Greasy Pole: Mission Implausible

It was enough to recall the reaction of Bumble the Beadle confronted by Oliver Twist asking for another spoonful of workhouse gruel when David Cameron described his government’s drive to reduce the number of welfare benefit claimants as a ‘Moral Mission… giving them new hope and responsibility’ when in fact what they have to look forward to is a closer and more frequent acquaintance with the charity of the Food Banks. The truth of Cameron’s phrase was exposed by the author of a recent report from the ‘right wing’ Policy Exchange think tank ‘… there are a significant number of people who have had their benefit taken away from them unfairly. Four weeks without any money is driving people to desperate measures’. Even worse – among the regular users of the Food Banks are people suffering from various health problems, including disablement, such that they are unable to work and rely on welfare benefits. Which often requires them to submit to a compulsory programme of tests of their capability and if they fail in this they are likely to be condemned to ‘sanctions’ – a reduction, or even a stop, of their benefit payments.


It is by way of justifying this process, with all its tensions and misery, that Cameron called for that Moral Mission with its assumption that imposed employment is a guarantee of a freer, happier, more fulfilling life. It was clear that bringing this callous fantasy into operation would require one of the specialist organisations of which the better known are SERCO, G4S, Capita Group – and ATOS – none which have been clear of controversy. The government contract was awarded to ATOS, which was formed in 1997 through a series of mergers, take-overs and sell-offs, now presenting itself as supplying hi-tech IT services and network connecting. In the United Kingdom it holds a £500 million government contract to organise and operate the Work Capability Assessment system which forms a judgement of benefit claimants’ fitness to work and passes this to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). ATOS claims to do this ‘… using criteria set out by government, and provides the DWP with independent advice which is used by a DWP Decision Maker, along with any other information they have received, to decide on your entitlement to benefit’. As to their style in carrying out this delicate and sensitive work, their CEO Joe Hemming recently informed the House of Commons Public Administration Committee that it ‘… is proud of the work it does …’ with ‘… a real passion for delivering services to the citizen in a way that continues to satisfy the way the citizen wants to be served’.


But the world outside Joe Hemming’s fantasies has rather different experiences. In dealing with claimants who have been referred to them ATOS uses the Logical Integrated Medical Assessment (LIMA) method which works with a spreadsheet listing questions which have to be answered by the infamous Box Ticking method. Sitting there with a computer and a mouse the assessor (described by ATOS as a ‘healthcare professional’) does not rely on any special knowledge or qualifications or previous contact with the trembling applicant before them. Among the results of these ‘assessments’ there was the 47-year old woman who was pestered to attend to have her Fitness for Work rated when she was in a coma after a heart attack. A 39-year old woman with three children was suffering from a brain tumour. She informed her assessor of this but was told to start looking for a job. Just weeks afterwards she died. In the year up to September 2013 there were 897,690 ‘sanctions’ (would ‘punishment’ not be a more suitable word?) by the DWP carrying the threat of a stoppage of benefits. Predictably there was a flood of protest and appeals. During the final three months of that same period there were some 600,000 appeals with a success rate of 87 percent.


It hardly needs to be said that the work of ATOS, in conjunction with that of the DWP, should always be done so that it is, at the very least, sensitive to the desperate existence of the people they are judging. But that does not happen. In 2013 a doctor who had been an ATOS assessor told the BBC that he had been ‘instructed to change my reports, to reduce the number of points that might be awarded to the claimants. I felt that was wrong professionally and ethically’. It was the same for a nurse who said she had been instructed to mark down claimants she knew were unfit for work. It was predictable that claimants heavily dependent on charities and food banks should react aggressively to this treatment. The Financial Times reported that in 2013 there were almost 163 cases of ATOS staff being insulted and abused: ‘Murdering scum… won’t be smiling when we come to hang you bastards’ was one sample from Facebook. The response of ATOS staff was also as expected: one said on his Facebook that the claimants were ‘parasitic wankers’; another referred to her workplace as ‘… that Godforsaken place with the down-and-outs’. In Edinburgh the ATOS staff retaliated to a protest outside their office by giving the V sign out of an open window. A likely result of all this is that ATOS will give up on their contract before it is due to expire in August next year.


There should be more celebration on this score as so profitable is the mission of cajoling people from the stresses of charity back to those of employment that there are plenty of other companies prepared to take over. There will be no change if Labour win the next election. The Work Capacity Assessment was introduced by the previous Labour government in 2008 and in their 2010 election manifesto they proclaimed their intention to widen its scope – ‘people with disabilities will be helped to move into work’ – and pledged that they would extend their ‘tough but fair work capacity test’ to get more people off Incapacity Benefit and Employment Support Allowance.

The morality of capitalism is founded on intrinsic human misery and operates through legalised theft and exploitation and the consequent hostilities within the class which needs above all to be united. There is no need for ATOS – or for Cameron and his Mission in hypocrisy – to remind us so elaborately of this.


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