Atos asks to quit as victims protest across Britain

THOUSANDS of protesters turned out to protest outside Atos offices throughout Britain last Wednesday at the French-owned company’s role in cutting benefits to thousands of seriously sick and disabled people by assessing them as “fit to work”.

The next day news broke that the company wants to be released from its contract with the Department of Work and Pensions to carry out these work capability assessments (WCAs) because its notoriety had led to threats against Atos.

The National Day of Action against Atos last Wednesday was largely organised by claimants themselves.

There were protests outside the Atos headquarters in London, led by veteran left Labour MP Dennis Skinner, and in towns throughout the country/

In Southend Atos staff apparently walked out and joined the protestors, but the protests also managed to close a number of other offices including Wimbledon.

The action had good support from Unite the union’s community section and from many former miners.

The defeat of Atos is not the same as forcing the Government to abandon the WCA for a more humane assessment of claimants’ needs but it is a serious blow.

The true culprit is the Con- Dem Coalition’s huge cuts to the benefits budget and the demonization of the disabled as “scroungers” and “workshy”.

The DWP will probably look to another contractor to carry out the WCA in future but other companies may be hesitant to step into its shoes.

And the policy of forcing seriously ill and disabled people to try and find jobs has proved more expensive that the Government expected.

Thousands of claimants have had their assessments reversed on appeal — leading to huge legal costs for the Government and a lot of time and work taken up for DWP staff.

The human costs have been horrendous, with thousands of claimants dying within a few weeks of having their benefits cut — through stress of losing their income aggravating their condition or through suicide.

Atos has confessed that the Government’s policy is not working.

In the meantime — until the Government can find another contractor, all repeat WCA medicals have been suspended.

In an urgent memo obtained by the advice group Benefits and Work via a Freedom of |Information request, the DWP have told staff that due to a growing backlog at Atos all current employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants will be left on the benefit, without further medical checks.

The memo, dated 20th January, goes on to say that this will reduce the number of claimants moving off ESA, but that there are no plans to inform claimants or MPs about the change.

The memo is headed: “FOR URGENT CASCADE. Control of the Referral of Repeat Work Capability Assessments”. It explains that back in July a ministerial statement announced that: “In the drive to continually improve the Work Capability Assessment process and bring down waiting times for claimants, DWP had decided to seek additional capacity to deliver Work Capability Assessments.

“We are working towards having new provision in place — it will of course take some time for that to become fully operational.”

The memo goes on to explain that: “The number of cases currently with Atos Healthcare has grown. A decision has therefore been taken to control the referral of repeat work capability assessments. Therefore, with effect from 20th January 2014, further routine repeat assessments referrals to Atos will be deferred until further notice.

“Controlling the volume of repeat Work Capability Assessments should help us to reduce delays for new claimants and those that have already been referred.”

The memo is keen to point out that the decision to stop repeat assessments by Atos is not “linked to the quality issues outlined in July 2013” which the DWP “has been working closely with Atos to resolve”. It also reassures readers that the change will have no impact on Atos’ ability to carry out personal independence payment assessments.

It does, however, admit that the result of the change is that the number of people coming off ESA each month will reduce because: “The Work Capability Assessment is the main trigger for off-flows from the Employment and Support Allowance load....”