Tag Archive | Atos

(Why We’re Not) Benefit Scroungers: Extract 2

The one thing I am absolutely unreservedly and implacably opposed to in all of this is a real world test.” – Chris Grayling, Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, 2011.

But the current, not-real-world test isn’t working.

It is not uncommon for a claimant to be signed off work by a GP, and yet be refused benefits.[1]  Nor is it unknown for an employer to consider an employee to be too ill to return to work, yet the employee is refused ESA.[2]  The DWP argue that this is because the ESA assessment considers the ability to carry out any job, not just the one the claimant was in before becoming ill.  However this still conflicts with the GP’s judgement, and the questions asked are so poor that it is often unclear what job the DWP has in mind when assessing a person as fit for work. …

When a system works well, appeals against decisions occur in marginal cases.  In terms of the WCA, the only people appealing should be those who received just under the required points.  After all, most people know whether or not they can walk 200m, dress themselves, prepare a meal, remember to take all their medicine etc.  They won’t appeal if they can appreciate that the decision was fair (n.b. fraud in DLA costs a mere 0.5% of DLA payments, less than the cost of official error.  Fraud in Incapacity Benefit is even lower at 0.3%.  ESA will not be assessed until 2013).  Yet up to February 2010, 60% of appeals overturned in favour of the claimant were for cases that had originally been awarded zero points.  A further 23% had been awarded between 3 and 6 points (there are no 1 or 2 point descriptors), leaving just 17% who had been awarded between 7 and 14 points.[3]  This is unacceptable.  A high percentage of claimants are failing to even come close to having a proper assessment of their health made. …

There is high variability between decision makers [who are non-medical staff at the Department of Work and Pensions].   Professor Harrington, the head of the independent reviews into the ESA assessment, said that “consistency and quality of decision making appear to be key issues.”  This is particularly the case now that Harrington’s previous recommendations have led to an increased importance of the decision maker’s role, relative to the ATOS assessment. …

Professor Paul Gregg, before the WCA was rolled out nationally, reported that, “the test so far has caused a huge amount of anguish to the people who have gone through it. We need to have something that is working accurately before we apply it nationally. We shouldn’t roll this out until we have something that is working.”[4]  Gregg was involved in the design of the new system (ESA and WCA)and  has been described as “one of the most rigorous and high-impact social policy academics in the UK.”[5]


[1] Dryburgh, Unfit for Purpose, 2010, Citizen’s Advice Scotland. http://www.cas.org.uk/publications/unfit-purpose

[2] Dryburgh and Lancashire,The Work Capability Assessment, 2010, Citizen’s Advice Scotland http://www.cas.org.uk/publications/work-capability-assessment

[3] HC Deb, 28 June 2011, c662W

[4] New disability test “is a complete mess,” says expert. 22nd Feb 2011, The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/feb/22/new-disability-test-is-a-complete-mess

[5]Baumberg, September 27th 2012, Paul Gregg: new ideas for disability, employment and welfare reform. Inequalities. http://inequalitiesblog.wordpress.com/2012/09/27/paul-gregg-disability-employment-speech/

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(Not) Coping with the ESA assessment process

This is a guest post from @IHaveaBoomstick, used with permission.

 

This morning two large envelopes from the ESA dropped through my door. One for me, one for my Mum. There they still sit, waiting for Mum to come home.  I am simply too stressed, too afraid, and too afraid of being stressed by them to open them until she gets home.  You see, I’m one of the many sufferers of a mental illness who’ve been somehow targeted by the government as part of their budget cutting process and put through the ATOS-led ESA assessment process.

From February to May this year I was filling out their poorly-designed forms, paying for GP support letters, being refused a letter from East Bristol Mental Health Trust because they stopped treating me in 2008 (referring me back to the GP as no more they could do) and reckoned “the GP can do it,” realising how flagrantly ill-equipped their ‘classification’ system is to cope with mental illness, trying to explain to numerous ESA advisors (or one with a rotating name) how WRAG is a joke and will create massive stress for people like me while serving no purpose, being put into WRAG, having them forget to review it, having them review it and stick by the decision while simultaneously sending me through their own assessors report clearly stating this person is unfit for work for at least 2 years if not more (alongside all the medical reports), chasing the Employment Service about my WRAG appointment, chasing legal aid people only to find out that the system in England is such a mess compared to Scotland that they won’t even represent you at an appeal tribunal …

… well, it’s fair to say that for someone with a chemical imbalance in the brain that fails to regulate stress and anxiety and suffers from major obsessive thinking, mental exhaustion, some depression, some paranoia and all the other things associated with an anxiety disorder it was not fun. Without the support of My Mum who organised and chased the case (herself a working pensioner) I would have utterly crumpled. As it was, it triggered an anxiety spell so major that I took months to fully recover from it. And, as someone who is also a diabetic, the stress dropped my resistance to illness so low that the GPs believe I became ill repeated times as a result.

