Activists have staged demonstrations at scores of locations across the country to highlight how a government contractor has “humiliated” disabled benefits claimants, and to call for the abolition of the “fitness for work” test.
The national day of action saw an estimated 60 protests outside offices used by Atos Healthcare, including actions in Bradford, Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool, Luton, Glasgow, Brighton, Reading, Sheffield, Coventry, Swansea, Weston-super-Mare and Canterbury.
The protests were all inspired by a disabled activist from Leeds, Tom Smith, who wanted to highlight the company’s practices and “try and start a ripple effect in the public’s understanding” of how Atos staff carry out work capability assessments (WCAs) on disabled benefits claimants.
Most of the protests lasted from 8am until after 2pm on 19 February, with a minute’s silence at 1pm.
In Leeds, the protest included the appearance of a seven feet-high inflatable rat, to highlight the “vermin-like nature of Atos”, as well as music and dancing outside the company’s offices.
Three protesters occupied the offices and discussed their concerns with Atos staff, with one leaving shortly afterwards and the other two staying for about half-an-hour before leaving, to avoid upsetting disabled people who were being assessed.
Protesters outside the assessment centres in Southend and Wimbledon saw no staff turn up for work, but Atos has so far refused to explain why this was, although reports suggest they were “too scared” to go to work.
In Norwich, there was a protest by the user-led Equal Lives – formerly Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People – which has been campaigning for two years over the inaccessible Atos assessment centre in Duke Street.
Equal Lives and Disabled People Against Cuts say disabled people have been sent as far as Nottingham and Coventry for their assessments, because the Norwich premises are inaccessible to wheelchair-users.
In Weston-super-Mare, protesters were told that Atos and DWP should be “held accountable for the damage they have inflicted on thousands”.
In Leicester, activists heard Atos described as “social demolition engineers”, while in Glasgow protesters blew whistles and chanted “Atos kills” outside the company’s offices.
Jayne Linney, one of the organisers of the protest in Leicester, wrote on her blog that about 50 people had attended, including representatives from the Unite union and the TUC.
She said she heard “horror stories” at the protest from people who had been affected by an Atos assessment, with “personal tales of humiliation, sanctions, suicide and more”.
She added: “What makes it even more tragic (if this is possible) is the [fact that] we’ve all heard it all before, not once but over and over.”
Probably the largest protest saw more than 100 activists outside the Atos headquarters in central London.
Political figures who attended protests included the Green party leader Natalie Bennett, Labour MP Dennis Skinner, and Green MP Caroline Lucas.
Meanwhile, it was reported this week that ministers were working to ensure that other providers take over the contract from Atos in 2015.
According to the Guardian, a leaked document states that the government wants to build up competition to Atos by commissioning other private firms to add capacity to the WCA system – a move the government announced last year – and hopes these companies will then take over completely from Atos when its current agreement expires in 2015.
And another report, this time in the Financial Times, says Atos has been negotiating with the government for an early release from its WCA contract, which expires in 2015.
Atos apparently is blaming “persistent death threats” against its staff, and an “untenable” political environment.
20 February 2014