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Atos and the Paralympics

A few days ago James Max wrote an article about Atos and the Paralympics.  Many disabled people and their supporters have been upset by the government’s permission for Atos to sponsor the Paralympics.  James Max argues that it is completely acceptable for Atos to be a sponsor.  He says that if you don’t like it, then “Tough.  Put up the money yourself if you feel that strongly about it.”

I do feel strongly about it, but unsurprisingly do not have the money to sponsor something like the Paralympics myself.  In fact small companies generally, let alone individuals, have been unable to sponsor the Paralympics.

Atos is the company that receives £100 million a year to carry out assessments of chronically ill or disabled peoples’ ability to work.  Currently they carry out Work Capability Assessments for Employment and Support Allowance.  ESA is the benefit that is given instead of JSA when people are too ill to work, either through illness or disability.

The WCA has attracted a lot of criticism, and Atos has been credited with some of the blame.  Complaints have been repeatedly made about the way that WCAs are carried out, the recording of responses and the decisions that are made.  It is not uncommon for people to receive a copy of the report that was made during their WCA and find numerous inaccuracies, to the point of being the complete opposite of reality.

The descriptors used in the ESA are considered, by the disabled community, to be inadequate.  They do not properly capture an individual’s ability or lack of ability.  They also make the ESA process one of the harshest in the developed world.  Citizen’s Advice volunteers, GPs and Jobcentre staff have reported amazement that people clearly too ill to look for work, let alone carry out any work, have been told they are fit for work.

The assessment process is riddled with inaccuracy.  Many of those told that they are fit for work appeal their decision.  Decisions being overturned in the person’s favour run at 70% for those where there is representation.  Oxfordshire claims a 93% overturn rate, and one advisor shown recently on TV said he had a 100% success rate.

These appeals are not for marginal cases, as would be expected in a system that is working.  60% of decisions that are overturned are for people originally given 0 points (15 are necessary to qualify for ESA).  This is a system that is routinely failing to give an accurate judgement even on the already harsh criteria.

Not many of those found fit for work actually go back to work.  Many go on to a different benefit, retire or remain without an income.

Mr Max makes numerous statements in his piece that are not accurate.

He says, “Take something away from people that they have got used to receiving and they’ll be uproar. Add to the mix that it’s a benefit for disabled people and that it’s not fair that they go through a vetting process to achieve the government’s aims to ensure those who claim benefits really deserve them, and there’s every ingredient for an explosive mix.”

He appears to be unaware of what the controversy is about.  This is not about going through a vetting system to determine who does or does not deserve benefits.  This is about people who do need benefits being incorrectly turned down.  It is about assessments being carried out in places that are inaccessible and/or inappropriate for use by disabled people.  It is about Atos workers recording untruths.

No-one has ever said that that there should not be medical assessments to ensure that claims are genuine.  If there were no such process, then of course anyone could decide to claim.  Assessments are good and necessary; assessments also need to be accurate and fair.

The use of the term ‘deserving’ is a little inappropriate.  We’re not talking about who is ‘deserving’ here; deserving is far too inaccurate a term and open to many interpretations and ambiguities.  Is someone deserving because they managed to work for the majority of three years before becoming ill (the criterion for receiving National Insurance Contribution based payments)?  Is someone deserving if they receive a particular treatment for a particular condition?  Is someone deserving if they are generally a good person who is nice to their neighbours?  Is someone deserving if they don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t eat high fat, sugar or salt containing foods, don’t shop for clothes in anywhere more expensive than New Look, and don’t buy groceries from anywhere more expensive than Asda?  Is someone deserving because they have no children or live in a tiny house?

What about people who became ill before they were old enough to work?  What if the standard treatment doesn’t work for a particular person, perhaps because their body reacts differently or another health condition makes it inappropriate?  What if someone likes to have a glass in the evening, as many other people do (and incidentally thus helps the economy and the government through alcohol duties)?  What if clothes need to be sturdy so they don’t wear out, comfortable so they don’t cause pain, and warm because the person gets cold easily and this makes their illness worse?  What if specialist, expensive food has to be bought because the body is useless at processing standard food in a sensible way?  What if the person was actually earning enough to support three children very well in private schools, but then became ill?

The correct term is ‘needy.’  This is much more easily defined.  It simply depends on what is necessary for an adequate standard of living, and considers the extra costs that many disabled people face.

Mr Max goes on, “Perhaps the deficit we have in this great nation of ours is because of previous incompetence at government level?

Money was handed out in a modern day form of gerrymandering – buying goodwill through a benefits system that’s more generous than it should be. Now we are tackling the problem and making sure only those who deserve the benefits receive them.”

It is a dangerous argument and one I have seen many times before.  What I have never seen is any evidence that the current recession, either in the UK or worldwide, was caused or is prolonged by welfare spending in the UK.  Rather what I understood to be the problem was spending at the other end – reckless spending by people with a lot of money who didn’t make sensible use of it.

Mr Max has come back to his ‘deserving’ argument.  Interestingly, the idea for the welfare state was set up with the aim of helping everyone who is needy, and at a time when the country was poor, because it was currently engaging in a large military campaign otherwise known as World War 2.

Mr Max’s next argument is that, “Protestors claim the means testing exercise being conducted by Atos isn’t fair. Get used to it. Life is unfair. It’s unfair that some are born with a disability. It’s unfair that some have had limbs removed as a result of illness or injury or through having fought on behalf of their country. It’s unfair that some will live longer than others. Indeed it’s unfair that those who work have to pay tax to support those who, in many cases, cannot be bothered.”

