The divisive language that drains support for those on benefits

Further to your coverage of the sad and wasteful death of David Clapson (‘No one should die penniless and alone’, G2, 4 August), today (9 August) marks the anniversary of the discovery of the emaciated body of Mark Wood, a vulnerable sufferer from severe mental health problems, in David Cameron’s Oxfordshire constituency. Mr Wood had been erroneously and incompetently declared fit for work by Atos (on behalf of the DWP) and the consequent cutting of benefits was a clear “accelerating factor” in his death by starvation. The architects of deaths like these remain in charge of the DWP. There have of course been other well-attested deaths-by-DWP and there will be more (especially among the vulnerable disabled), as current reforms roll out their panoply of delays, despair and effective victimisation across the country. The real human costs of sick government must never be forgotten.
Stewart Eames

• David Clapson’s death is a sad reflection on the impact of government policies. I was fortunate enough to be able to work from the age of 15 to 70, paying all due taxes. Should we really care if a few people manipulate the system, if it means that no one is unfairly penalised and slips below the safety net necessary to provide a reasonable standard of living? I am not religious, but I do think that this heartless government should consider “there, but for the grace of God, go I”.
Wendy Collins
Batley, West Yorkshire

• The harrowing comments on benefit sanctions (G2, 6 August) didn’t discuss the political basis for these punitive measures. People mostly vote on a tribal basis, for “our sort of people”. When people become afraid of falling into poverty they take comfort in the hope that it only happens to the “other sort of people” and vote Conservative as an act of faith. This is the same mechanism that unites a country under threat of war and persuades dirt-poor Americans to oppose Obamacare rather than admit to themselves that they might one day need it.
D Sewell
Driffield, East Yorkshire

• Shame on the Guardian for describing out-of-work benefit recipients as “the idle poor” (Report, 5 August). On the basis of what evidence do you write them off as idle? Are those caring for children or infirm relatives, volunteering in the community, actively seeking work or simply working hard just to get by on a low income idle? Language matters and it is the use of othering language such as this by the media and politicians that has contributed to the “draining away of public support” for social security.
Ruth Lister
Labour, House of Lords


DWP awards Atos £10 million IT contract for healthcare assessments

Atos to continue providing IT for controversial work capability tests despite paying to exit contract early

Atos is due to exit its controversial DWP contract for health and disability assessments by February next year, instead of the original end date in August.

The French multinational has come under fire for the number of work capability decisions that have been overturned and the firm recorded roughly 163 incidents of abuse or assault on staff in 2013.

The firm announced its intention to walk away from the contract in February and the government confirmed that Atos would exit the agreement early in March.

However this new contract means the firm will continue to provide the IT for the assessments until at least 2016, with allowances for it to be extended until 2020.

The contract, which the DWP described as an ‘interim arrangement’, was negotiated and set up without any competition.

The department said that this was for ‘technical reasons’, some of which were set out in the award notice, which was published in the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU) at the end of last week.

The DWP said that an alternative provider would not be able to set up the new services in time without there being “an unacceptable level of service transition and delivery risk failure”.

In the OJEU notice, the department also claimed: “Another supplier would be unable to provide the IT services using the existing hardware, software, premises, etc, because the physical assets are owned by the current provider of the assessment services rather than the Authority.”

The DWP said: “Another supplier would be unable to replicate the current IT services because there is insufficient documentation to build them.”

It also said that another supplier wouldn’t be able to replace the physical assetes on a like-for-like basis because some of the assets were out-of-date and now unavailable.

The DWP told ComputerworldUK that although a new provider is expected to take over the contract next year, the IT will be transferred separately and at a later date.

A spokesperson said: “The DWP is seeking a new provider to help increase the volume of assessments carried out and improve the claimant experience, in particular looking to reduce waiting times and modernise delivery, including looking to replace the current IT.

“To make sure claimants get a good service during transformation, we are transferring the IT separately, and at a later date, than the rest of the service [which transfers in 2015].

“We have therefore asked Atos to continue to provide the current IT services for a further year. In the meantime work has started on planning for how we replace the IT.”

