The design of the notorious “fitness for work” test has been geared to ensure that only a certain proportion of disabled people qualify for out-of-work disability benefits, new research by a leading disabled campaigner suggests.
Blogger Kaliya Franklin has been researching the implications of the use of “statistical norms” for more than two years.
She said her research proves Atos has been forced by its government assessment contract to find a certain proportion of disabled people “fit for work” – no matter what their actual “work capability” is – with the whole WCA system “geared” to deliver the “desired result”.
Both the Labour and coalition governments have always denied setting Atos any targets for the number of claimants to be found fit for work.
But Franklin has concluded that there are targets, and that they are “artificially imposed” and bear no relation to the proportion of disabled people who are actually able to gain paid employment.
She said her research shows that senior Atos managers do not tolerate their assessors deviating too far from the “imposed norm”.
This means that assessors closely monitor how many claimants have been awarded enough “points” to secure the benefit – employment and support allowance – and the average number of points they have awarded in their assessments, so they can comply with what Franklin says is an often punitive audit process.
She said that once they have placed a certain number of claimants into the support group [for those not expected to do any work-related activity] in a week assessors “are very much less likely to put the next seriously ill or severely disabled claimant they see that week into the deserved support group”.
She added: “To do so would take the practitioner’s weekly figures away from the ‘norm’ and would be very likely to draw the wrath of their manager upon them through the medium of oppressive and intimidating 100 per cent audit [having every one of their assessments rigorously checked].”
Because the government targets are used to check the performance of Atos at regional level and of individual Atos assessors – and take no account of local circumstances – the outcome for each claimant “may actually be driven more by the severity of other claimants’ conditions than their own, particularly those claimants assessed on the same day by the same assessor”, she said.
Franklin said: “There isn’t sufficient latitude for assessors to use their judgment about an individual’s fitness for work.”
She has based her research on figures leaked to her by an anonymous whistleblower at Atos.
She said: “They thought this was happening and didn’t think it was fair on disabled people.”
The whistleblower told her: “I feel guilty for doing it but I need my job with Atos to pay my mortgage and feed my children.
“I have been overtly threatened with ‘re-training’ and dismissal when my support group figures strayed above 20 per cent – after I saw a run of very disabled people in a row one week.”
Franklin said the leaked figures revealed the existence of a “traffic light” system, with green showing the percentage is within an acceptable range of the norm, blue meaning it has gone too far below the norm, and red showing it has gone too far above (too many claimants found not fit for work).
She added: “If we can change the norms so they do not interfere with behaviour, it is the big change that needs to happen to make the assessment fair.”
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said the figures Franklin had seen were an “exception report” and not a set of targets.
He said: “It helps to show where [assessment] sites are above or below normal range on different indicators and in spotting trends so that we can better understand any variations.
“Sites are not made to change their practice based on the information but instead, where relevant, report on reasons for the variation.
“Atos Healthcare does not have performance targets or incentives around the number of people qualifying for benefit and does not make decisions on benefit entitlement.”
Disability News Service has been unable to reach anyone at Atos to ask for a comment about Franklin’s research.
5 December 2013