Then, after sending the written appeal 5 months ago and the Employment Service backing off, it all went silent …

… until the envelopes dropped through my letter box. I’ve not even opened them. Yet, as someone whose disorder needs little to trigger it, they’ve pressed all the buttons anyway.

 

The following is what I tweeted this morning in response – it gets a little sweary and occasionally rambling. But it’s how I feel.  This has been edited to be more reader-friendly.  140 character restrictions make for jerky reading.

My mum and I both had two big letters from DWP drop through the door. Probably another ESA appeal failure. Not going to open it. Already stressing me.

It’s been months and months so I am guessing it’s the written appeal verdict.  Mum took over dealing with it as I pretty much blew a mental fuse.  All one massive disorder trigger. They couldn’t seem to ‘get’ that going there once a month and being judged unfit for at least two years was still both a pointless verdict and actually stressful. I can’t tell WHAT I’m going to be like day-to-day, without having a monthly appointment to stress me

Two big envelopes, one for me and one for Mum.  I’m tensing up now and I haven’t even looked at it yet.  It has just made me immediately mentally tense up so I have no choice but to avoid it and let Mum check it later.

It was the attitude of one of them on the phone saying “what’s the problem, you’re in the same category as cancer patients,” that really upset me.  They’re not quite getting that their whole category system is fucked and cancer patients with no chance of recovery should no more be expected to turn up to monthly appointments which have no purpose whatever then me. They don’t get that a disorder fuelled by having a chemical imbalance which means my stress regulation is f*cked means putting me in a situation like that on a monthly basis is not only likely to kick me off but also damaging in general.  It makes me very angry.   This is a joke system.  Let alone people far worse off and less functional then me still being expected to do it. It isn’t just those people being deemed fit being screwed over by this ridiculous assessment system, but the people further down the ladder being screwed over with pointless stress and discomfort as well, given needless hoops to jump through even when the system acknowledges they’re ill!

 

Ok, let’s treat you to some comedy from the Government. There are 3 benefit groups with ESA – first is “Limited Capability to work.” At the other end of the spectrum is the ‘Support’ group for those people for whom getting back to work probably is never going to happen AND SUPPOSEDLY for if “it is decided that you have a limited capability for work-related activity.” Now here comes the middle group: the “work-related activity group.” This is for all those deemed not well enough to do some work but not fucked enough to count as having “a limited capability for work-related activity.” Said activity being appointments where a back-to-work plan is figured out and you have monthly appointments with an adviser.

Unfortunately EVERYONE is being put in that middle group. Getting into the support group? Impossible.  Suffering from a progressive disease and consequently your death can reasonably be expected within six months – work-related activity group.  So if you’re probably going to die within 6 months? – you’re still expected to attend appointments planning to get you a job. Have a mental disability where you can’t cope for days/weeks at a time, is random when it hits, random when it goes and the NHS have TOLD  you that there’s nothing the psychiatrists can do and medication is barely effective and it ain’t getting better? – work-related activity group.

Now the WRA group says: You cannot be required, as part of a work related activity, to apply for a job, undertake paid work or voluntary work, or undergo medical treatment.  And then it has a “personal adviser who will try to help you back into work.” So, no pressure apart from this member of staff whose job description is to pressure. And, according to many, the whole scheme has incentives for employees to get bonuses by getting people back to work. Which doesn’t encourage pressure at all, I’m sure.

The Jobcentre staff themselves? Not their fault whatsoever. The Government, DWP and ATOS have made a glaring fuck-up of contradictory terms in the categories for people, making the support category too hard to be placed into EVEN FOR THE TERMINALLY ILL!!! And thousands of people who, like me, have serious mental illness, physical illness or disabilities fall between the cracks and get screwed.  Thousands of people who aren’t utterly fucked but are not likely to be work-fit functional indefinitely/forever are hounded, harassed and frankly f*cking TERRIFIED that they’ll be forced back into situations that caused some of them to become ill and/or lose control of their disability to begin with

My life is now about balance and routine, trying to avoid stress, input, any mental stimulation that’ll trigger me off. It’s not great and even with that control it doesn’t work well and I regularly have ‘events’ that pretty much consign me to my room for days/wks. But I’ve fought to get that level of stability. I’m unable to work because of it, rarely go out because of it, rarely socialise due to it.  I have gone through the GPs, psychiatrists, psychologists, meds etc. and after all of it have found this equilibrium for managing day to day.  So when the DWP and ATOS try to fuck that over and give me ½ a page of A4 to respond while ignoring ALL medical evidence, including that of their own f*cking assessor? That, my friends, is a system that is utterly, utterly screwed and will get no better atm. Rant over.