In a statement to Parliament in March, disability minister Mike Penning MP said that Atos had paid the department to terminate its contract early.

He said: “I am pleased to confirm that Atos will not receive a single penny of compensation from the taxpayer for the early termination of their contract, quite the contrary, I can also confirm that Atos has made a substantial financial settlement to the Department for Work and Pensions.”

However the DWP refused to disclose the figure paid by Atos when contacted by ComputerworldUK.

The contract for healthcare assessments between the DWP and Atos was awarded in 1998. It was renewed for seven years in 2005 and then extended for a further three in 2010 through to 2015.


Was it public outrage or the impossible task that made Atos want to stop? Adam Forrest investigates

Some paperwork is almost unbearable. Sitting in the living room of his Essex home, Peter Wootton sifts through his wife Linda’s files with a sigh, pointing out where an Atos assessor judged her fit to work in January 2013.Linda could lift a mobile phone. Linda could rise. Linda could walk across the testing room. So Linda was fit to work. “The test only took 20 minutes,” Peter remembers. “She was crying for longer than that beforehand. I’ll keep these documents forever, no matter how painful they are.”Linda (pictured below), a double heart and lung transplant patient, died on April 25 last year. Only nine days before, the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) finally rejected her claim of employment support allowance (ESA) of £108.05 a week, sending her a curt letter while she lay desperately ill in hospital.

She had scored zero points on her Atos test. In her final months Linda was on 10 prescription drugs a day, suffering high blood pressure, renal failure and regular blackouts.
“The benefits were actually stopped on February 14,” Peter explains. “Happy Valentine’s. She was in hospital with a chest infection, typing her appeal on her iPad, crying her eyes out. We were lucky because I earned a salary that meant we were OK and we didn’t lose the house.

“But she felt distraught about it. She’d say to me, ‘I’ll have to go back to work then.’ It was only in the days before her death she said, ‘Well, maybe I wasn’t fit for work.’ Only when she had been told she was going to die.

“The thing I find so galling is that at no point did they speak to the doctor who said her condition would not get better back in 2007,” he continues. “At no point did they speak to anyone at Harefield Hospital where she’d had her transplant. Why wouldn’t they do that?

“When you lose your wife… no one can describe it. The desolation is beyond words. I’m doing better than I was last year but the grieving process goes on forever. People say it gets better with time – it doesn’t. I’ll carry on missing her.

“I’m not blaming Atos for her death. She died because of a collapsed lung and blood clots after a medical procedure. But I pitied the way Linda was made to feel and I still feel very, very frustrated at the way she was treated.”

To say Atos’ reputation has been damaged by the work capability assessments it has carried out for the UK government is an understatement. A day of national demonstration in February saw angrycampaigners at each and every one of Atos’ 144 offices across the country.

At each anti-Atos protest, the names of the dead are listed and held on cardboard squares, a grim liturgy to people who have passed away while undergoing the reassessment process. “ATOS KILLS” is the most familiar shout and placard slogan.

The company is trying to find a way of bringing the DWP contract to an early end without looking “unprofessional”The French IT firm says around 160 incidents of the public assaulting or abusing staff were recorded each month last year (most of the anger is vented on social media where Atos employees are referred to as “murdering scumbags”). Little wonder the company is trying to find a way of bringing the DWP contract to an early end without looking “unprofessional”.

As Atos itself admits: “In its current form it is not working for claimants, for DWP or for Atos Healthcare. For several months now we have been endeavouring to agree an early exit from the contract, which is due to expire in August 2015. Despite these ongoing discussions, we will not walk away from a frontline service.”

As all current Employment and Support Allowance benefit claimants are given short-term respite from further tests (reassessments are on hold for “an indefinite period”, according to a leaked DWP memo), it is worth taking stock of the mess.

How bad a job have Atos assessors really made of it? How much is Iain Duncan Smith’s department to blame? And how much truth is behind claims the tests are responsible for the deaths of the disabled?

Government statistics indicate that between January 2011 and November 2011, 10,600 sick and disabled people died within six weeks of their benefit claim ending. Such was the furore about this figure, the DWP has stopped using Atos data to count the number of deaths.

