John Pring on 5th December 2019 in Disability News Service reports official records have revealed that a company paid to assess disabled people’s fitness for work was put under “immense pressure” by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to find claimants ineligible for out-of-work disability benefits,
An ATOS doctor made it clear that DWP was partly to blame for the decision to find his patient ineligible for disability benefits
The claim was substantiated in a document unearthed by the family of Michael O’Sullivan, a disabled man who took his own life after being found unfairly fit for work. It was contained in evidence provided to the General Medical Council (GMC) nearly three years ago when it was investigating complaints about Dr Fathy Awad Sherif, the orthopaedic surgeon who carried out the face-to-face assessment of Michael O’Sullivan in March 2013
The doctor’s representatives told GMC investigators: “Following the conversion of Incapacity Benefit to ESA, the DWP put immense pressure on ATOS disability analysts to deem claimants fit for work when they previously would have qualified for benefits.”
A coroner who blamed failings in the notorious work capability assessment system for his death, wrote to DWP to request urgent changes to prevent further deaths. Those changes were never made, and further deaths have continued to be linked to the WCA – 80 named here.
Work capability assessments, introduced under the last Labour government, were first carried out by Atos, which had a £100 million a year contract in 2012 – and later earned much more. The firm made a £42million profit in 2010 and paid its chief executive Keith Wilman £800,000, a 22% pay rise on the previous year. Since then other providers, including Capita and Maximus, have also been making these assessments. For several years there has been evidence from a wide range of sources that they are not being carried out efficiently. A few examples follow:
Doctors backed a motion at the annual BMA conference in 2012 stating that Atos’s assessments were “inadequate” and “have little regard to the nature or complexity of the needs of long-term sick and disabled persons.
In their evidence to the Fifth Independent Review of the Work Capability Assessment (2014), the BMA repeated its 2012 call for government to end it “with immediate effect and replace it with a rigorous and safe system that does not cause avoidable harm to the weakest and most vulnerable in our society”.
2015: An academic paper, published in the BMJ’s Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health in which examined 149 English council areas, found that nearly 600 suicides in England may be associated with the government’s “fit-for-work” tests.
Oxford and Liverpool researchers looked at three years’ data and also found the Work Capability Assessments could be linked to a rise in mental health problems. The BBC reported in 2015 that the study found the areas with most WCAs showed the sharpest increases.
2016: The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities found that UK welfare reforms have led to “grave and systematic violations” of disabled people’s rights.
Changes to benefits “disproportionately affected” disabled people, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) found. The 2016 investigation was launched after receiving evidence from disability organisations about an “alleged adverse impact” of government reforms on disabled people. UN committee members visited London, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast in October 2015 to identify any gaps in human rights protection for disabled people. As part of its inquiry, the CRPD also looked at a range of recent welfare reforms and legislation including the Welfare Reform Act 2012, Care Act 2014, and Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016.
The BBC reported the UN inquiry’s conclusion that changes made to housing benefits and criteria for parts of the Personal Independence Payment, combined with a narrowing of social care criteria and the closure of the Independent Living Fund, “hindered disabled people’s right to live independently and be included in the community”.
Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green rejected the UN report’s findings, but it has now been announced that after a high court ruling on 2017 regulations, introducing criteria which discriminated against those with impaired mental health, decisions on personal independence payments will be reviewed.
2017: Directors and other officers of the Department of Work and Pensions receive new year’s honours for services to ‘welfare reform’, as a reader draws attention to an undated article in the Dorset Eye, by Douglas James, listing 82 people who have died or committed suicide soon after dealings with agencies such as ATOS and the government’s Department of Work and Pensions. A search was made for news of the first five on the Dorset Eye list and links to fuller accounts were added. Most of the people were aged 30-40.
2018: Private Eye 1462 reported in January that despite long-drawn-out resistance from the DWP, Atos and Capita, the Information Commissioner’s Office has now ruled that the DWP must reveal monthly reports These include details of complaints against assessors, the length of time taken by t-assessments and how many fail – i.e. are overturned on appeal.
