Disabled activists have responded angrily to controversial claims made in evidence to MPs by three senior executives from the company that carries out the government’s “fitness for work” tests.
They are furious that the Atos Healthcare executives were again attempting to blame disabled people – at least partly – for the company’s decision to quit the work capability assessment (WCA) contract.
The company appeared for the second time to make public a number of unsubstantiated claims about threats made by disabled benefit claimants and activists against its staff, although this time its executives seemed to be careful to talk about “threats” rather than actual assaults.
Lisa Coleman, an Atos senior vice-president, told members of the Commons work and pensions select committee – which is carrying out an inquiry into the WCA and employment and support allowance – that the company’s staff were often threatened, both in person and online.
Coleman claimed there had been a “30 per cent increase” in “issues” experienced by the company’s healthcare professionals, even though the number of assessments Atos had carried out had fallen by half.
Helen Hall, the company’s communications and customer relations chief, said Atos healthcare professionals might have to pass a claimant sitting in the waiting-room wearing an “Atos kills” tee-shirt, or walk past a protest by disabled activists outside their offices.
She said: “Quite often, people are coming in for an assessment and they are saying to people at the end of it, ‘By the way, you have just been recorded on my iPhone and I am going to expose you on the internet.'”
She added: “That environment is something that has to change.”
Hall said there were also “all sorts of threats against people” on the internet, and warned that this “intimidation” and “negative coverage” was not going to change just because Atos was being replaced next year by a new provider.
In a claim that infuriated many disabled activists, the third executive giving evidence to the committee, Dr Angela Graham, clinical director for the WCA contract for Atos Healthcare, claimed: “People do come into the examination centres with knives and do threaten to throw acid in the face of the receptionists etc.”
None of the three executives provided any detail about their claims.
After the evidence session, in an open letter to Dame Anne Begg, the Labour chair of the committee, more than 20 disabled activists and campaigners said the Atos accusations were “unacceptable” unless the company could back up its claims with facts, such as official police reports.
They insisted that demonstrations outside Atos offices had been “very peaceful, while a few have been arrested for blocking a public highway or occupying a building”, and that Atos staff were never threatened by protesters.
They called for Atos or the government to provide “documented evidence” of any such threats or attacks.
Paula Peters, a disabled activist who has been on many of the Atos protests, insisted that no Atos staff member had ever been intimidated on any protest she attended.
She added: “I have never heard of anyone wearing an ‘Atos kills’ tee-shirt in an assessment centre. Disabled People Against Cuts have ‘Atos kills’ badges, but we wear them on a protest and never in an assessment centre.
“We have a right to protest about the issues that have been raised by countless people who have been dreadfully affected by this horrendous process.
“What we have done as campaigners is get the truth out there on how this horrendous process is causing us dreadful harm as human beings, how the reports are inaccurate, the high rate of appeals, the lack of compassion by the assessors, and the hounding by the DWP.”
In March, in a story cited by the letter-writers, DNS reported that claims by Atos that it was pulling out of the WCA contract because of these alleged threats and assaults appeared to have been exposed as lies.
Atos had claimed it was recording 163 incidents a month in which members of the public were assaulting or abusing its staff.
But a response from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to a DNS Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) request showed that of 1,678 “security incidents” recorded by Atos in 2013, only five could be “easily identified as assaults on staff”.
Atos carried out more than half a million WCAs last year.
Atos was unable to provide DWP with similar data for 2012, or to say how many reports there had been of Atos WCA staff receiving death threats, or how many incidents had led to someone being charged with a criminal offence.
Atos admitted then that it was not aware of a single case in which criminal charges had been brought against a WCA claimant in 2013.
Meanwhile, new government statistics show that the proportion of people being found “fit for work” after a completed WCA is continuing to fall.
For claims begun in July to September last year, just 27 per cent of claimants were found fit for work – and therefore ineligible for ESA – compared with 65 per cent when the WCA was at its harshest, in the winter of 2008.
This number is likely to fall even further once successful appeals against being found fit for work have been added to the totals.
The figures show 57 per cent of completed assessments ended with the claimant being placed in the support group – for those who do not need to carry out any work-related activity – compared with just 10 per cent of those claims begun between January and March 2009.
The report also shows that 89 per cent of former incapacity benefit (IB) claimants who were referred for reassessment between July and September 2013 – this time adjusted to include the results of some early appeals – were found to be entitled to ESA.
As with new ESA claimants, the proportion of those being reassessed and found fit for work has declined substantially. At its peak, in May 2011, 31 per cent of IB claimants referred for reassessment were being found fit for work, compared with the latest figure of 11 per cent.
Coleman told the work and pensions committee this week that the IB reassessment process has now been put on hold by DWP because of the huge backlogs in the ESA system.
12 June 2014