If anyone wishes to Google “Atos”, “death” and “coroner”, they’ll find dozens of news stories about benefit cuts and suicides in the last couple of years, including many cases of people killing themselves after Atos assessments found them fit to work.

Take Tim Salter, a blind 53-year-old suffering from agoraphobia. Tim hanged himself after an Atos test that found him fit to work and a DWP decision to axe his £30-a-week incapacity benefit left him wondering how he could afford his housing association rent. South Staffordshire coroner Andrew Haigh declared: “A major factor in his death was that his benefits had been greatly reduced leaving him almost destitute.”

Take Edward Jacques, a 47-year-old man suffering from HIV, hepatitis C and with a history of self-harm and depression, who took an overdose in September after his £90-a-week benefits were stopped. Nottinghamshire coroner Mairin Casey said Edward’s medical assessments had been “crude”.

She found that “the process in Edward’s case did not fully or properly reflect Edward’s physical and mental health at that time. It is desperately sad that such evidence was not available either to the nurse or to the decision-maker.”

One of the very saddest deaths is David Coupe (pictured below), a former farmer in Derbyshire who died of a rare form of cancer in October last year. He had been stripped of his £50-a-week incapacity benefit and ruled fit to work in December 2012, despite being housebound with a painful back injury, ulcers and diabetes. It left David and his wife Lyn with just £71 a week for the last 10 months of his life.

“David got a very rare form of cancer, it took his sight and his hearing, then finally his life,” says Lyn. “But months before that Atos had taken away his dignity. His doctors and specialist nurses wrote to the firm but never received a reply.”

Lyn says she has now been sent a letter confirming David’s backdated incapacity benefit will be paid. The Labour MP Dennis Skinner brought up David Coupe’s case in the House of Commons, memorably describing Atos as a “heartless monster”. The Prime Minister conceded it was all “desperately sad” and used it to criticise the “quality of decision-making”.

This questioning of quality has helped lead to the fall-out between the government and Atos, which now realises a fresh start is in both parties’ interest. Yet many of the disabled campaigners have questioned whether the government can credibly claim any detachment from the process.

In May 2013, whistleblower Dr Greg Wood, a former Atos employee, revealed how skewed the tests were against claimants and how much pressure testers were under to change reports and find the right conclusion (ie: fit to work).

The contract was designed on the basis of reducing the number of claimsKaliya Franklin, aka Bendy Girl, who writes the Benefit Scrounging Scum blog, believes Atos has provided a convenient smokescreen for government strategy. “The contract was designed on the basis of reducing the number of claims,” she says. “Atos did what they were told.

“My fear is that the DWP will now be able to say they’ve listened, they’ve fixed something by getting rid of Atos, and then they will carry on limiting the number of claims in the way they set out to do. So whoever [a new contract] goes to, the system is designed not to bear any relationship with the real problems people face.”

Dennis Skinner says he isn’t sure “whether [Atos] are leaving before they’re shoved, or the government has realised it’s an opportunity to get rid of them and blame it on them”. The MP wants fundamental changes in medical testing of benefit claimants.

“People deserve representation when these decisions are made,” he says. “I would have a panel deciding things with someone from the local unemployed workers centre or Citizens Advice Bureau. And we need to have proper doctors who are medically capable.”

Back in Essex, Peter Wootton is watching the Atos era unravel with great interest. It is too late for his wife Linda to be treated with due consideration and dignity. But he hopes no one else has to suffer the same kind of misery. “Whether it’s been the DWP driving the whole thing or Atos organising the tests this way for financial gain, we don’t know,” he says.

“But we’re about to see with whoever does the tests next whether the government is only interested in numbers, rather than people. If nothing changes, it will point the finger squarely at Mr Cameron’s government.”


Personal independence payments are a punishment of the poor and ill

PIP should be a national scandal: Iain Duncan Smith’s new system already has a huge backlog and people are dying waiting

‘The PIP catastrophe is just the most extreme of Duncan Smith’s disasters. Nothing – not one of his programmes – has worked as planned.’