In December the Commons Work & Pensions Select Committee report revealed that:
- it had heard disturbing evidence,
- accounts of medical assessments range from frustrating to gruelling,
- there were remarkably high, if slowly improving, levels of unacceptable reports,
- not one doctor had been involved in the assessments and
- Capita’s own auditing found that at points in the contract almost 60% of its reports were “unacceptable”.
MP Tom Brake speaks out:
“Many constituents are in despair when they contact me after an inaccurate report. Reports of face-to-face assessments need to be unbiased, fair and above all accurate. It was important to flag up these discrepancies directly with ATOS. The Government need to ensure that assessments are recorded to prevent alarming inaccuracies. I will continue to put pressure on the Government to reform the current system. At the moment too many people have lost faith in the system.”
Last resort: after many disastrous years – like Windscale nuclear reactor station – in June Atos Healthcare announced changes to its name – but not its practice.
In an earlier post it was noted that “Governments are balancing budgets on the backs of the poor” (John Grisham) 2.6 million women born in the 1950s will ‘lose out’ because of changes to pension law: “while corporations and the richest individuals receive tax breaks”.
Grahame Morris, MP for Easington, wrote earlier this month:
“Across Britain some 3.8 million women are affected by the increase to the state pension age. Though there is a good deal of sympathy for the aim of equalising the retirement age, what has taken place in practice has been appallingly unjust. Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI) agrees with equalisation, but does not agree with the unfair way the changes were implemented – with little or no personal notice (1995/2011 Pension Acts), faster than promised (2011 Pension Act), and no time to make alternative plans”.
Guy Opperman, work and pensions minister with responsibility for financial exclusion, failed to reassure women in their 60s, hit by changes to their pension, by advising them to get a job or take up “extended apprenticeship opportunities”.
“Raising the pension age for women, often with little notice and sometimes failing to notify people of the changes at all, is a recipe for disaster.
“Many Waspi women affected by state pension inequality have been working full time and paying national insurance since the age of 15 or 16. In my constituency of Easington, the government’s changes to the state pension age will harm some 4,542 women.
“The OECD has recently ranked Britain’s pensions system as the worst in the developed world – yet the Tories are attempting to deny Waspi women even a basic state pension” . . .
“Excluded from the winter fuel allowance, from the free bus pass and now from the state pension, this generation of women are now in numerous cases having to sell their homes, take on precarious poverty-wage jobs or rely on foodbanks . . .
“The government’s given reason for failing these 3.8 million women is that to give them their pensions would cost as much as £30bn – for six years of pensions.
“Yet research from Landman Economics suggests the cost of helping Waspi women would likely be a more modest £8bn”. Morris lists the wider context:
- Refurbishing Westminster will cost the taxpayer some £7bn,
- Britain’s airstrikes in Syria are estimated to reach a cost of around £10bn.
- Increased privatisation of the national health service is estimated to cost at least an extra £4.5-£10bn each year.
- There have been billions of pounds of needless tax cuts to the bank levy.
“In this context finding the money for Waspi women seems a sensible price to pay to give these women justice and stop poverty from rising to ever more tragic levels. We know and we can see that it isn’t equal, it isn’t fair and it isn’t justifiable – it’s driving down the incomes and the quality of life of countless women.
Morris: “The prime minister is herself a Waspi woman but I doubt she ever has or ever will be faced with a choice between heating or eating. Yet this doesn’t mean it is too late for the government to do the right thing”.
“The parliamentary ombudsman is currently investigating the Department for Work and Pensions for maladministration, by failing to notify women of the changes to their state pension age. If the ombudsman finds in favour of the Waspi women the government could have to pay compensation to the tune of billions of pounds”
The Labour Party, Liberal Democrats, SNP, Plaid Cymru, the DUP and 50 Tory MPs support the Waspi campaign.
Sharma and the Agri-Brigade: bureaucrats and white collar workers lacking all essential survival skills, undermine food producers
In England, many organisations ostensibly concerned with the prosperity of farmers hold endless conferences. Analyst Devinder Sharma notes that, in India, agricultural universities, research institutes, public sector units, and other organisations also frequently gather to talk about ways to improve farmers’ income.
