Campaigners ask: Just who are the Atos champions?


theweeksubNew “champions” introduced by the government to improve the treatment of people with mental health conditions and learning difficulties through the controversial “fitness for work” test appear to have had little or no impact, say campaigners.

The Mental Function Champions (MFCs) have been in place since May 2011, and were introduced following a recommendation by Professor Malcolm Harrington in his first independent review of the work capability assessment (WCA).

The government and Atos Healthcare – which carries out the assessments – have refused to give details of the training given to the MFCs, their qualifications and expertise, and whether the appointments have had any impact on how disabled claimants experience the test.

The user-led organisation Launchpad, which is based in Newcastle, has been pushing Atos and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for answers, working with the Mental Health Northeast consortium and False Economy, the union-funded, anti-cuts website.

Alisdair Cameron, Launchpad’s team leader, said: “It was hard to work out just what distinguishes an MFC from everybody else in the Atos workplace.”

Cameron said the WCA was the “number one issue” with mental health service-users, with “virtually everyone” who has been tested disagreeing with the findings of their assessment, even on “simple matters of fact”, and the tests “making their distress worse”.

Kate Belgrave, a journalist with False Economy, who has been researching the use of MFCs, said they appeared to have had a “horrifically minimal” impact.

She said: “Things are pretty dire if this so-called initiative is all that people with mental health problems, learning difficulties and cognitive problems are being offered by Atos.

“This is the main formal concession Atos have made to the enormous concerns raised across the board. If that’s it, we need a little bit more than Atos and DWP saying everyone is just feeling a lot better now.”

Tom Pollard, senior policy and campaigns officer for the mental health charity Mind, said: “We have not been shown any evidence to show that MFCs are having a real impact on the quality of assessments.”

Pollard said the idea of MFCs had always been a “compromise”, as Mind’s preferred option had been for Atos to appoint specialist assessors with specific expertise in mental health.

Jane Alltimes, senior policy officer for Mencap, said she hoped that Dr Paul Litchfield, who has now taken over from Professor Harrington, and is an expert on mental health and employment, would examine MFCs in his first review of the WCA.

Atos confirmed that the MFCs carry out WCAs themselves, but also offer telephone-based specialist advice and support to other assessors, “before, during or after face-to-face assessments”.

The company said that MFCs also travel to the larger assessment centres to provide “coaching” for the assessors who are based there.

An Atos spokeswoman said that any data it captures about how MFCs were performing was only for “internal use”, but she said DWP figures showed the percentage of people with mental health conditions who are placed in the ESA support group – for those not expected to carry out any work-related activity – had more than tripled since 2010.

She added: “All MFCs meet the requirements agreed with the DWP. The MFC pool is comprised of individuals all of whom have postgraduate experience in mental health and an on-going interest in the area, and who are all trained and approved to perform assessments on behalf of DWP.

“We do not release details of the specific medical qualifications of any of our staff, either individually or as a group.”

A DWP spokesman said the next annual review of the WCA was “likely to look at how previous recommendations from Professor Harrington have been implemented”.

The Labour MP Kevan Jones, who spoke last June of his own experiences of mental health distress, raised the issue of MFCs last week in a Commons debate on mental health.

He told fellow MPs that Atos had refused to reveal how the MFCs were recruited and what qualifications they needed for the role, although he said he believed they had to take a two-day, in-house training course.

He said: “Remarkably, they are also not accountable to the DWP. The process is not only causing a lot of heartache and difficulty for many of our constituents, it is actually not a good use of public money.”

In April, the Conservative employment minister Mark Hoban told Jones in response to a parliamentary question that there were “no formal performance measures” for MFCs, while “no separate data is held on the specific performance” of MFCs.

23 May 2013