She calls it: “Heartbreaking, truly astonishing, I’ve never seen anything like this.” Emma Cross is a senior Macmillan Cancer Support benefits adviser, and she says delays in Iain Duncan Smith’s new personal independence payments (PIP) leave the sick utterly destitute. “Does anyone know how many people are struggling?”

Macmillan’s mountain of PIP cases includes a mother being treated with chemotherapy for bowel cancer, whose operation left her with a colostomy bag. She gave up work and, with no other family to help, her husband gave up his job to care for her and their two-year-old child, taking her to frequent hospital appointments. They claimed PIP last September – and they have heard nothing since. No-one answers queries, lost in the gigantic backlog.

Until registered for PIP, which pays from £21-£134 a week, they can’t claim other crucial benefits: carers allowance, severe disability premium, escape from the bedroom tax, a bus pass, taxi cards to get to hospital, or a heating grant (she feels intensely cold). With credit cards maxed out, they have no idea what they’re due as PIP has tougher criteria: if this woman can just about walk more than 20 metres, she may get nothing now for mobility. Macmillan says people in this backlog are missing chemo appointments for lack of a bus fare.

“I wish this couple were an exception,” says Emma Cross. “But this is happening to so many.”

PIP replaces the disability living allowance, which Duncan Smith cut by 20% and abolished for new claimants; old claimants are being moved over. It used to pay out quickly, but PIP is an administrative calamity. The public accounts committee (PAC) queried why Atos won the contract to run it with its record of failure: Sue Marsh’s latest Spartacus report says 43% of appeals against DWP decisions based on Atos tests for employment support allowance are upheld. Margaret Hodge, the PAC chair, unearthed Atos’s tender for the PIP contract and found it had been “grossly misleading”, pretending to have hundreds of test centres inside hospitals, when in reality it had very few.

The last figures from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) show that 220,000 made PIP claims, but less than a fifth were processed. Ask any MP about PIP cases piling up in their surgeries and all parties tell tales of woe.

After he appeared on the Andrew Marr show this week, I challenged Duncan Smith over the PIP backlog. He waved it away airily. Oh, it’ll all be sorted by the autumn, he claimed. Nothing to worry about. That’s highly unlikely – but if so, why not pay claimants the old DLA until it’s fixed? Why should sick people pay the price for his maladministration? He batted away the idea with a shrug.

This is exceptionally monstrous, as Macmillan say people have died waiting. The 5% of cases dealt with as priority under “special rules” are those with a doctor’s letter certifying they’ll die within six months. Macmillan says it’s hard to know when people will die – six months or two years. Doctors rightly can’t write such a letter for someone who hasn’t asked for a specific death date. People need the money right now, regardless of the ghoulish prognosis demanded by DWP.

Labour’s Rachel Reeves and her team have been protesting, but the PIP story hasn’t become a national scandal. Why not? They say, glumly, that only the Mirror and the Guardian are interested, the rest turn away. Google PIP and you get myriad stories on breast implants. This reflects how much more tribal the rightwing press has become. The Guardian, as did I, covered Labour’s failings in power. The PIP saga is a “good” story. Where – yet again – is BBC news, which should be following the DWP with laser-accurate analysis?

Forget civil service factual information: Duncan Smith has just hired a Murdoch managing editor from the Sun and Sunday Times as DWP communications director. Perhaps he helps hone Duncan Smith’s terminological inexactitudes.

On Sunday’s programme IDS claimed, again, that his bedroom tax simply followed Labour’s rules on restricting the number of bedrooms claimable on housing benefit in the private sector. Not so, says the House of Commons library, it was the Tories in 1989 who cut the number of eligible bedrooms – and only for new rentals, never turfing people out of homes they already occupied.

The PIP catastrophe is just the most extreme of Duncan Smith’s disasters. Nothing – not one of his programmes – has worked as planned. It hardly matters that universal credit (UC) is years late, but last month the PAC demonstrated UC will never do what Duncan Smith claims, its work incentives shot to pieces. With council tax, housing benefit cuts and national insurance, many on UC will lose almost all ofevery extra pound earned, while most lose 65p or more. The very rich down tools over a loss of 50p in the pound. At first, it might have been ignorance, but now IDS knows his claims for UC are untrue.

