Disabled activists have ridiculed a union’s claims that its members have been unfairly criticised for the way they test disabled people’s “fitness for work”.
Prospect believes criticism by disabled benefits claimants and in the media of healthcare professionals who carry out the controversial tests for the company Atos Healthcare is “grossly unfair”.
Geraldine O’Connell, Prospect’s national secretary, says union colleagues have become “increasingly frustrated” by reports of the “alleged poor standard of medical assessments” carried out by her members who work for Atos.
Atos doctors, nurses and physiotherapists have faced fierce criticism from many disabled people who have been tested using the discredited work capability assessment (WCA).
Campaigners have pointed to success rates that have been as high as 40 per cent – and much higher for those with expert representation – for disabled people appealing against the result of their WCA.
In his first annual review of the assessment for the government, Professor Malcolm Harrington said widespread complaints about Atos staff “must be taken seriously”.
The General Medical Council is investigating complaints about seven Atos doctors.
But in a letter written to Harrington as evidence for his second review, O’Connell blames appeal tribunals for overturning “carefully considered” reports prepared by Atos staff.
She claims the tribunals are failing to “follow the same stringent criteria” as Atos staff, and that all Atos healthcare professionals “take considerable pride” in their work and are “very sensitive to the needs of all claimants”.
She adds: “All staff receive training in good customer service and communication skills and are caring individuals who do not wish the claimant to have a bad experience.”
O’Connell says in her letter that Atos staff have to apply the government’s own WCA guidelines “regardless of their personal opinions” but are facing regular complaints and “vilification” in the press.
She says their jobs have been made “almost impossible”, while Atos is facing “huge” problems in retaining assessors, mainly because of the extra time pressures imposed by improvements to the WCA recommended by Harrington.
But a spokesman for Black Triangle, which campaigns against the unfair use of the WCA, described the union’s claims as “nonsense”.
He said that “most genuine healthcare professionals” would refuse to carry out the “profoundly flawed” assessments, whereas tribunals “take the time to carefully consider all the reports and written evidence and closely question the appellant before rigorously considering all the evidence presented, before coming to their conclusion”.
He added: “Prospect should be fighting against this, not coming out with excuses for their members, or at the very least advising them to demand that all WCAs are recorded, then the professionalism of their members could not be questioned as the evidence would be there on record.”
Disabled activist Mo Stewart, who has carried out extensive research into Atos Healthcare, said: “I would recommend that whoever wrote the Prospect letter should access the comments by former Atos staff whose comments cannot be misinterpreted and expose that the only priority when working for Atos is to get through as many cases as possible so Atos can reach their daily targets.
“Atos, like all corporate giants, are about profits and not people and their staff clearly know that when they agree to be employed by them.”
O’Connell told Disability News Service she did not accept that her members had been “insensitive to the needs of ESA claimants, nor that their reports have been inaccurate, their behaviour or attitude poor, or that they have shown poor knowledge and understanding of the relevant impairments and disability”.
She insisted that “any complaint made by any claimant is fully investigated by independent complaints officers from within Atos Healthcare”.
27 October 2011