Staff working for the outsourcing giant Atos refused to comment this week as disabled activists protested outside their head office about the company’s involvement with the government’s “fitness for work” test.
The protest near Euston station in London was one of scores held around the country, all inspired by a disabled activist from Leeds, Tom Smith.
Smith wanted to highlight the practices of Atos – which carries out WCAs on behalf of the government – and “try and start a ripple effect in the public’s understanding”.
Among an estimated 60 other actions were protests in Bradford, Edinburgh, Leeds, Swansea, Liverpool, Luton, Glasgow, Brighton, Reading, Sheffield, Coventry, Swansea, Weston-super-Mare and Canterbury.
None of the many staff approached for a comment about the protest as they left the Atos headquarters in central London for lunch would talk to Disability News Service (DNS).
And tight security and a police presence ensured that none of the protesters were able to enter the building.
The disabled actor and writer Mat Fraser told DNS that he believed that people were starting to say “enough is enough” about the work capability assessment (WCA) process.
He said: “The tide is turning. I don’t believe anyone agrees with this anymore.”
He said the fact that he was rich compared with most disabled people was “just a twist of fate”, as he could easily be unemployed and facing an Atos assessor himself.
Fraser said: “It’s up to all of us to say, ‘No, you can’t do that to the most vulnerable members of society.'”
The disabled activist and blogger Lisa Egan was another protester who thought the continuing campaigning pressure on Atos was “starting to work”.
But she said she was “not optimistic for change” because even if Atos was dumped it would be replaced by another private sector outsourcing company.
She said: “There’s no reason to expect that if Capita or A4E took over the contract they would be more reliably right [than Atos].
“It’s heartening to think that maybe we might be able to affect a teeny bit of change but it is still a small change which literally means replacing one contractor with another one, without altering the root cause, which is DWP [the Department for Work and Pensions].
“I am here to protest against Atos because they are so wrong so much of the time. It is a problem that needs to be tackled, but it is not the only problem, it is just part of it.”
Ian Jones, co-founder of the WOW petition and campaign, said he hoped that the MPs set to debate the petition on 27 February “will understand what is being done to us and exactly how this government is treating us”.
He said: “We just want a better, fairer way.”
But he added: “I think getting rid of Atos is tackling the symptom rather than the disease.
“All Atos is doing, albeit in an uncaring way, is enforcing government policy. If the government get rid of Atos and just replace them with another instrument of their policies, will Capita or G4S do any better?
“They don’t make up the rules, they just do what the government tells them to do.
“I am here for the Atos protest because Atos are the visible sign of the government’s welfare reform policies.”
Andy Greene, a member of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “I think the writing has been on the wall [for Atos] for a while.
“I think Atos are going to take the blame but there is dual culpability here. It is easy to pass the buck between [DWP and Atos] but they are both responsible.”
And he said that Atos had secured billions of pounds of other government contracts in the defence, justice and education departments, so would “live to fight another day”.
Greene said: “We are here to support other disabled people who autonomously have taken action, which is what [DPAC] called for right from the beginning.”
Rick Burgess, another co-founder of the WOW campaign, told DNS that just removing the WCA contract from Atos would not be enough.
He said: “You don’t care who does the hits for the mafia. You want the hitman and the mafia dealt with. Both parties hold legal and moral responsibility.
“I hope that any future companies that are looking to pick up the contract [from Atos] will realise it is a poisoned chalice and that co-operating with DWP on this unscientific, fake medical procedure, which has caused untold suffering, would be detrimental to their bottom line.
“This government is unpopular, it is un-elected, it is killing disabled people. The very least companies should do is not help them.”
Claire Glasman, from the disabled women’s organisation WinVisible, said she hoped the protest would help to “give sick and disabled people back our financial security and our peace of mind”.
She said: “The bedroom tax, Atos, the benefit cap, the biggest effect is to make us frightened and fearful for the future.”
Glasman said there had been a “massive groundswell” of people writing to their MPs about how Atos had treated them or their relatives.
And she pointed to the thousands of people who had died soon after being found fit for work by Atos.
“The main crime, as well as taking people’s money away that we need for heating and the other things that we need, is to make our lives miserable and insecure.”
She added: “We need people in high places to be speaking out… everyone needs to be speaking out.”
Scott Dyce, a member of Young People For Inclusion (YPFI), based in nearby Kentish Town, said he was there to protest at the benefit cuts affecting disabled people.
He said: “Many people have had their benefits cut and it might affect us in the long run.”
David Slater, another YPFI member, said the protest made him feel “really hopeful”.
He said: “It is our lives, it is our human rights [that are at stake]. We are not just claiming benefits for the sake of it.
“What people don’t realise is that we have to keep fighting every day and it would be nice if the government made that fight a little bit easier.
“We were all born with different disabilities that make it really hard to live. The benefits help you live a decent quality of life. If they take that away I will end up feeling empty and useless.”
20 February 2014