After IDS’s most recent interview on the Today programme with Evan Davis, the Child Poverty Action Group analysed his facts. Will he meet his child poverty targets? “I believe we will”, Duncan Smith replies. “But you’re not on target to do that.” “I believe we will.” “So frustrating!” exclaims Davis. Duncan Smith makes this claim: “Since I’ve been in power we’ve seen child poverty fall by 300,000.” He knows that’s just from the first year when Labour’s increase in child tax credits kicked in: since then, it’s all downhill.

Duncan Smith likes to mislead on the relative measure of poverty: “Actually upper incomes fell, so the idea of a relative income measure doesn’t make any sense.” But relative poverty has nothing to do with what happens to top incomes. It’s measured against the median – the middle point, not an average nor the top. Stupidity or duplicity? Take your choice.

“The last Labour government spent £175bn in tax credits chasing a poverty target they failed to meet,” he said. But that was over 11 years and it did hit two-thirds of the target, while IDS plunges ever downwards.

If your eyes glazed over, that’s what he counts on. Bamboozling voters who don’t have graphs to hand is how he gets away with it. When challenged, he resorts to “I believe I’m right”. But the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Royal Statistical Society and scores of experts stopped him moving his goalposts. The IFS predicts he’ll put 300,000 more children into poverty by next year, up nearly a million by 2020. In 2011 IDS claimed his was “the party of the poor” – that’s a promise he has kept. Of all his calamities, PIP is probably the worst.

• This article was amended on 11 April 2014. The earlier version said incorrectly that “Atos, the firm contracted to deliver it [PIP], has walked away”. Atos’s contract to deliver PIP is to continue as planned; it is Atos’s separate contract to administer work capability assessments (WCAs), used to determine qualification for employment and support allowance, from which the company has announced it will be exiting early. The article also referred to “appeals against Atos tests”. To clarify: the appeals are against DWP decisions based on WCAs.


At Last, A Report That Skewers Iain Duncan Smith’s Welfare Policies

This article titled “At last, a report that skewers Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare policies” was written by Alex Andreou, for on Monday 9th December 2013 18.02 UTC

Today Iain Duncan Smith is being questioned by the Commons work and pensions committee on universal credit, after finally admitting last week that the scheme’s targets had been “reset”. Last week, the petition calling for a cumulative impact assessment of the way welfare reform affects sick and disabled people, known as the WOW petition, passed 100,000 signatures, triggering its consideration for debate by the backbench business committee. To add to Duncan Smith’s woes, the well-respected Centre for Welfare Reform has released details of its report, How Norms Become Targets, which exposes the myth that Atos, the private company responsible for assessing the needs of people unable to work, does not do so on the basis of targets.

Today also sees the publication of the stunning People’s Review of the Work Capability Assessment (pdf). It has been compiled by the anonymous organisation, We Are Spartacus, whose activism in this area has been hugely empowering. The report is a collection of statistics surrounding welfare reform and reactions of MPs, charities and professional groups to the way in which it has been administered. An almanac of condemnation, if you will. Most importantly, the report compiles statements from sick and disabled people actually going through the system.

These are most encouraging developments and point to a sea-change in the way our democracy works in this internet age. There is no doubt that without extensive use of the internet and social media, the compilation of such a detailed report would have been impossible and its publication unnoticed. For too long, this group of most vulnerable people, many of them with serious health and mobility problems, have been too easy a target for cost-cutting governments of all hues to demonise, recalibrate and victimise. This is no longer the case. Vulnerable people have grabbed the issue by the scruff of the neck and are taking the fight to the government. It is inspirational and points the way to a level of democratisation hitherto unseen.

I encourage you to read the report. It is packed with striking statistics and heartrending stories, in the words of people being put through this inhuman and degrading assessment. It contains the stories of those who can no longer speak, having taken their own lives or succumbed to their illness, while being hounded by the very department which is meant to protect them, people like Peter whose leg fused as a result of injury and, having suffered a stroke which meant he couldn’t grip with one hand, received a text telling him to attend the Jobcentre. He sent his partner a text which read “I give up”. He was found hanging at his home.