He comments sardonically that while the number of seminars/conferences on doubling the farmers’ income have doubled in the past few months, farmers increasingly sink into a cycle of deprivation.
As he points out, in both countries those who talk of allowing markets to provide higher farm incomes are the ones who get assured salary packets every month – we add that in England some are even paid from a levy on farmers.
The British farming press is now pointing out that large numbers of the UK’s 86,000+ family farmers are facing a threat from the government’s new universal credit (UC). If administered as currently designed, it will have a devastating impact on many of the UK’s most economically vulnerable family farms.
Universal credit will be ‘rolled out’ regionally by the DWP to cover the whole of UK by 2022 – calculated on monthly rather than annual income and it will assume that farmers have a “minimum income floor” which assumes that all applicants earn a wage equivalent to the national minimum wage of about £230 a week which is not the case. Private Eye (The Agri Brigade column) comments:
“None of this is remotely appropriate for farmers, and it shows the folly of trying to introduce a single universal form of income support for all.
On many family farms, where one or two people may work up to 250 acres, there is often no income for up to 10 or even 1 I months in a typical trading year. The sale of a crop of lambs, cattle or grain (or receipt of an EU subsidy) means revenue is raised in just one or two months of the year so the DWP’s assumption of a “basic income floor” each month doesn’t apply. There are also fears that receipts by claimants that rake their income above the basic floor in some months will disrupt entitlement to UC in subsequent months. (And farming losses in some months cannot be offset against a profit in others)”
Shades of the I, Daniel Blake experience:
When the UC administered by the DWP comes into force, skilled hard-working farmers will have to visit unfamiliar Job Centres to register for the benefit. ln addition. They will have to undergo face-to-face interviews over their eligibility for UC and be allocated a work coach to advise them on how to improve their access to better paid employment. Given the difficulties it seems certain many family farms currently claiming tax credits (administered by HMRC) will not apply for universal credit despite their poverty.
An unworkable system
Farming UK reports that a spokesman for the Ulster Farmers Union said: “UC makes it impossible to use prospective incomes or losses, which is often what farmers depend on. The fact that farming is seasonal where there will be long periods of time when a farmer will make a loss in expectation of more profitable times at some other stage during the year. In addition, having to do monthly real-time accounts is an extra burden upon farmers, in an already hard-pressed industry, and to hire someone to prepare these accounts would be an extra expense”.
As the title has it: “bureaucrats and white collar workers lacking all essential survival skills, undermine food producers”.
Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, who sees himself as a ‘moderniser’, lauding the government’s IT prowess, has faced several less-than-creditable charges according to his Wikileaks entry. After recruiting Tony Caplin, who recently resigned as head of the Treasury’s Public Works Loans Board, Maude has made a far more serious mistake.
Despite David Cameron’s Davos commitment to ‘reshoring’ British jobs, Francis Maude has appointed an offshore and outsourcing expert, Peter Swann, to supervise the export of jobs of civil servants who provide back-up facilities such as pay roll and contract details to Whitehall offices.
David Hencke records in the Tribune that these jobs handling sensitive personal pay roll details, and possibly criminal and police records, are to be moved offshore by private companies under a Cabinet Office initiative to save money.
A rising star
Under Swann’s leadership, Steria, a French international company with a presence in India, has a joint venture with the Cabinet Office: Shared Services Connected Ltd (SSCL) – its slogan: ‘a Trusted Transformation partner’.
The latest news on Steria’s website is that the Council of the European Union’s General Secretariat has chosen the company to secure its internal communications networks.
SSCL has already taken over back offices across the country for the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Environment Agency. It is now looking at taking over work at the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office.
Within a year, it started a closure programme of sites affecting more than 500 jobs in Sheffield, Cardiff, Newport and Leeds and is looking to relocate the work to India. Other centres such as Blackpool, Newcastle, Peterborough and York will also lose staff.
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, said: “It will be a major blow for local economies losing hundreds more jobs . . . The Government should act now to keep these jobs in the UK, rather than attempt to cynically exploit the inferior pay and employment conditions that workers abroad face.”