‘We have come to assess you,’ the crowd in Triton Square chanted, outside Atos’s London headquarters. The French IT company is under contract to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to carry out Work Capability Assessments on everyone applying for Employment and Support Allowance. A ‘disability analyst’ asks a ‘claimant’ a series of questions and enters the answers into a computer: if you score fewer than 15 points you are considered fit for work. There have been more than 1.2 million appeals against Atos’s assessments, 38 per cent of which have been successful. Atos’s blunders include the cases of Linda Wootton, who had a heart and lung transplant and died nine days after her allowance was withdrawn, and Mark Evans, a brain-damaged amputee who lost most of his benefits. Protests were held yesterday outside the company’s offices across Britain. The slogans in Triton Square included ‘Atos don’t give a toss’ and ‘Atos £500m contract killer’: that’s the estimated cost of the appeals; the company’s government contracts are worth a total of £3.1 billion.
Joyce Drummond, a nurse who used to work for Atos, gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament in 2012, describing the company’s methods. If you waited a long time to be called that means you can sit at a desk; if you were reading a paper the assessor ticks the box that says ‘able to concentrate’. If you look smart, that’s evidence of manual dexterity; if you smile you can’t be depressed. If you turn up for your appointment unaccompanied, greet the assessor with one hand and proffer a bundle of supporting evidence from your GP with the other, your chances of qualifying for benefits are slim.
Nearly 1500 people have completed a questionnaire called ‘Assessing the Assessors: Are Atos fit for work?’ Anyone who has had a Work Capability Assessment has till 10 March to fill it out. On 21 March the data will be submitted to a parliamentary select committee. The campaigners have also secured a House of Commons debate on 27 February. One of them, Ian Jones, who went through three appeals to get his benefits, told the crowd yesterday about a man with a severe mental disorder who was assessed by a physio nurse.
Last May a judicial review found that the existing process put people with mental health problems at a disadvantage; the DWP appealed the ruling, but lost in December. Yet the system is still in place. According to DWP statistics, 10,600 people died in 2011 within six weeks of their benefits being stopped. One of the protesters yesterday told me that his partner tried to kill herself shortly before she was due to attend her renewal appointment with Atos.
For all the anger at the company, most demonstrators agreed that the real culprit was the DWP. The original contract between the DWP and Atos included percentages of applicants likely to qualify for benefits, estimates which Atos seems to have been treating as targets. If Atos loses the contract there is every chance that its successor will be just as bad. ‘Next time we’ll just have to sit outside some other office,’ said Lisa, a wheelchair-bound activist who, after being assessed at an Atos centre, had to prove she really was there.