It contains incredibly powerful quotes which show that dissatisfaction with Atos is spread across MPs of all parties. Dr Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative MP, said of the assessment procedure: “Not surprisingly, it adds to their [claimants] sense of worthlessness – already stoked by a longstanding political narrative from both sides of the political divide that they are ‘shirkers, not workers’ or a drain on Britain’s ‘hardworking people’. They are neither.”

It contains tragic and often simultaneously humorous stories of ridiculous assessment reports, like the one on a 59-year-old woman who had had a hysterectomy following cervical cancer, which observed: “There is no evidence that the client is currently pregnant.” Or the one which concluded that someone who took an overdose of medication the previous night had “no current thoughts of self harm”.

This programme of welfare reform was always doomed to fail for a very simple reason. The purpose of welfare is to provide a safety net for the most vulnerable; its reform must have their interests at heart, rather than cost-cutting targets. Proper reform costs money. Duncan Smith himself recognised this simple fact before he came into power. In 2009, explaining his proposed reforms, he recognised that they would lead to a rise in the welfare bill in the short-term.

Iain Duncan Smith’s fall from grace, because of a botched IT system which has already caused £140m to be written off, is properly a cause of both frustration and comedy – like Al Capone being arrested for tax evasion. But I must ask, we all must ask: how many of the vulnerable people mentioned in the Spartacus report would still be alive today if that money has been properly spent?


DWP appeal new rules

As from this week, you can only appeal against a decision on a DWP-administered benefit after you have asked the DWP to ‘reconsider’ their decision. As this is a required step on the way to making an appeal it is called ‘mandatory reconsideration’.

Disability Rights UK have come up with a factsheet for all benefit claimants –

The DWP’s version is here –

London Remembers over 10,000 dead after Atos Work Capablity Tests

On 28th September, disabled activists and supporters came to Parliament Square for ‘10,000 Cuts & Counting’, a ceremony of remembrance and solidarity for over 10,000 who died shortly after the degrading Work Capability Assessments run for the government by Atos.


The ceremony, in the square bounded by the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, the Supreme Court and the Treasury was organised by the 10,000 Cuts & Counting Campaign including disability activists, Occupy activists and the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral for those who have had their lives devastated by the austerity programme.

A large area of Parliament Square was covered by white flowers to represent the more than 10,000 people who have died shortly after undergoing the Atos Work Capability Assessment, the degrading test used by the government to assess the needs of people receiving benefits related to disability and ill health.

The event included a number of moving testimonies by disabled people and a mother of three disabled children, and these including many damning indictments of the failures of Atos and the Department of Work and Pensions, with a failure to understand the needs of the disabled or to treat them with dignity and humanity, of deliberately discriminatory policies, arbitrary decisions and bureaucratic incompetence.

The government appears to have taken a highly cynical approach, mistakenly seeing the disabled as and easy touch for cuts, thinking they would be unable to defend themselves. But nothing has proved further from the truth, with disabled activists at the vanguard of protests against benefit cuts and in particular the bedroom tax. These have put a totally unfair burden on disabled people, and they have responded with fury and some purpose. Many of those who spoke or sat listening in wheelchairs were those who I have got to know blocking roads, picketing Atos, occupying the DWP and more.

As well as the many testimonies, there was a 2 minutes of silent remembrance for those who have suffered and died and then four prayers facing the four sides of the square: towards Westminster Abbey for the families of those who have suffered and disabled people still suffering or despairing; facing the Supreme Court calling for justice and compassion for those without resources and power and for an end to discrimination and violence against the disabled; towards the Treasury calling on those in national and local government who decide on the use of resources to take into account the effect on people of what they do; and finally towards Parliament, calling for a new deal for disabled people and to put right the evident wrongs in the current system.

The event was led by David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, together with well-known Sunni Muslim Mohammed Ansar. Michael Meacher MP made a powerful speech, and when I left both John McDonnell MP and Jeremy Corbyn MP were waiting to speak, along with a number of disabled activists.