A campaign against the company that conducts “fitness for work” tests on disabled people achieved a major success this week after the British Medical Journal (BMJ) agreed to review its relationship with the firm.
The BMJ – owned by the British Medical Association – said it was acting after scores of disabled people’s organisations and disabled activists raised concerns in a letter about its links with Atos Healthcare.
Atos is paid £100 million a year to test disabled people for their eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits, and has been the subject of widespread criticism over its performance and the way that some of its doctors, nurses and other staff treat claimants.
The BMJ said it would “seek assurances from Atos that its employees’ duties comply fully with the General Medical Council’s good medical practice and in particular that its employees are not encouraged to make decisions except in the individual patient’s best interests”.
The magazine said it would “determine what action may be needed once we hear back from Atos”.
The BMJ’s decision came as hundreds of doctors were handed leaflets pleading with them not to work for Atos, by disabled activists gathered outside a BMJ recruitment fair in Islington.
Activists have also written to the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) – which held a similar recruitment fair earlier last month – asking it to cut its links with Atos.
Atos was an exhibitor at both events.
The letters to the RCN and BMJ have been signed by more than 100 disabled activists and disabled people’s organisations, including Disabled People Against Cuts, film-maker Liz Crow, actor and writer Mat Fraser, WinVisible, Black Triangle, Labour MP John McDonnell, Professor Peter Beresford, chair of Shaping Our Lives, and Sue Bott, director of the National Centre for Independent Living.
Despite repeated messages left with its press office, the RCN refused to comment on the letter.
The protest in Islington, north London, was part of a national day of action aimed at Atos and taking place across the country.
Activists later reported protests in 17 towns and cities, including Nottingham, Oxford, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Brighton, Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester.
One of the protesters in London, Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, said there was a “consistent, low-level anger” among disabled people about the WCA and how it was being applied by Atos.
She said: “We know we are in for the long haul and we have many of these demos to do, but we are determined to raise awareness and make visible just exactly what scam is going on. Atos are getting £100 million a year to stop benefits from as many disabled people as possible.”
She said Atos had “no track record in this area” and that it was “demonstrating their lack of understanding of impairment or the barriers people face in getting into work”.
Anne-Marie O’Reilly, of London Coalition Against Poverty, who was handing out leaflets as people entered the exhibition, said there had been a “pretty positive” reaction from doctors.
She added: “A lot of people are saying, ‘I will not be working for them.’”
Richard Rieser, a leading disabled activist, who also took part in the protest, said he believed the doctors attending the recruitment fair were listening to the concerns of campaigners.
He said doctors should “not be colluding with cutting disabled people’s benefits” and that they should not work for Atos because that was “acting in an unethical way against their own ethical code”.
Inside the recruitment fair, staff on the Atos stall – who asked not to be named – claimed the protest was not putting doctors off from talking to them.
One said: “People have mentioned it to us. One person came up and said, ‘I have been given this leaflet,’ and he wants to do the job. He understands what it is about.”
A female colleague insisted that the job of Atos assessors was “trying to make sure they are given the right benefits for what’s right for them. It’s not about cutting benefits. It’s making sure people are getting what they need.”
When asked about the huge number of successful appeals against Atos decisions, she claimed: “It is something that happened in the past and it is something we are doing our best to make sure does not happen any longer.”
Her colleague claimed that it was “very hard” for doctors to secure jobs as Atos assessors, and that they had to go through a “CV screen, a telephone interview which also tests language skills, and a face-to-face interview”.
He said doctors were recruited by Atos for their “personality and how professional they are”.
But he added: “Sometime’s people’s attitude changes in certain situations… whether they have a bad day or good day. People are human.
“Our job is to get the right processes in place, to get what we think are the right doctors. Today we are here to recruit the best doctors we can.
“We try to only look at doctors who try to move into it for the right reasons, for example, trying to get people into jobs.”
One of the few doctors willing to discuss the protest said he knew the demonstration was about Atos and “about the way Atos employees assess disability benefits”.
But he said he had a friend who worked for Atos and who was a “very, very fair guy”, and that most doctors were “decent” people.
6 October 2011