as fit to work when they are not.”
Robert Droy, another disabled campaigner who took part in the London protest, said: “We are constantly being attacked by the government as trying to get benefits that we are not entitled to, constantly having to justify why we need the benefit rather than letting us get on with living our life as other people do.”
Ellen Clifford, interim director of the user-led Newham Coalition, said she believed Atos worked to “arbitrary” targets for the number of people they had to find “fit for work”.
Mark Roberts, a founder member of Mad Pride, said Atos had “no expertise” in healthcare or mental health and that its assessors were targeting mental health service-users.
Adam Lotun said he had his disability living allowance (DLA) unfairly removed after an Atos assessment a year ago. He also lost his Motability car, and will not be able to renew his blue parking badge, which has now expired.
He said: “This is happening to a lot of people. Atos are using medical professionals who do not understand disability and living with a disability.”
John O’Callaghan-Williamson, director of TCell, a campaigning website for people with HIV, said many disabled people were receiving letters accusing them of benefit fraud, while many HIV-positive people were so sick of the struggle for benefits that they were saying: “I will just stop my medication and let the hospital deal with me.”
An Atos spokeswoman claimed the protests caused “no disruption” at any of its offices, but she refused to respond to any of the concerns raised by the protesters, or even say how many of its offices were targeted.
27 January 2011