 

If it wasn’t for the fact that I live back at home with Mum and she was supporting me, I’d have been in real trouble I think.  DWP has been quiet for 3-5 months and just that one unopened letter this morning has pressed the buttons. Thing is, they don’t get the complexity of mental illnesses. Due to the nature of mine, I spent years massively damaging my health pushing myself through university and then working for 7yrs because not only didn’t I understand it but I’d got into the mind-set of “it’s all in my head” and used that as a real obsessive trigger. So whenever this kicks off with places like them, I immediately start questioning myself: “is it that bad?,” “you worked with it before” etc. etc. despite EVERYTHING I’ve been through medically with the psychiatrists & GPs since. It’s a mental illness and they just trigger it with their actions even more. I think people in general don’t realise how much many of us manage to f*ck ourselves up mentally before we get diagnosed

 

Ironically that rant will/is probably going to contribute to a spell kicking off and me needing to step away for a bit. 100% worth it.  It took me months to recover from the stress of all this at the start of the year, and one unopened letter is enough to spin me out again.  This is why a lot of people don’t fight it. It is exhausting. Without my parent supporting me, I’d just have meekly let it go.  Whole system is screwed.  Irony is I could open the envelope and it’ll say “appeal won, yay” but I’m just too stressed to do it.

 

The telephone advisor’s words are a bit more difficult to post, though my mum and I were so surprised by their attitude that we felt like recording future conversations just to be sure we didn’t imagine it!

 

I have no problems with clamping down on people cheating the system but the way the categories are judged is purely to deny people access to the support group and I would guess to massage the figures hugely.

The whole process is a rushed job. And a money-maker for the government. They may pay ATOS but they changed regulations so you don’t officially need a GP letter of support. Which means the Government don’t have to pay for one as in the past but, if you don’t get one yourself, they won’t check any details with your GP or hospital etc. it seems. And given the amount of panic there is about being assessed and the knowledge now that the system is so terrible, people being assessed feel getting a letter of support is essential. So you pay the £15+ for it. Which goes back into the NHS coffers no doubt, and then seems to be completely disregarded anyway.

 

So my mum is home, and the envelopes are opened. It’s the appeal papers and the answers DWP/ATOS are giving at it. I’m letting Mum read it first as it’s liable to send me off the deep end again but her initial glance through suggests that, yet again, they’re rigidly sticking by their point-based system whilst completely ignoring medical evidence and what was actually written down. Sad thing is, don’t think we can easily get someone to represent me at the tribunal. Unlike Scotland, legal aid here only gives you brief phone advice on if you have a case but won’t represent you.

 

Ok, I’ve read through their ‘side’ of the case. Basically they’re saying, “by our descriptors, we’ve done nothing wrong” and they’re heavily quoting legal cases. Very much seems as though they’re so intent on going by their points-based descriptor system that they ignore what the person is TELLING them. Joke.

I am not very confident at all to be honest. We’re a working-class family.  We don’t know the legal system and someone who does is unavailable/unaffordable here.  Also humorous how they’re quite happy to find their own medical report from 8 years ago but not pay for one from my GP or psychiatry team. This has moved beyond equal, fair treatment now. To me, this just looks like they want to enforce their system regardless of the person.

No allowance for the fact that “your descriptors are f*cked.”  And actually state a legal case in their appeal to make a point that “in this case, something MIGHT happen isn’t good enough.”  Um, your monthly appointments blowing my stress levels through the roof? That WILL happen. But my testimony due to 15+ years of experience as a sufferer clearly isn’t enough as evidence. Tbh, if all this doesn’t work out, I’d imagine the first person I see for this WRAG thing is going to throw their hands up in despair. And now I’m wound up again.

I can only pray that the tribunal actually takes the time to read everything. But I doubt they will. No-one else on that side has so far.  Sorry for all this ranting folks – it’s just that it feels like all the stress from April that was put on hold has come back.  It is just so depressing. Attending monthly WRAG meetings is both pointless given my future diagnosis and is likely to actively aggravate my disorder. How is that so difficult for them to see and allow for?

Only hope is reading that the tribunal is independent of DWP.  I hate Mum getting stressed about going there but not sure I’d be much use tbh. And if I went there and was present? Can guarantee that the stress would retroactively trigger a spell that’d floor me for weeks. Can’t bloody win.

