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'Fit For Work' - the truth of the tragedy

The government's cruel Work Capability Assessment scheme rolls on, leaving thousands of ruined lives in its wake. Disabled People Against Cuts' LINDA BURNIP says we have to keep fighting it

Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) is pleased to be supporting this week's anti-Atos demos at up to 144 assessment centres around the country.

The protests are taking place against the backdrop of the floods, with David Cameron's admission that Britain is a rich nation and that money is no object when it comes to alleviating the misery of potential Tory voters.

We can only take this statement to mean that the austerity measures which have been used to push disabled people into a life of daily fear and poverty are, as we always thought, purely ideological policies - nothing to do with the money having run out.

Atos is a transnational corporation which rakes in hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money for providing flawed and failing assessments of disabled - and often dying - people's ability to work.

There are almost weekly horror stories of disabled people being hounded to death by these assessments, or driven to suicide.

The Department for Work and Pensions' own figures show that 10,600 employment support allowance and incapacity benefit claimants died within six weeks of their claim ending after Atos assessments between January and November 2011.

The DWP has since conveniently stopped collecting this data.

Protesters are also calling for an apology from Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and Atos CEO and chairman Thierry Breton to the six families of benefit claimants who took their lives following Atos decisions.

Last July Dr Greg Wood, the Atos whistleblower, revealed the extent to which these assessments are not fit for purpose, flagging up many failings of the system.

The Centre for Welfare Reform has shown that informal targets were being set by Atos, putting assessors under pressure to fail around 65 per cent of claimants.

At least one in four Atos "fit for work" decisions were being overturned at tribunal, costing taxpayers a further £50-60 million a year - but that one proved easy for the government to rectify. The right to appeal against wrong decisions has been removed and replaced with asking for a "mandatory reconsideration" of their case.

The length of time that such a reconsideration can take is open-ended. There is no time limit.

And worse, during the reconsideration period claimants are not given any money on which to live and are left in total destitution.

This is a Catch-22 situation, since those wrongly pronounced fit to work are now unable to afford asking for the case to be reconsidered.

Together with the slashing of budgets for advice centres and the removal of legal aid for many welfare benefit cases, this particular farce is another massively cynical attempt by the Con-Dems to make sure disabled people's access to justice continues to be denied in every conceivable way.

These inadequate, computer tick-box processes take no account of the barriers that disabled people face to getting and keeping a job.

Leaving aside the fact that real unemployment figures probably top five million, with a mere 500,000 vacancies, there are still far too many workplaces which are not wheelchair accessible and where working hours are rigidly fixed and not flexible enough to accommodate anyone with a fluctuating impairment.

And far too many employers are just not willing to employ a disabled person or allow reasonable adjustments to enable them to work.

But that's just another inconvenient fact for the government to ignore as it continues to churn out the "scrounger" rhetoric it enjoys so much.

However, Atos healthcare now seems to be literally falling apart.

Reports last week that it cannot recruit doctors shows that protests at recruitment fairs, in which DPAC has been involved for over two years, have worked.

At a recent Atos meeting the CEO told staff that face-to-face home assessments across Britain and Northern Ireland had a backlog of 80,000 people yet to be seen.

That doesn't include people waiting for assessments at its centres. New figures show that the backlog has reached 40,000 people in the Norfolk-Suffolk area alone.

The DWP says it could be six months to a year before claimants will be seen for Atos assessments - and it could take even longer to get a decision on a benefit application.

Targeting Atos is an effective way of highlighting the flaws of this system. But DPAC and our allies are insistent that replacing Atos with another corporate monster is not a solution.

The Work Capability Assessment scheme must be scrapped. Assessing whether disabled people are fit for work is a role properly conducted by their GPs and consultants.

But Atos remains a priority at the moment, and we are working with other activist groups in Scotland, France and Canada to arrange protests both during the Commonwealth Games this year and before and at the Pan Am Games in 2015.

Just as the corporations which torment us are global, so is our protest movement. It is a fight that we have to win.

 

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