Bosses at the company that carries out “fitness for work” tests for the government have been asked by MPs to explain why their organisation is so “feared and loathed” by disabled people.
The three senior executives from Atos Healthcare were asked a series of searching questions about the performance of their company and the healthcare professionals who conduct the tests.
The trio were giving evidence to the work and pensions committee as part of its inquiry into the reassessment of long-term claimants of incapacity benefit (IB) through the unpopular work capability assessment (WCA).
The WCA is the most important piece of evidence used to decide whether disabled people are eligible for employment and support allowance (ESA), the new out-of-work disability benefit that is gradually replacing IB.
The Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Lloyd said that for many disabled people and their families and friends, Atos was “feared and loathed probably in equal terms”, and he asked how they could “transform this attitude”.
Lisa Coleman, Atos Healthcare’s general manager for its Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) contracts, claimed much of the “fear and misunderstanding” was due to claimants “not really understanding the role that Atos plays”.
Professor Michael O’Donnell, the company’s chief medical officer, said Atos needed to “find a way to explain to people that failure to be awarded ESA is not the same as being classed as a malingerer or classed as someone who doesn’t have a disability or someone who is not ill”.
But Lloyd suggested that the “glass half-full” attitude of senior executives about the WCA was not trickling down to staff who carried out the tests, as shown by the number of “fearful” disabled people contacting MPs with complaints.
Asked to explain why up to 40 per cent of appeals against being refused ESA were successful, Coleman claimed this was because relevant evidence often only emerged after the WCA had taken place.
But the committee’s chair, the disabled Labour MP Dame Anne Begg, said many disabled people had described how they had not been allowed to hand over such evidence during their assessments.
And when Coleman confirmed that the company was not financially penalised by the government for incorrect assessments, Dame Anne said: “That adds to the suspicion that you are a private company, you’re driven by the profit motive, and the incentive is to get the assessments done but not necessarily to get the assessments right.”
Coleman said this was “very disheartening” and “wrong” and that Atos was “very, very closely monitored” by the DWP.
The Atos executives also denied several times during the session that their company was paid any bonuses for finding people “fit for work”.
The committee later heard evidence from Professor Malcolm Harrington, the government’s independent reviewer of the WCA.
He said he believed that work he was carrying out to improve the WCA would address some of the “mistrust” and “anger” with the current system by the end of this year, his second year in the role.
He said it was vital to improve how ESA claimants were treated and to convince them that “somebody is caring about them” and that the process was aimed at giving them “the right benefit or support” and was “not trying to catch people out”.
19 May 2011