Do we still give Atos about vulnerable people?


Working as a legal advisor with Release, dealing with the day-to-day necessities of assisting vulnerable clients with their benefits issues, it’s easy to forget that you are actually working within the midst of an unprecedented assault on the welfare state. When you are drafting another set of submissions for another appeal against yet another clearly incorrect Work Capability Assessment decision, you forget that today’s world is not a normal state of affairs; this is the ’Age of Austerity,’ a historical moment some politicians are hoping to use to convince the public that a society which helps those having hard times is perhaps something we can no longer afford to be. When you have been on the phone with the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) for nearly an hour, just trying to get a straight answer as to why a client who has already won their appeal still hasn’t had their payments reinstated, the daily tasks of social welfare law can often make you overlook the fact that you are actually on the front line of a battle.

Nowadays, few issues are as divisive as that of welfare benefits. Everyone probably knows someone who they can provoke into an eye-swiveling, mouth-foaming fit of rage just by mentioning the word. This is the result of us being bombarded with images of the ‘benefit scrounger,’ - that figure currently battling with the ‘immigrant’ for favourite the title of nation’s scapegoat. Occasionally they are combined into the ultimate villain: ‘the immigrant benefit scrounger’.  Hysteria about ‘benefit scroungers’ recently reached its apex with the popularity of Channel 4’s show Benefit’s Street. Whilst, in fairness, the show was often sympathetic towards the residents of James Turner Street, the decision to name it Benefits Street betrays an attempt to capitalise on the anger producers knew would be provoked by the connotations of that word. Benefits is to remind everyone that these people are benefiting at our expense. It’s not that they are disadvantaged people struggling to make ends meet; they are just getting something for nothing.

This is a false picture of people who claim benefits. In reality only 1 in 8 of those who claim housing benefit is out of work, with 7 out of 8 claimants being working people who are not being paid enough to live. This untrue portrait of all claimants as feckless scroungers has been used to deaden public empathy, making us hate those we should help. Politicians now see being ‘tough on benefits’ as not only good economics but good politics too, a cheap vote winner for the power-hungry. The only problem is that their draconian policies have real consequences for vulnerable people such as the clients at Release’s legal outreach projects.  And those consequences have been only exacerbated by the performance of Atos, the IT company the government contracted to assess claimants eligibility for sickness benefits.

However last month, Atos confirmed that it is seeking to end its government contract. Atos has been widely criticised for its administration of Work Capability Assessments, which provide the information with which the DWP decide who is eligible for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). A testament to the level of accuracy of these Work Capability Assessments is Release’s success rate of 99% in overturning their decisions at ESA tribunals. The Atos assessment is consistently    wrong because the experiences of clients include being assessed in just 20 minutes, being given physical examinations when they suffer from mental health conditions and having supporting medical evidence being ignored. With this in mind, the reports that Atos are now looking move on should be good news. However, the list of companies being proposed to succeed them looks like an assassin’s row of recently scandal-hit firms. Currently auditioning to play the role of fire to the frying pan of Atos are G4S, Serco and A4e. Let’s just remind ourselves who these companies are:

Last year, G4S and Serco had to be stripped of their government contract to electronically tag criminals when it emerged that they had been systematically overcharging the government. G4S and Serco were investigated by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) after it was revealed that both firms had been claiming costs for tagging criminals who were in fact dead, in jail or overseas. Eventually, the companies had to repay £68.5m to the government.

G4S and Serco shouldn’t worry though as the competition is little better. A4e was also exposed in 2012 for using ‘systematic fraud’ to cheat the state. A4e was contracted by the government to help people get work, in return for which it would receive reward payments from the DWP. Instead of doing that, A4e’s staff were putting people into jobs which did not exist, jobs which did not qualify for payment and forging documentation. The scandal caused founder Emma Harrison to resign as chairwoman amid the police investigation. Eventually nine employees of A4e were charged with 60 offences of fraud.

These are the companies we will task to root out the ‘benefit scroungers,’ the immoral thieves who are trying to dupe honest taxpayers out of their hard-earned cash! Putting aside the questionable practice of outsourcing this kind of public service to private firms, the idea of the aforementioned companies, so recently caught with their hands in the cookie-jar, now being paid to deliver judgements on disadvantaged claimants is laughable. This only makes sense if you accept that we have collectively decided that we no longer care about vulnerable people. The fact that after their performance it is Atos themselves and not the government who are looking to end the contract speaks volumes. But this is not simply a problem of the wrong outsourcing company or even the wrong political party in government. It’s a problem of the demonisation of a whole section of society.

Much of the language used to demonise those who struggle with problematic substance use is now being applied to benefit claimants. The conflation of these two issues was best exemplified by conservative MP Liam Fox’s complaint of too many people being ensnared by the drug of welfare addiction. People are not ‘addicted’ to welfare, nor are they ‘addicted’ to feeding their children or to heating their home; these are the basic necessities of life. Cuts in benefits affect people’s ability to survive. The Trussell Trust reported that 54% of food bank users referred to them needed help directly because of changes or delays in their benefits payments. It is no longer dramatic to say that when there are inefficiencies in our benefits system, people starve. Last week it was reported that a 44 year-old man with serious mental health conditions, had starved to death, after an Atos assessment found him fit for work, thereby resulting in his benefits being cut. His GP had sent a supporting letter stating that the man was “extremely unwell and absolutely unfit for any work whatsoever.” This letter appears to have been lost in the bureaucracy of the DWP and was never taken into consideration.

Are we still shocked by such stories? Or has the demonisation of benefits claimants allowed this to be an acceptable new norm, a Britain in which those suffering from mental health issues are left to starve to death? The departure of Atos should be an opportunity to move away from the dehumanising rhetoric that is being relentlessly used against benefits claimants. If not, with the implementation of further welfare reforms coming next month, we may sleepwalk into a society few of us recognise.

As for our old friends Atos, they will be fine. They already have their next project lined up: working with the NHS.