Daily Record: Nurse makes heartfelt apology after Atos forced her to trick disabled people out of benefits
By Heather Greenaway, 24 Sep 2012 00:01
SCOTS nurse Joyce Drummond reveals how thousands of genuinely ill people were set up for a fall before they had even been assessed by benefits firm Atos.
A NURSE has revealed how her own life was ruined after under-fire benefits firm Atos forced her to “trick” disabled people out of cash.
Joyce Drummond’s medical training meant she knew claimants were unfit to work.
But she was told to mark people as fit if they could write or show up for an interview properly dressed. Eventually, Joyce was carpeted by bosses for being “too nice” to claimants.
After five months, she was signed off with stress caused by “having to trick sick people out of their benefit”. She quit in July 2009 and hasn’t worked since.
Joyce said candidates were marked down if they:
*looked well-presented, with neat hair and make-up.
*turned up with a toddler.
*could sign the application form.
Public fury is growing against Atos, who have assessed thousands of people with terminal illnesses as fit for work.
And thousands with genuine chronic conditions have been dragged over the coals repeatedly by their inquisitors.
Mum-of-one Joyce, from Mosspark, Glasgow, said Atos decision makers paid no attention to her professional clinical opinion and were only interested in cutting down the number of claimants.
She reveals all the questions she was told to ask were loaded.
Joyce said: “I stopped working for Atos three-and-a-half years ago but I still feel sick every time I think of those people deemed fit for work, when they quite clearly were incapable of doing so.
“I apologise from the bottom of my heart to all those people I had to assess during my five months in the job but the decisions were out of my hands.
“Once I realised how manipulative the assessment system was, I got out immediately. The stress of it all made me ill and I have not worked since.”
Joyce, who worked as a staff nurse at the city’s Southern General for more than 20 years, added: “I only took the job so I could help vulnerable people get the benefits they needed.
“But it wasn’t long before I realised no one cared about my professional clinical opinion. It broke my heart and I went home in tears every night.
“People trusted me as a nurse and they confided in me. I felt I was having to stab them in the back.”
Joyce said many claimants were set up for a fall even before they came into her office in Cadogan Street, Glasgow.
She said: “If they made it in by themselves, that was seen as a sign they could function.
“They also had to fill in a form. If they did it, it showed they could think, write and were capable of managing.
“We also had to assess their appearance. If a woman was wearing make-up and was nicely dressed, she was deemed as functioning and capable.
“If someone came in with a toddler in tow, they were doomed because if they could manage a child, they could surely work.
“If someone had a pet, they were able to function and if they smiled while talking about a pet, I had to mark down that they smiled spontaneously and were therefore not depressed.
“It was so unfair. There could be a very depressed or ill person sitting in front of me but on paper, thanks to the leading questions I had to ask, they could be judged fit to work.”
Joyce says Atos bosses expected assessors to get through 10 cases in a day and reprimanded her for being too nice. She said: “It was impossible to do 10 a day as each claimant had a 44-minute slot. The medical director called me in one day and told me I was too nice.
“I never found out how the decisions went but when I was doing the interview, I knew what the outcome would be.
“Atos went by the philosophy that if you had a finger and could push a button, then you could work. Ridiculous.”
Last week, a Panorama documentary revealed that each week between January and August last year, 32 people died who the Government had declared could be helped back into work.
Appeals against decisions are costing the Government £50million a year.
Atos have a £206million contract from the Department for Work and Pensions.
The leader of the Scottish Parliament’s welfare reform committee pledged to dig deeper into the Atos scandal. Labour MSP Michael McMahon said: “There are serious questions about how Atos manage work and the growing reports of how they have caused distress to so many vulnerable people.
“Whistleblowers have an important part to play in showing just how these reforms are hurting those in genuine need. My committee will continue to investigate the workings of Atos.”
Atos last night defended their role in the benefits process. A spokeswoman said: “Our trained doctors, nurses and physiotherapists use their clinical knowledge and apply the Government’s policy and criteria to each assessment.
“They make no decisions on benefit entitlement and look at each case on an individual basis.
“We understand that applying for benefit can be a difficult time which is why we try to make the part of the process we’re responsible for as comfortable as possible.”