James Max, Atos and the Paralympics.

I haven’t read an article that made me angry for a while, but this one managed very successfully.  In the interest of accuracy, I have made a summary of the reasons why I disagree with various statements.

http://www.londonlovesbusiness.com/business-news/business/james-max-atos-is-the-right-sponsor-for-the-paralympics/3323.article

Mr Max makes numerous statements in his piece that are not accurate.

He says, “Take something away from people that they have got used to receiving and they’ll be uproar. Add to the mix that it’s a benefit for disabled people and that it’s not fair that they go through a vetting process to achieve the government’s aims to ensure those who claim benefits really deserve them, and there’s every ingredient for an explosive mix.”

He appears to be unaware of what the controversy is about.  This is not about going through a vetting system to determine who does or does not deserve benefits.  This is about people who do need benefits being incorrectly turned down.  It is about assessments being carried out in places that are inaccessible and/or inappropriate for use by disabled people.  It is about Atos workers recording untruths.

No-one has ever said that that there should not be medical assessments to ensure that claims are genuine.  If there were no such process, then of course anyone could decide to claim.  Assessments are good and necessary; assessments also need to be accurate and fair.

The use of the term ‘deserving’ is a little inappropriate.  We’re not talking about who is ‘deserving’ here; deserving is far too inaccurate a term and open to many interpretations and ambiguities.  Is someone deserving because they managed to work for the majority of three years before becoming ill (the criterion for receiving National Insurance Contribution based payments)?  Is someone deserving if they receive a particular treatment for a particular condition?  Is someone deserving if they are generally a good person who is nice to their neighbours?  Is someone deserving if they don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t eat high fat, sugar or salt containing foods, don’t shop for clothes in anywhere more expensive than New Look, and don’t buy groceries from anywhere more expensive than Asda?  Is someone deserving because they have no children or live in a tiny house?

What about people who became ill before they were old enough to work?  What if the standard treatment doesn’t work for a particular person, perhaps because their body reacts differently or another health condition makes it inappropriate?  What if someone likes to have a glass in the evening, as many other people do (and incidentally thus helps the economy and the government through alcohol duties)?  What if clothes need to be sturdy so they don’t wear out, comfortable so they don’t cause pain, and warm because the person gets cold easily and this makes their illness worse?  What if specialist, expensive food has to be bought because the body is useless at processing standard food in a sensible way?  What if the person was actually earning enough to support three children very well in private schools, but then became ill?

The correct term is ‘needy.’  This is much more easily defined.  It simply depends on what is necessary for an adequate standard of living, and considers the extra costs that many disabled people face.

 

Mr Max goes on, “Perhaps the deficit we have in this great nation of ours is because of previous incompetence at government level?

Money was handed out in a modern day form of gerrymandering – buying goodwill through a benefits system that’s more generous than it should be. Now we are tackling the problem and making sure only those who deserve the benefits receive them.”

It is a dangerous argument and one I have seen many times before.  What I have never seen is any evidence that the current recession, either in the UK or worldwide, was caused or is prolonged by welfare spending in the UK.  Rather what I understood to be the problem was spending at the other end – reckless spending by people with a lot of money who didn’t make sensible use of it.

Mr Max has come back to his ‘deserving’ argument.  Interestingly, the idea for the welfare state was set up with the aim of helping everyone who is needy, and at a time when the country was poor, because it was currently engaging in a large military campaign otherwise known as World War 2.

 

Mr Max’s next argument is that, “Protestors claim the means testing exercise being conducted by Atos isn’t fair. Get used to it. Life is unfair. It’s unfair that some are born with a disability. It’s unfair that some have had limbs removed as a result of illness or injury or through having fought on behalf of their country. It’s unfair that some will live longer than others. Indeed it’s unfair that those who work have to pay tax to support those who, in many cases, cannot be bothered.”

Life isn’t fair.  I fully agree.  It is therefore the role of the government to assist in making life more fair.  It is not acceptable to turn to someone in need and I say, “I will not help you, because life isn’t fair, so why should I who happen to be well and well-off share my good luck with you?”

As for tax, there are many reasons for people to pay tax, and the public as a whole benefits from such spending.  A similar argument could be made about why taxes of people living in the South-East should not be used to improve the lives of people in any other part of the country.  After all, why should money taken from a well-off southerner be used to pay for roads, schools, healthcare and education of people living in the north?

