AGREAT many disability activists will be feeling vindicated following the latest Government statements about the role of French-based Atos Healthcare in assessing people for sickness benefits.
The company has been responsible for carrying out eligibility checks on people claiming Employment and Support Allowance, the replacement for the old Incapacity Benefit, since the new system was introduced.
The new checks were designed to be more positive in outlook, emphasising what benefit claimants could do, not what they could not. Doctors, nurses and physiotherapists are employed by Atos and authorised to determine what applicants could do in the way of work. However, interviewees have repeatedly claimed Atos employees work from a tick-box, computer-based prompt, sometimes barely looking up at the person faceing them.
Opponents of the system say the high level of successful appeals against assessments is confirmation of their objections. Some 38% of fitness-for-work decisions are overturned on appeal, according to the Public Accounts Committee.
The cost of tribunals sitting to hear employment and support allowance (ESA) appeals is staggering and rose from £21 million in 2009/10 to £66 million in 2012/13. Atos argues its reports were to blame for successful appeals in only 0.3% of cases.
Yet the Coalition Government has ordered Atos to improve its service. Turning the tables, it has assessed the company and found that 41% of medical assessments it carried during a recent six month period merited only a grade C - the lowest on offer.
Atos must put in place an improvement programme, with staff audited for quality while its monopoly will be removed, with other firms invited to bid for new contracts to assess claimants from next summer.
Any celebrations must be muted. When employment minister Mark Hoban says "it's vital we continue to improve the service to claimants," disabled people, their carers and supporters will treat his words with great scepticism.
There is a widespread perception among disabled people that welfare and service cuts have impacted excessively upon them, and bringing in new providers will do little to counter that. In driving people off sickness and disability benefits, campaigners believe, Atos has been acting under orders from the Government itself.
It is not as if problems with the system have been invisible. Occupational health expert Professor Malcolm Harrington's three independent reviews of the system have repeatedly called for changes, as did the Work and Pensions Committee in 2011 and the Public Accounts Committee last February.
Flaws in the system include an inability to cope with fluctuating conditions such as mental health problems or multiple sclerosis, or complicated ones which do not readily fit a questionnaire format such as autism. Unless such weaknesses are addressed, ending the Atos monopoly will look like a fig leaf for a flawed and punitive policy.
Citizens' Advice argues Atos should be fined for every wrong report, which may be impractical and counterproductive. But its other call – for a regular, independent monitoring process – is vital and must be introduced urgently, for Atos and any new providers alike.