Two things surprised me, the first time I saw Atos emblazoned all over the Paralympic Games: first, what a bizarre idea, for a company that is the single biggest identified threat to disabled people, to want to sponsor the event. ; second, what’s in it for them? They already have incredible brand recognition. Anyone with even a passing interest will have heard wordplay (“they couldn’t give a tos”). It is well known that the value of their contracts from the UK government currently stands at £3bn. We know from Dispatches and Panorama that Atos assessors are being given targets for removing people from the benefits “support group” – effectively, Christ-like, pronouncing them not disabled, in the hope that they will thereafter no longer be disabled.
It doesn’t appear to work – 40% of people have appealed the decision, and 38% of those were successful. It’s a mistake to infer that the rest were, therefore, caught bang to rights. Some of them simply give up, some die of their lack of illness, some take their own lives. The appeals process costs the government another £50m, but that comes out of some other budget (it will probably be used, somewhere along the line, as an argument for legal aid being too expensive).
There is no reason to suppose that a large number of disabled people are faking it. The DWP’s figures give a preliminary estimate for 2011/12 of benefits overpayment through fraud and error at 2%, but wait: 0.8% is customer error, 0.5% is DWP error. Only 0.7% of claimants are fraudulent.
On the subject of appeals, we know that you’re more likely to be successful if you’ve got audio of the assessment. For “security reasons”, Atos will not let claimants use their own recording equipment, and has purchased only 11 machines, to be split between 123 centres, to interview 11,000 people a week. At the last check, several machines were broken, but “unfortunately” assessments couldn’t be postponed until they were mended.
We know that Atos requires no mental health training from its assessors, has no specific test for the mentally ill, and takes no account of fluctuating conditions; so that’s a discrimination case waiting to happen.
Sorry to recap, when all of this has been established – but it underlines the puzzle. This is a company for whom scrutiny, indeed any kind of attention, can only lead to greater unpopularity. So why do they put themselves through it?
Because it’s part of the deal – they are not simply the government’s henchmen. They are its flakcatchers.
At a public meeting in Westminster Hall last night, various Labour MPs put questions about Atos to Chris Grayling; John McDonnell MP tweeted “Protesters sum up exactly what this debate is all about. The Atos system is causing immense suffering & killing people.” It’s true but it’s also wrong: all Atos does is enforce a government policy that causes immense suffering.
People at the coalface of the work capability assessment already know this. Disability campaigners protest outside the DWP as much as Atos headquarters. Tony Smith, spokesman for UK Uncut, pointed out: “Atos are doing the government’s dirty work.”
Analyst Rachael Stormonth, of NelsonHall, calls Atos “whipping boys” for the government, which I quote not to make anyone feel sorry for them – rather to point out that the very visibility, the signposting of this firm’s deficiencies, should wise us up to the fact that it’s a diversionary tactic. There is nothing easier than to dislike a faceless foreign corporation with apparently no attachment to the people whose lives it wrecks. But they wouldn’t do it if they weren’t being paid to; all our ire should go to the people who are paying them. The spectacle of the minister appearing in public to defend a company of his own commission, which enforces policies of his own devising, is ludicrous.
On the one hand this is an inevitable side-effect of outsourcing. When services go wrong having been contracted out, of course questions are going to be asked about the company that undertook them. The Olympics security debacle was a G4S failure; while there was debate about the nature of the contractual process, G4S remained the culprit.
But what’s interesting is that these failures are rewarded with more contracts. About £400m of Atos’s contracts with the government were won last month, by which time the deficiencies of their work capability assessment had been widely flagged. G4S is apparently set to win £2bn worth of contracts for five prisons, its recent shambles notwithstanding (this has yet to be announced: I hope I’m wrong. I bet I’m not) And welfare-to-work firm A4e was repeatedly awarded new contracts despite an abysmal record. It looks like mismanagement from a distance, but the more often it happens the more obvious it becomes – this isn’t an accident. These firms take the fall, and their reward is that they are lavishly paid to enforce other unpopular and/or ill-considered policies, for which they will again take the fall. It’s the perfect division of labour, since the government needs popularity and will throw money at masking its unpopular decisions, while the firms care nothing for popularity and will hoover up the money.
At root, this is an attempt to privatise our anger – take it out of the public domain, where it might mean something, and direct it towards the private sector, where it means nothing. The flaw in this calculation is that anger is a limitless resource. You might as well try to privatise air.