Life isn’t fair.  I fully agree.  It is therefore the role of the government to assist in making life more fair.  It is not acceptable to turn to someone in need and I say, “I will not help you, because life isn’t fair, so why should I who happen to be well and well-off share my good luck with you?”

As for tax, there are many reasons for people to pay tax, and the public as a whole benefits from such spending.  A similar argument could be made about why taxes of people living in the South-East should not be used to improve the lives of people in any other part of the country.  After all, why should money taken from a well-off southerner be used to pay for roads, schools, healthcare and education of people living in the north?

Claiming that many people ‘cannot be bothered’ is empirically a wholly unfounded statement.[1]  42% of benefits go to pensioners (not including sickness benefits); Mr Max can suggest that pensioners ‘cannot be bothered’ to support themselves, but he may find himself with little support.  A further 20% goes on Housing Benefit and 15% on children, and 8% on Disability Living Allowance which is not an out-of-work benefit and therefore does not fit under the ‘can’t be bothered’ category.  These two benefits – Jobseekers and Employment and Support Allowance – together make up a mere 7% of benefits.  It is dodgy to suggest, during a recession, that many people in these groups ‘can’t be bothered,’ particularly when the majority of this group is made up of people who are genuinely too ill to work.

Mr Max makes some interesting statements regarding the suitability or not of Atos as a sponsor for the Paralympics.  “The firm provides IT services to the UK Border Agency. OK, so the firm was blamed for IT systems issues that caused delays in the run up to the Olympic Games. Not ideal, but not a basis for protest.

The second and more significant government contract is with Atos Healthcare, a sub-division of the main company employing over 3,000 people… The protests are unfounded. Just because the company is streamlining payments does not make them an unsuitable sponsor.”

On his first point, I would have thought that a company paid by the government to carry out a public good should not consider itself to have money to spare on sponsorship until it had first provided a good service.  It seems particularly inappropriate for a company to sponsor an event that involves two areas – Border control and disabled people – in which it had failed to provide a good service.

He then goes on to a discussion of protests against the current system for ESA: “Indeed, with any cut to any allowances there will be genuine cases where the wrong decision is taken. However, that is no basis for protests…

Most disabled people I know just want to be able to get on with their lives.

They don’t want sympathy or special treatment. They just want an opportunity to show that they are every bit as able, determined and capable as their able bodied counterparts. Shame on us for discriminating. And shame on us for allowing protests of this nature to cloud the real issues.”

In a situation in which very few people are incorrectly turned down, and those people are marginal cases where a judgement is harder, then there is no reason to protest.  But in a situation where many people are turned down and these include people who are very clearly ill then it is very right to protest, and we as a nation should be disturbed if we think that there is no reason to protest.

Mr Max continues with a reason why corporate sponsors are fine, even when they are ones whose service is opposite to the event sponsored, “Indeed many of us recognise that you have a choice. If you don’t want to go to McDonald’s or drink Coca-Cola, no one’s forcing you to. Personally I like what they do, support their globalised approach and appreciate that their size and commercial muscle (and money) makes our lives better.”

What upset people about McDonald’s and Coca-Cola was not about whether or not they liked buying these companies’ products.  It was because in general the products offered do not make our lives better; they are not health foods or exercise regimes.

McDonald’s and Coca-Cola are also not relevant to the matter here, which is the role of Atos.  Chronically unwell people who need government support in order to live do not have the luxury of going to a different provider of healthcare assessments.  It is a public service, but the provider was decided by the government and not by the public.

Mr Max ends with a complaint that the current benefit system does not work. “If the Paralympic Games tell us anything, it’s that for too long as a society we have made judgments about the skills and capabilities of those with some form of physical disability…

We have not provided facilities and help, training and opportunity but simply paid people off to keep them quiet. Strip benefits away from those who don’t need them by all means, but let’s make sure the legacy of these games is that never again will we treat those with a disability as second class citizens and never again will we criticise corporates who make a real and lasting difference by sponsoring the greatest events on earth.”

The Paralympic Games do not give us any insight into the abilities of the average disabled person.  The Paralympians are people who, through huge investment by outsiders, have managed in part to overcome some of their limitations. If we wish to use them as an example, then the example is that there needs to be a lot more money invested in disabled people to enable them to reach their true potential.  And there continues to be need for investment in society to make society accessible.

The government hasn’t ‘paid people off to keep them quiet.’  It has given financial support to people who are too ill to work.  If the government wants these people to be able to work, it needs to invest in healthcare research and development so that the treatments these people need will actually exist.  If the government has not done this, it is not the fault of the people who are ill.

In relation to people receiving DLA, then yes “facilities and help, training and opportunity” are needed.  What is also needed is an improvement in the wider society and workplace such that these things become as accessible to the disabled as they currently are to the able.  DLA is given because society presents barriers to people with impairments, and thus makes them disabled.  Until society is changed, disabled people will continue to need financial support in order to allow them to overcome the barriers that are the largest for them as an individual.

Disabled and chronically ill people will continue to protest for as long as they are refused the support they need.  It is good and right that they do so.  We do not have to be ‘victims,’ but neither are we all athletes.  If the Paralympics will leave any legacy, let it be this: disabled people can achieve extraordinary things, but only if someone else will pay for them to get there.

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