Back when the con-dem government weren’t elected, few people other than benefit claimants had heard of French IT firm Atos Origin, the company Labour shamefully employed to carry out the Work Capability Assessment. This health and disability assessment was designed to strip sickness benefits from as many people as possible and has caused untold suffering with some people driven to suicide by the process. Over the last year this has led to countless protests around the UK outside Atos’ offices and online as the infamy of the company has soared.
The world must be a very different place in Atos’ Public Relations Offices these days. ‘Atos’ is now a dirty word, synonymous with the worst of corporate cruelty. As well as demonstrations outside their offices, the internet is awash with websites and stories of people’s experiences at the hands of these bastards, who have declared people with terminal illnesses as ‘fit for work’.
Atos fought back, with legal threats demanding the closure of some websites, which only served to further disseminate information about their activities around the world. When Atos objected to their logo being used in satirical images budding digital artists came up with new and increasingly creative uses of their corporate identity, based around such phrases as ‘Atos Kills’, ‘Atos don’t give a Toss’ and ‘Atos Macht Frei’. A google image search for ‘Atos Kills’ reveals the extent of the anger aimed at this company who have been dubbed the Euthanasia and Racial Purity Arm of the DWP.
Atos’ involvement in the Paralympic Games should have been a PR victory for the company, instead quite the opposite happened. Poor old Steve Cram, who was appointed as the Atos Olympic Ambassador, has virtually disappeared from view after hundreds of people contacted him to ask what he thinks he’s fucking playing at taking money from these sharks. Already one demonstration targetting Atos has been held outside a Paralympic Test event.
With demonstrations set to continue Atos appear to have backed off on their aggressive legal campaign to silence critics. A disabled man and a pensioner were arrested and charged with ‘aggravated trespass’ for peacefully entering one of their assessment centres at a Nottingham protest before Christmas. After a well supported solidarity campaign in support of the arrested it seems to have been Atos who made the decision to have the charges dropped.
None of this looks like the actions of a company that is confident in their activities. This is hardly surprising for a firm which was previously largely unknown and is now having to manage the ‘corporate challenge’ of being despised by millions of people. Atos insiders have claimed morale is at rock bottom and they are finding it increasingly hard to recruit medical staff to carry out their assessments. The PR damage to the company for taking on this contract is incalculable. Of course they could hand the contract back any time they want and this would all go away.
The Tories are ploughing ahead with the flawed process regardless as they re-assess benefit eligibility for 2.6 million people claiming Employment Support Allowance. Should the Welfare Reform Bill become law then they also plan to re-assess over 3 million people claiming Disability Living Allowance (DLA) with the stated aim of stripping benefits from 20% of disabled claimants.
Behind the scenes however the whole system is a shambolic mess. Atos are staggeringly behind their contract commitment to assess 11,000 people a week, having only completed around 20% of that figure. 40% of people appealing against Atos’ decisions are successful and the appeals system itself is in meltdown due to the number of cases. Citizens Advice have pointed out that many people losing their benefit at their assessment are simply re-applying and going through the process again. More and more Doctors and other medical professionals are raising concerns about the medical ethics of the scheme.
This is bound to impact on Atos’ other healthcare business interests, such as the Occupational Health services that are increasingly inflicted on public sector workers and used to dismiss staff for health reasons. After all Atos boast on their website that they specialise in ‘Headcount Reduction’. Atos’ healthcare professionals may now recommend you are laid off your job for health reasons whilst finding you fit for work when you apply for sickness benefits.
That the situation is unsustainable is obvious. Even if Atos are managing to make a profit the damage to their reputation this contract has inflicted is enormous. When a protest was held outside the BMJ’s annual recruitment fair last years many doctors stated they would not dream of working for such an unethical company. With medical assessment positions going unfilled it seems that Atos literally can’t get the staff.
All of this should serve as stark warning to Atos or any other company thinking of bidding for the contract to carry out the assessments for Personal Independence Payment (PIP). A more poisoned chalice has rarely been offered by a government. With 3 million more people now set to be forced to undergo these brutal and flawed tests, which ignore the opinions of GPs in favour of a short computer based assessment, the resistance to the process is likely to be fierce, and more importantly, to prove expensive.
Whether it will even be physically possible to find enough healthcare workers to carry out this testing procedure is in doubt. Like much of the Welfare Reform Bill, it is the implementation of Iain Duncan’s Smith’s crazy schemes that will see their undoing. The changes proposed to Housing Benefit and disability benefits, along with the roll out of the doomed Universal Credit, will be disastrous as the numerous contradictions in the bill emerge in reality.
This will be of little comfort to people whose lives are set to be devastated by the changes. Just like coppers, just because this Bill is stupid it doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous. It will be the most vulnerable in society who will suffer as the system breaks down. One thing’s for sure is that when the whole thing goes tits up the government will seek to blame anyone but themselves. Whether it’s Atos or prison company G4S who take on the PIP contract, they are very likely to be hung out to dry as soon as it becomes politically convenient.
No matter what Iain Duncan Smith attempts to ram-raid his bill through parliament, opposition to his plans will not stop just because the bill becomes law. In fact it is likely to intensify as more and more people are forced into a fight for their very survival. Poverty pimps like Atos risk becoming collateral damage in what may yet prove to be the undoing of this government.
The heroic action by DPAC and UK Uncut which brought the West End of London to a standstill on Saturday shows a new militancy on behalf of campaigners. Despite Atos and the CPS dropping the charges against the Nottingham protesters, a demo is being held anyway this Friday 3rd February. In London protesters will be paying a lunchtime visit to Atos Headquarters in Triton Square in solidarity on the same day.
There will also be a vigil/protest against the Welfare Reform Bill on both January 31st and February 1st outside parliament meeting at Old Palace Yard from 1-3 pm.
The fight to save the Welfare State is just getting started. The likes of Atos could do themselves a favour by getting out of the way.