Watchdog finds ‘weaknesses’ in sickness benefit system
Auditors have found “weaknesses” in the contract between the government and Atos, the private firm paid to carry out fit-to-work medical assessments.
The contract underpins the Department for Work and Pensions’ efforts to move people from sick benefits into work.
The National Audit Office said the DWP had failed to penalise Atos for “under-performance”, and had not set “sufficiently challenging” targets.
The DWP said it was committed to making the Atos agreement a success.
French firm Atos was paid more than £112m in the last financial year to carry out about 738,000 face-to-face medical tests on benefit claimants.
The DWP used the test results, known as work capability assessments, to decide whether people were fit to work or eligible for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).
The assessments were first introduced on a pilot basis by Labour in 2008 and rolled out across the country by the coalition government.
Officials at the DWP have got many decisions wrong, with nearly four out of 10 appeals upheld at tribunals.
The NAO said it was unclear whether the quality of the tests was to blame for the number of wrong decisions.
In a letter to Tom Greatrex, MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, seen by the BBC, the NAO’s Comptroller, Amyas Morse, said it was hard to know whether changes to the tests were needed.
“It is difficult to assess, as the department does not routinely request feedback on the rationale for tribunal decisions.
People who are genuinely sick and disabled need to be helped, not hounded”
Tom Greatrex Labour MP
“Without such data it is not clear whether any changes in the medical process are needed,” Mr Morse added.
The DWP had previously admitted that Atos had not carried out some fitness testing within the agreed time limits, and performance had been “below the standard” since mid-2011.
The NAO criticised the DWP for not seeking “financial redress” for these delays.
It said just 10% of the penalties triggered by poor performance had been applied.
The spending watchdog added that the DWP’s negotiating position has been undermined by “inaccurate forecasting” of the number of people likely to need a medical test.
A DWP spokesperson said the contract had “changed considerably” since it was signed by the Labour government and as it evolved remained under constant review.
“In 2010, the Work Capability Assessment was not working properly and since then we’ve substantially improved it.
“It is a complicated area but we are committed to making it a success to ensure it is both fair and accurate for the user and value for money for the taxpayer.”
Mr Greatrex asked the NAO to carry out the review of the contract, saying the coalition government had failed to get value for money for the taxpayer and “properly hold Atos to account”.
“The taxpayer is effectively paying for this service twice – once through the £112m a year Atos receives from the DWP, and then again through the £60m a year spent on appeals and clearing up the mess that results from Atos assessments.
“Yet as the NAO makes clear, the Government has failed to claw this money back from Atos to reimburse the taxpayer.
“The principle of assessing a claimant’s fitness to work is a sound one. But people who are genuinely sick and disabled need to be helped, not hounded,” the MP added.
Mr Greatrex has called on ministers to reflect on the report and consider reforming the system.
A spokesperson for Atos said it worked very closely with the DWP on a “complex and challenging contract” to “fulfil all our contractual obligations”.
“We have also been flexible within the contract, for example implementing changes and recommendations from the Harrington report.
“Where changes to the contract have resulted in slower processing times we have worked alongside the department to address this.”
Complaints that the medical test causes distress have been made since they were first introduced.
In May 2011, six charities – including the MS Society and Parkinson’s UK – urged the government to make the tests fairer for patients whose symptoms vary in severity over time.
A month later, campaigners claimed in a letter to the Guardian newspaper, that assessments were causing “huge” distress, and had even resulted in suicides.
Don’t misuse your disability benefits – the DWP might
“Believe it or not, it gets worse. Underneath this bullet point list, is the sentence “We will review your status as an appointed person if we think that you are not acting in the best interests of the person named above.”My mother has not been ‘appointed’. She claims DLA on behalf of my younger brother because she is his mother – he is only seven so can’t receive the funds directly. In both my mother’s opinion, and my own, what they’re essentially saying is: ‘we will take your child away from you if you don’t spend this money properly’.
It is also worth remembering that the DWP itself cannot enter our house to check if my mum is a fit mother and they certainly cannot remove parental responsibility; only social services in conjunction with the courts can do this. When my mother called to ask what this meant, they replied that a member of staff from the local office may call her to arrange a house visit to check she was, basically, a fit mother to which they added: “you wouldn’t believe the hundreds and thousands who spend the money on themselves.””