Friday, 9 August 2013

Local services count the cost of ATOS / DWP failings

Local charities and advisory services have told Virtual-Lancaster that they have been swamped with work resulting from the damage being repeatedly and routinely done to local sick and disabled people in need of state welfare benefits by Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) contractor Atos Healthcare.

The 'Work Capability Assessments' regularly carried out on claimants by Atos are supposed to determine if people previously deemed sick or disabled by their GPs are in fact 'fit for work'.  Atos' tests have been described as 'Not Fit For Purpose' in a report published by North Lancashire Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), who give a series of of examples demonstrating the damage being done on a routine basis to the most vulnerable local people.

A client came to the Bureau for help because he had failed his ESA medical.   He has learning difficulties, cannot read or write, has memory problems and suffers acute anxiety and panic attacks.  Because of the adverse finding at the medical assessment stage his benefits have been stopped causing distress and financial hardship, and associated stress.  He has been without benefit for several months because he did not understand about appealing (when he would have received reduced benefit), or that he should have put in a new claim for housing benefit and council tax benefit etc.”

Other cases cited in the report describe people in the terminal stages of illness or with obvious physical or mental illnesses that render them unable to work. Yet every single one had been assessed as 'fit for work' by Atos, and had their benefits stopped by the DWP.

CAB nationally responded to 97,000 requests for support on this issue alone in the first three months of 2012.

Local services for families, young people and the elderly have all been affected because so much local resource has had to be channelled into clearing up the chaos caused by Atos. Get Connected in Morecambe is a volunteer-led service set up to offer support and advice to a wide range of clients in Morecambe's West End.  They have found much of their time spent instead in trying to meet need created by the DWP / Atos process, in particular for people with chronic mental health problems. Many have had their benefits stopped after being found 'fit for work' and then been unable to undertake, or indeed understand, the necessary steps for survival or to keep a roof over their heads.

Local award-winning charity Disability Online, set up to provide a range of advice and counselling services for local disabled people has also had to refocus most of its resource into assisting hundreds of vulnerable and desperate clients through an endless cycle of annual assessments and appeals – with an appeal success rate of over 90%.   Again, VL has heard from them of tragic cases where appeals have been allowed posthumously. (Necessary as grieving families must also cope with debts left from caring for a member with a terminal illness and no income).

One woman told VL that although she was scheduled for heart surgery two days after the assessment date Atos had set for her, ATOS refused to pospone her assessment until after she was discharged from hospital. She begged them, but they insisted she attend or lose her benefits, despite her being unwell, in a state of cardiac failure.  Faced with the potential threat of losing her home along with her income, she managed to attend but collapsed in the office, whereupon she was told to leave and found herself put out onto the street, where she managed to phone for assistance. She said she felt that their attitude was simply that 'they just didn't want me dying on their premises, it would have looked bad'.

Others have told us that when a person is passed 'fit for work' their benefits are stopped immediately from the day of the test, but they may not actually receive notification until up to three weeks later. They have then just two weeks to give notice of their intention to appeal this decision and the process is complicated even if one were not struggling with illness or disability. At the same time one is deprived of any income, and may find that because benefits have already been stopped for weeks without warning, that standing orders have failed and debts are already mounting.

Housing and Council Tax benefits, being linked, will also have been stopped and people who are sick, disabled, or dying are routinely faced with mountains of urgent new claims and paperwork to complete, which may or may not be successful. The stress on them, their families, friends and carers can be appalling.

The appeal process can take up to 10 months to complete. It is frightening and complex and most people require assistance from an experienced advisory or support service to understand and manage it. Some cases are 'reconsidered' and allowed prior to the appeal stage being reached. Over one-third of cases that make it to the tribunal stage are successful in overturning the assessment decision, in which case benefits are reinstated.

However, within a few weeks they will be summoned for a fresh assessment by Atos and the process begins again.  VL has met several people now on their third or fourth cycle of assessment and appeal. It is endless and gruelling and hundreds of deaths have been reported nationally of people assessed as 'fit for work' by Atos. Despite repeated requests the DWP have declined to release the exact numbers.

Another recent local CAB case relates to a man whose appeal failed, forcing him back to work. He collapsed on the job and sustained severe injuries that have permanently crippled him.

The National Audit Office has confirmed that the cost of the appeals process to the taxpayer has more than trebled since 2009 to £66m annually - more than half the cost of the original Atos contract again, with the taxpayer effectively paying twice, once for the assessments, then again to correct the mistakes.

However this does not take into account the cost to the families, communities and other services that must provide support when the system has repeated breakdown built-in. Vulnerable people without income must be directed to foodbanks and debt 'management', and supported through the mountain of paperwork that other benefits agencies and city councils must then process. Over and over again. Landlords must wait for their rent or put a sick or disabled person onto the street. Loan sharks and racketeers, smelling desperation, gather and prey widely, to the detriment of the entire community.   Stress can cause sick people (and their carers and children) to deteriorate, particularly those with mental health problems, resulting in additional demands on overstretched health services.

And yet, even if the DWP / Atos assessment process had worked perfectly, the savings to the national exchequer would have been negligible. The DWP estimates that less than 1% of welfare benefit expenditure is overpaid due to fraud. Only about 12% of the overall national welfare benefits budget goes on sickness and disability benefits in any case. 42% goes to pensioners and the bulk of the rest goes to supporting low income families with low-paid jobs.

Far more taxpayers' money is spent on benefits that subsidise an underpaid workforce, to enable greater profits for the companies that employ them, than is spent on the sick and disabled.   However people struggling with disabilities or illnesses and cancer treatments have been made to feel that society regards them as unwanted 'scroungers', while employers who avoid their responsibilities with zero hours contracts that include no sickness or maternity pay or pension contributions can happily count their profits and evade their taxes.

The Atos contract is not due to be reconsidered by the DWP until 2015. In the meantime the damage done and the costs to individuals, families, services and communities is mounting. In a time when energy should be spent on strategies to tackle the recession and prepare young people for an uncertain future,  resources are being diverted from every neighbourhood to cope with the destabilising effects of bad policy from the DWP and bad practice from its contractor Atos Healthcare.

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