Sunday, March 23, 2014

Deaths and the government's dirty work

 FRENCH I.T. firm Atos let it be known last month that it was looking for an early exit from its contract with the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to assess whether people on benefits are fit for work.

“In its current form it is not working for claimants, for DWP or for Atos Healthcare. For several months now we have been endeavouring to agree an early exit from the contract, which is due to expire in August 2015. Despite these ongoing discussions, we will not walk away from a frontline service.”

The news came, by co-incidence, on the same day there were nationwide protests over Atos and its tests. The papers dutifully reported that Atos said its staff had been regularly subjected to abuse and assaults, even "death threats". One's natural human sympathy with anyone who had to face that kind of thing in their work had to contend with some of the stories we have heard about the victims of Atos dirty work.
 Linda Wootton had to go for a test in January last year. Linda, aged 49, had suffered complications after a heart and lung transplant years before. She suffered blckouts, and was on ten prescribed medications. But the Atos testers asked her questions like "can you get dressed?", and "What is 100 minus 25?". They ascertained that she could lift a mobile phone, and could walk across the testing room.

 “The test only took 20 minutes,” her husband Peter remembered. “She was crying for longer than that beforehand".

Linda was pronounced fit for work.

“The benefits were actually stopped on February 14,” Peter explains. “Happy Valentine’s. She was in hospital with a chest infection, typing her appeal on her iPad, crying her eyes out. We were lucky because I earned a salary that meant we were OK and we didn’t lose the house.

"But she felt distraught about it. She’d say to me, ‘I’ll have to go back to work then.’ It was only in the days before her death she said, ‘Well, maybe I wasn’t fit for work.’ Only when she had been told she was going to die.

“The thing I find so galling is that at no point did they speak to the doctor who said her condition would not get better back in 2007,” he continues. “At no point did they speak to anyone at Harefield Hospital where she’d had her transplant. Why wouldn’t they do that?"

Linda died on April 25 last year,  only nine days after the Department of Work and Pensions finally rejected her claim of employment support allowance (ESA) of £108.05 a week, sending her a curt letter while she lay desperately ill in hospital.

Although she appealed against the decision, the DWP wrote back saying she would need to score at least 15 points from the assessment but her results were nil.

They concluded: “We have decided that you are not entitled to Employment and Support Allowance because you have been found to be capable of work following your recent Work Capability Assessment.”

Peter Wootton told the Sunday Mirror: "I sat there and listened to my wife drown in her own body fluids. It took half an hour for her to die – and that’s a woman who’s ‘fit for work’. The last months of her life were a misery because she worried about her benefits, feeling useless, like a scrounger."

"I’m not blaming Atos for her death. She died because of a collapsed lung and blood clots after a medical procedure. But I pitied the way Linda was made to feel and I still feel very, very frustrated at the way she was treated.”

Government statistics indicate that between January 2011 and November 2011, 10,600 sick and disabled people died within six weeks of their benefit claim ending. Such was the furore about this figure, the DWP has stopped using Atos data to count the number of deaths. (the Big Issue, March 10)

On March 1, I wrote about Mark Wood, "a face behind the figures", a man with mental health problems whose own doctor diagnosed unfit for work, but whom Athos deemed OK. His benefits were stopped and he starved to death, in David Cameron's west Oxfordshire constituency.

A recent article in the Big Issue told about Tim Salter, a blind 53-year-old suffering from agoraphobia. Tim hanged himself after an Atos test that found him fit to work and a DWP decision to axe his £30-a-week incapacity benefit left him wondering how he could afford his housing association rent. South Staffordshire coroner Andrew Haigh declared: “A major factor in his death was that his benefits had been greatly reduced leaving him almost destitute.”

It also gave us the case of  David Coupe  a former farmer in Derbyshire who died of a rare form of cancer in October last year. He had been stripped of his £50-a-week incapacity benefit and ruled fit to work in December 2012, despite being housebound with a painful back injury, ulcers and diabetes. It left David and his wife Lyn with just £71 a week for the last 10 months of his life.

 “David got a very rare form of cancer, it took his sight and his hearing, then finally his life,” says Lyn. “But months before that Atos had taken away his dignity. His doctors and specialist nurses wrote to the firm but never received a reply.”

Lyn says she has now been sent a letter confirming David’s backdated incapacity benefit will be paid. The Labour MP Dennis Skinner brought up David Coupe’s case in the House of Commons, memorably describing Atos as a “heartless monster”. The Prime Minister conceded it was all “desperately sad” and used it to criticise the “quality of decision-making”.

But hasn't Atos just been doing what the government paid them to do? In May 2013, Dr Greg Wood, a former Atos employee, revealed how skewed the tests were against claimants and how much pressure testers were under to change reports and find the right conclusion (ie: fit to work). 

Kaliya Franklin, aka Bendy Girl, who writes the Benefit Scrounging Scum blog, believes Atos has provided a convenient smokescreen for government strategy. “The contract was designed on the basis of reducing the number of claims,” she says. “Atos did what they were told.

Dennis Skinner says he isn’t sure “whether [Atos] are leaving before they’re shoved, or the government has realised it’s an opportunity to get rid of them and blame it on them”. The MP wants fundamental changes in medical testing of benefit claimants.

About this time last year it was revealed the government spent £37m in just eight months fighting appeals against benefit claimants declared fit for work, winning only 57% of cases. As many as 59,493 claimants won their appeals. So something, apart from claimants, is not working. At the ATOS protest in Ealing, west London, last month, lawyer Eve Turner, who is also secretary of the local trades council, spoke about the number of cases she has been winning. But as she pointed out, this was no consolation for the unfortunates who die while waiting months for their appeals to be heard.  

MPs have accused Atos of winning its contact on the back of “false promises”. As Margaret Hodge told the 'Mirror':

“It appears that ATOS got this contract by misleading the DWP about how many sites they had to carry out assessments and how many medical professionals that had ready to carry out these assessments,” she said.

“Thousands of people with severe disabilities are having to wait months and months and months for health assessments. They are the victims of the greed that obtained the contract on the back of false promises.”

Is this the end for Atos?  Far from it. Whether or not it has to pull out of the work assessment business before it is pushed, the company has fresh fields opened up to it.

Despite coming under fire for its role in testing people currently receiving disability benefits, the IT company has been given joint responsibility with the National Savings and Investments (NS&I) to implement the programme which will replace childcare vouchers, The Times reported.

NS&I confirmed that while the French IT services firm will be responsible for the payment aspect of the scheme, it will not be involved in eligibility testing.

Government sources told the newspaper that they were certain the agency is capable of running the programme.

Meanwhile, for now, Atos is carrying on dealing with disability claimants. And whoever replaces them  - Capita? G4S? - will still be doing the government's dirty work.  As minister Iain Duncan Smith carries on with his "reforms", Labour MP Sheila Gilmore says he is using the disabled as guinea pigs.

So the campaigners who demonstrated against Atos in February are not packing up their campaign.
Another wave of protests is planned on April 1, and that is no joke. An activist says there will be 144 national peaceful demonstrations against Atos and DWP. "We are demanding that work capacity assessments are no longer carried out by an IT company, but by our local GPs and the funds paid into the NHS rather than non tax paying big businesses!."

To which we may add that GPs must be properly funded and not under pressure from the government and its friends in the media to withold sick notes,


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