Government figures provide strongest evidence yet of Atos bias


newslatestNew official figures show that the government contractor Atos Healthcare is 50 times more likely to recommend wrongly that someone is “fit for work” than it is to make an error in finding someone not fit for work.

The government statistics are the firmest evidence yet that Atos is doing all it can to find as many disabled people “fit for work” as possible.

The figures – issued through a Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) response – show that Atos almost never finds someone eligible for employment and support allowance (ESA) when they should be found fit for work.

According to calculations by Disability News Service (DNS), in only 0.3 per cent of cases in which Atos has advised the government that someone is eligible for ESA does a government decision-maker disagree and find that person fit for work.

But more than 16 per cent of claimants who Atos has advised are fit for work (FFW) – following a work capability assessment (WCA) carried out by an Atos healthcare professional – are subsequently awarded ESA by a decision-maker.

This means that Atos healthcare professionals are more than 50 times more likely to advise that someone is fit for work when they are not, than to find someone is not fit for work when they are.

The DNS figures – which do not even take account of cases which are subsequently overturned by an appeal tribunal – appear to prove that Atos healthcare professionals are straining to find as many ESA claimants fit for work as possible.

Both the Department for Work and Pensions and Atos refused to comment on the figures this week, and on why the company’s healthcare professionals appear to be so keen to find disabled people fit for work.

But the disabled actor and writer Mat Fraser said Atos staff should be wary of their actions.

He told DNS: “[If this is right] then Atos employees will also be 50 times more likely to be scrutinised when this whole sorry debacle is scrutinised posthumously, and 50 times more likely to incur the judgment of society when all of this debacle is subsequently examined.”

Andy Greene, a member of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “This system has been designed to move disabled people off disability benefits from the beginning.

“It is no surprise that where mistakes are being made, they are being made in favour of less support for disabled people.

“That was the whole intention. The system as designed is working perfectly for those who designed it.”

Claire Glasman, from the disabled women’s organisation WinVisible, who had joined Fraser, Greene and others at a protest outside Atos’s central London headquarters this week – one of scores of such actions that took place across the country – said: “Atos just do what is profitable, and that is why we are here.

“They must not be allowed to profit from our pain. They obviously have targets which have nothing to do with people’s welfare and we are very glad of the few whistleblowers who have spoken out and the undercover filmers who have spoken out about what is going on [at Atos]and what [Atos staff] are told to do.

“But people are individually responsible. Physios and doctors have professional ethics that they have to abide by, and working for Atos is no exception.”

Dr Sarah Campbell, principal co-author of the Spartacus report, who published a blog on the figures this week, said they raised some “difficult questions”.

She said: “Is ATOS being unduly harsh in its FFW decisions? Are DWP decision-makers routinely seeking further evidence, as is their responsibility? Are DWP decision-makers focussing on FFW recommendations at the expense of work-related activity group (WRAG) recommendations?

“Given the poor performance of the WCA and the time-limiting of the WRAG [a 12-month time limit for those on the contributory form of ESA], these are important questions and it is vital that the ESA assessment process be followed correctly.”

The FoIA response shows that government decision-makers agreed 96 per cent of the time when Atos suggested someone should be placed in the ESA work-related activity group – rather than in the support group or being found FFW – and 99.6 per cent of the time when an Atos healthcare professional suggested someone should be placed in the support group.

In all, from August 2010 to June 2013, the advice from an Atos healthcare professional – based on a claimant’s WCA – was ignored by a government decision-maker on about nine per cent of occasions.

This shows that decision-makers are far less likely to rubber-stamp advice from an Atos healthcare professional than they were during the first 20 months of the ESA – up to June 2010 – when decision-makers failed to follow Atos advice in only about two per cent of cases.

20 February 2014