Claiming that many people ‘cannot be bothered’ is empirically a wholly unfounded statement.[1]  42% of benefits go to pensioners (not including sickness benefits); Mr Max can suggest that pensioners ‘cannot be bothered’ to support themselves, but he may find himself with little support.  A further 20% goes on Housing Benefit and 15% on children, and 8% on Disability Living Allowance which is not an out-of-work benefit and therefore does not fit under the ‘can’t be bothered’ category.  These two benefits – Jobseekers and Employment and Support Allowance – together make up a mere 7% of benefits.  It is dodgy to suggest, during a recession, that many people in these groups ‘can’t be bothered,’ particularly when the majority of this group is made up of people who are genuinely too ill to work.

 

Mr Max makes some interesting statements regarding the suitability or not of Atos as a sponsor for the Paralympics.  “The firm provides IT services to the UK Border Agency. OK, so the firm was blamed for IT systems issues that caused delays in the run up to the Olympic Games. Not ideal, but not a basis for protest.

The second and more significant government contract is with Atos Healthcare, a sub-division of the main company employing over 3,000 people… The protests are unfounded. Just because the company is streamlining payments does not make them an unsuitable sponsor.”

On his first point, I would have thought that a company paid by the government to carry out a public good should not consider itself to have money to spare on sponsorship until it had first provided a good service.  It seems particularly inappropriate for a company to sponsor an event that involves two areas – Border control and disabled people – in which it had failed to provide a good service.

 

He then goes on to a discussion of protests against the current system for ESA: “Indeed, with any cut to any allowances there will be genuine cases where the wrong decision is taken. However, that is no basis for protests…

Most disabled people I know just want to be able to get on with their lives.

They don’t want sympathy or special treatment. They just want an opportunity to show that they are every bit as able, determined and capable as their able bodied counterparts. Shame on us for discriminating. And shame on us for allowing protests of this nature to cloud the real issues.”

In a situation in which very few people are incorrectly turned down, and those people are marginal cases where a judgement is harder, then there is no reason to protest.  But in a situation where many people are turned down and these include people who are very clearly ill then it is very right to protest, and we as a nation should be disturbed if we think that there is no reason to protest.

 

Mr Max continues with a reason why corporate sponsors are fine, even when they are ones whose service is opposite to the event sponsored, “Indeed many of us recognise that you have a choice. If you don’t want to go to McDonald’s or drink Coca-Cola, no one’s forcing you to. Personally I like what they do, support their globalised approach and appreciate that their size and commercial muscle (and money) makes our lives better.”

What upset people about McDonald’s and Coca-Cola was not about whether or not they liked buying these companies’ products.  It was because in general the products offered do not make our lives better; they are not health foods or exercise regimes.

McDonald’s and Coca-Cola are also not relevant to the matter here, which is the role of Atos.  Chronically unwell people who need government support in order to live do not have the luxury of going to a different provider of healthcare assessments.  It is a public service, but the provider was decided by the government and not by the public.

 

Mr Max ends with a complaint that the current benefit system does not work. “If the Paralympic Games tell us anything, it’s that for too long as a society we have made judgments about the skills and capabilities of those with some form of physical disability…

We have not provided facilities and help, training and opportunity but simply paid people off to keep them quiet. Strip benefits away from those who don’t need them by all means, but let’s make sure the legacy of these games is that never again will we treat those with a disability as second class citizens and never again will we criticise corporates who make a real and lasting difference by sponsoring the greatest events on earth.”

The Paralympic Games do not give us any insight into the abilities of the average disabled person.  The Paralympians are people who, through huge investment by outsiders, have managed in part to overcome some of their limitations. If we wish to use them as an example, then the example is that there needs to be a lot more money invested in disabled people to enable them to reach their true potential.  And there continues to be need for investment in society to make society accessible.

The government hasn’t ‘paid people off to keep them quiet.’  It has given financial support to people who are too ill to work.  If the government wants these people to be able to work, it needs to invest in healthcare research and development so that the treatments these people need will actually exist.  If the government has not done this, it is not the fault of the people who are ill.

In relation to people receiving DLA, then yes “facilities and help, training and opportunity” are needed.  What is also needed is an improvement in the wider society and workplace such that these things become as accessible to the disabled as they currently are to the able.  DLA is given because society presents barriers to people with impairments, and thus makes them disabled.  Until society is changed, disabled people will continue to need financial support in order to allow them to overcome the barriers that are the largest for them as an individual.

 

Disabled and chronically ill people will continue to protest for as long as they are refused the support they need.  It is good and right that they do so.  We do not have to be ‘victims,’ but neither are we all athletes.  If the Paralympics will leave any legacy, let it be this: disabled people can achieve extraordinary things, but only if someone else will pay for them to get there.