Disabled, disgruntled, but not disheartened
TIRELESS campaigner John McDonnell MP has another Early Day Motion in the Commons, and it draws well-deserved attention to an important front-line struggle and some very brave people waging it.
DEMONSTRATION AT ATOS HEADQUARTERS
That this House commends those people with disabilities who demonstrated outside the headquarters of ATOS to protest at the role of this company in the administration of benefits for people with disabilities, which has resulted in the loss of benefits, increased poverty and suffering; and expresses its concern that a number of demonstrators considered that they were Last week, a group of people gathered in London's Triton Square to protest against the actions of Atos Origin, the company contracted by the government to deal with the administration of disability benefits. Atos have so far carried out this task in a way that has led to many disabled people losing benefits they desperately need.
ATOS Origin is not a company I'd heard of before, but then I don't suppose it has become a household name yet, having only been formed ten years ago by French and Dutch partners, and specialising in information technology services for organisations that are outsourcing.
But Atos is no small, backstreet business. It is currently operating in some 40 countries, and employing nearly 50,000 people. It's revenue in 2009 was €5.127 billion, and its profit that year was €31.7 million (2009). It has entered a tie up with Siemens.
In this country, Atos experience in automated train ticket sales, on which I won't comment, has apparently qualified it to deal with human beings struggling to survive in our society. It is charged with carrying out the government's aim of "helping disabled people into employment", i.e. taking away their benefits.
In the autumn of 2008, Atos Origin was one subject of a government enquiry after Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the company would have "to explain itself", over a memory stick with passwords and user names for an important government computer system was found in a pub car park. The Department of Work and Pensions, who had awarded Atos Origin the Government Gateway contract, later confirmed that the memory stick had only held the data of just a handful of people and all of their password information was encrypted. But Atos also face controversy over the DWP Medical Testing Programme of disabled people which often finds large number of severely disabled people fit for work who then have to take the matter through a long appeal process to overturn the Atos findings. Even terminally ill people have been found fit for work by Atos, Around 40% of cases are won by the claimant.
Disabled people, and organisations such as Disabled People Against Cuts, were joined by members of anti-poverty groups such as London Coalition Against Poverty in a demonstration outside Atos this month. "Yet," as Sarah Ismail, writing in the Guardian yesterday complains, "the mainstream press completely failed to cover the event. Many disabled people are disappointed by this – one person even said they had emailed the BBC to ask why, but had not yet received any response.
"Disabled people following the event on Twitter were shocked when a member of Disabled People Against Cuts asked their followers to spread the word that protesters were being kettled. Later that night, an account of the kettling, along with a photo of the barriers placed around the group, appeared on the organisation's blog, describing the incident as 'a kind of containment'.
Protester Lisa Egan told me on Monday night that she had been allowed out to get a cup of tea. She added: "They had fences around the protest but we weren't detained in that area, we were free to leave it."
While this was slightly reassuring, I believe that the kettling of anyone, however brief, is terrible. I believe that the police need to be sent a strong message that no one will tolerate kettling. However, the use of the practice on a group of people whose health may be affected more negatively than most by the experience is particularly shocking and unforgivable. That's why I was very pleased to hear about an early day motion , tabled by John McDonnell MP on Tuesday, which expresses concern at the kettling of protesters during Monday's event.
A participant in the Atos demonstration adds:
"As one of the people at the protest I expressed my concerns to the police that people with serious medical conditions had been barricaded in by metal barriers and was told by the inspector in charge that this was our own fault as we hadn't stayed where the police wanted us too. Apparently we shouldn't have pushed our way through the police lines the way we did to get closer to ATOS's office.
"However there is so much ill-feeling towards ATOS and the way they are wrecking disabled people's lives and resultant suicides and self- harming that it was impossible to stop people pushing past the police to get near the office. The elderly disabled man who was dragged out of the crowd by the police was merely speaking his mind about ATOS and the coalition government. ..
Also while Lisa may have been able to go and get a cup of tea one blind pregnant woman was refused permission to leave the kettle and go to the toilet.
According to the press disabled people's issues, including their suicides as a result of their treatment by ATOS and DWP is not newsworthy, so I have no idea what we have to do to get serious media attention about our causes. Of course due to the repeated disablist reporting in the trash papers the majority of the public has been softened up to the idea that most of us are nothing more than fraudulent benefit scrounging scum whether or not we do receive any benefits".
The contributor had heard that demonstrators had been worse treated in Scotland, and this was added today:
"I write as one who attended the protest outside of the offices of Atos Origin in Livingston, Scotland. When we arrived there were already 40 police officers waiting for us - I do not exaggerate - we have photographs and film to prove it.
We were not allowed any where near the entrance of the building and I would describe the policing of the event as very heavy-handed, intimidating and well over the top. A woman was manhandled by a police officer and is making an official complaint of assault.
We were filmed constantly by police who also attempted to film number plates of attendees as we were leaving. Most of the people at the demonstration had major disabilities.
We at the Black Triangle Anti-Defamation Campaign in Defence of Disabled Claimants found the attitude and policing of the event utterly unacceptable and disgraceful, lacking in all civil propriety and a violation of our human rights to make a stand in the face of this diabolical system designed as it is to defraud disabled people of the meagre allowances and supports that they need to make life worth living.
In spite of having publicised our event in good time beforehand - not one of the mainstream media players here locally or nationally bothered to even give us a mention.
What will it take for you to do so?
Do we have to douse ourselves in petrol and set ourselves alight at the gates of number 10 before you and the wider society wake up and pay attention to what is happening to our community?
Shame on you!
Yes, you, and you, and YOU! All of you who stand idly by and do absolutely nothing to defend us!
YOU are all COMPLICIT!
On your own consciences be it. May it HAUNT YOU ALL!
I know relaying these voices in a blog is not much, but if some mainstream media could not even report that disabled demonstrators were being 'kettled' by police, or draw attention to the private company making millions by taking people off their meagre benefits, this is the least we can do.
On Friday evening, a disabled demonstrator at our Harlesden anti-cuts protest led the chant of 'An injury to one is an injury to all'. It's an old saying and I did not give it a great deal of thought. But what John McArdle says has made me think. He may have been addressing the media, but we can't trust this to them. When we say our unions must fight for their members, we must add, that our movement must fight for all, and not least for our disabled sisters and brothers who are fighting back bravely against attack from those in power, and who deserve our support. It's not just a matter of helping others, after all. Any of us could find ourselves in the frontline.