Atos, deaths and welfare cuts
Was it public outrage or the impossible task that made Atos want to stop? Adam Forrest investigates
Some paperwork is almost unbearable. Sitting in the living room of his Essex home, Peter Wootton sifts through his wife Linda’s files with a sigh, pointing out where an Atos assessor judged her fit to work in January 2013.
Linda could lift a mobile phone. Linda could rise. Linda could walk across the testing room. So Linda was fit to work. “The test only took 20 minutes,” Peter remembers. “She was crying for longer than that beforehand. I’ll keep these documents forever, no matter how painful they are.”
Linda (pictured below), a double heart and lung transplant patient, died on April 25 last year. Only nine days before, the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) 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.
She had scored zero points on her Atos test. In her final months Linda was on 10 prescription drugs a day, suffering high blood pressure, renal failure and regular blackouts.
“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?
“When you lose your wife… no one can describe it. The desolation is beyond words. I’m doing better than I was last year but the grieving process goes on forever. People say it gets better with time – it doesn’t. I’ll carry on missing her.
"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.”
To say Atos’ reputation has been damaged by the work capability assessments it has carried out for the UK government is an understatement. A day of national demonstration in February saw angry campaigners at each and every one of Atos’ 144 offices across the country.
At each anti-Atos protest, the names of the dead are listed and held on cardboard squares, a grim liturgy to people who have passed away while undergoing the reassessment process. “ATOS KILLS” is the most familiar shout and placard slogan.
The French IT firm says around 160 incidents of the public assaulting or abusing staff were recorded each month last year (most of the anger is vented on social media where Atos employees are referred to as “murdering scumbags”). Little wonder the company is trying to find a way of bringing the DWP contract to an early end without looking “unprofessional”.
As Atos itself admits: “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.”
As all current Employment and Support Allowance benefit claimants are given short-term respite from further tests (reassessments are on hold for “an indefinite period”, according to a leaked DWP memo), it is worth taking stock of the mess.
How bad a job have Atos assessors really made of it? How much is Iain Duncan Smith’s department to blame? And how much truth is behind claims the tests are responsible for the deaths of the disabled?
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.
If anyone wishes to Google “Atos”, “death” and “coroner”, they’ll find dozens of news stories about benefit cuts and suicides in the last couple of years, including many cases of people killing themselves after Atos assessments found them fit to work.
Take 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.”
Take Edward Jacques, a 47-year-old man suffering from HIV, hepatitis C and with a history of self-harm and depression, who took an overdose in September after his £90-a-week benefits were stopped. Nottinghamshire coroner Mairin Casey said Edward’s medical assessments had been “crude”.
She found that “the process in Edward’s case did not fully or properly reflect Edward’s physical and mental health at that time. It is desperately sad that such evidence was not available either to the nurse or to the decision-maker.”
One of the very saddest deaths is David Coupe (pictured below), 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”.
This questioning of quality has helped lead to the fall-out between the government and Atos, which now realises a fresh start is in both parties’ interest. Yet many of the disabled campaigners have questioned whether the government can credibly claim any detachment from the process.
In May 2013, whistleblower 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.
"My fear is that the DWP will now be able to say they’ve listened, they’ve fixed something by getting rid of Atos, and then they will carry on limiting the number of claims in the way they set out to do. So whoever [a new contract] goes to, the system is designed not to bear any relationship with the real problems people face.”
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.
“People deserve representation when these decisions are made,” he says. “I would have a panel deciding things with someone from the local unemployed workers centre or Citizens Advice Bureau. And we need to have proper doctors who are medically capable.”
Back in Essex, Peter Wootton is watching the Atos era unravel with great interest. It is too late for his wife Linda to be treated with due consideration and dignity. But he hopes no one else has to suffer the same kind of misery. “Whether it’s been the DWP driving the whole thing or Atos organising the tests this way for financial gain, we don’t know,” he says.
“But we’re about to see with whoever does the tests next whether the government is only interested in numbers, rather than people. If nothing changes, it will point the finger squarely at Mr Cameron’s government.”
David Coupe photo: © rossparry.co.uk/syndication