Part of the ConDem’s austerity scheme involves cutting the benefits bill by reducing the overall number of claimants with disabilities. Other methods include privatisation, cuts in public service jobs and giving contracts to private companies.
Atos healthcare, beneficiary of outsourcing, is the company which carries out Work Capability Assessments. It boasts that it is one of the UK’s leading providers of occupational health services, and is owned by a French multinational IT and consulting corporation. In April Atos were forced to offer an apology to the numerous people with long-term sicknesses, such as terminal cancer and severe Parkinson’s disease, who were incorrectly assessed as being “fit for work”. In fact 39% of appeals were successful last year, a reported 10% of all assessments. The BMA have been highly critical of the assessment process. http://dpac.uk.net
Atos receives £110 million a year for carrying out the assessment and a further £60 million for appeals. Ironically, or as many felt, insultingly, Atos was a sponsor of the Paralympics which caused outrage among disability campaigners.
The recommendation made in 2011 to introduce “mental function champions” (MFCs) recognised the extra difficulties faced by people with mental illness and learning difficulties when enduring the ordeal of the work capability assessment.
A Newcastle-based mental health service users group Launchpad has, along with the campaign group False Economy, taken on Atos and the Department of Work and Pensions. Their main concerns are the quality of the tests people have to undergo and the qualifications of the MFCs. Over a six-month period both the private company and the Department of Work and Pensions have stalled on providing answers and given only minimal responses to the questions asked.
Last November Mark Hoban, the Minister of State for Work and Pensions, stated that MFCs had been introduced in every assessment centre in the country. In November there were over 120 centres used by Atos but Launchpad found that there were only 60 MFCs in the whole country and that they mainly gave advice by phone to assessors, but not to claimants.
The Mental Health North East (MHNE), an umbrella group of mental health organisations in the North East, testifies that as a result of the fitness assessments or the appeal process there have been many calls from distressed people who have experienced a worsening of their mental health problems, including thoughts of suicide. A spokesperson for Launchpad said that “virtually everyone” facing the WCA assessments disagreed with the findings, even on “simple matters of fact” which added to the distress faced by claimants.
A Mind spokesperson said they had seen no evidence that the MFCs had any impact on the quality of the assessments. Mencap has called for a review of their role. Kate Belgrave of False Economy stated that on the basis of their research, “Things are pretty dire if this so-called initiative is all that people with mental health problems, learning difficulties and cognitive problems are being offered by Atos.”