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Atos to Maximus - Redefining Disability: Where Now for British Welfare Reform Protest Movement

  • Published: 2015-03-23 : Author: Paul Dodenhoff
  • Synopsis: Paul Dodenhoff writes on Maximus taking over from Atos Healthcare as UK provider of Fitness for Work Program and the Work Capability Assessment.

Quote: "Since Atos decided to quit its contract, some disabled groups have reported a slight softening of policy at many of the WCA centers."

Main Document

Within the UK, disability campaign groups now form a well organized and a well-informed movement, with tens of thousands of activists fighting for the rights of the disabled, particularly the fight against welfare reform that have been introduced under the banner of 'austerity'. Reform that have hit disabled people extremely hard, reform that have driven many to suicide, and reform that is as much about redefining disability, as it is about reducing the welfare bill.

The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) is the test designed and used by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) in the United Kingdom to determine whether disabled welfare claimants are entitled to Employment and Support Allowance. Atos Healthcare, part of the multinational company Atos, conducted the assessments until 1 March 2015 when the American firm Maximus - trading as the Center for Health and Disability Assessments - took over. The test has been criticized for the high proportion of those tested being found 'fit for work'.

Monday 2nd March 2015 saw a nationwide protest on the first day of Maximus taking over from Atos Healthcare as the UK's provider of the British Government's 'Fitness for Work Program' and it's 'Work Capability Assessment' . A protest specifically targeting assessment centers were these tests take place, and a continuation of the protests that have occurred daily over the 6 years that Atos was the Government's chief provider, protests that have generally met with little media coverage within the UK itself.

A lack of coverage that contrasts sharply with the continuing media targeting of the disabled as fakers, scroungers and benefit frauds. A lack of coverage that goes beyond a mere lack of interest, but one that actively hides institutional and establishment efforts at redefining disability from the majority of Brits, and one that actively helps to support and condone it.

What is WCA

The last Labor government introduced its 'fitness to work' program in 2008, a program targeting the disabled and the sick within the UK who were not in current employment through disability or ill-health, and receiving welfare benefits of some kind. The cornerstone of this program is the 'work capability assessment' (WCA) an assessment of claimants that 'double check' their inability to work, and a program run initially by Atos Healthcare, and from the 2nd March 2015, Maximus.

The WCA is argued by disabled groups as not only a brutal, inhuman and degrading system, where the disabled have to 'perform' a number of physical and mental tricks in front of assessors, but that one that has the 'humiliation' factor actively inbuilt into the system. A cynical tactic solely used to frighten off as many people as possible from claiming welfare and back into employment - by making the claiming of state welfare as degrading as possible. Campaigners argue that these assessments also do not take adequate account of mental impairment nor mental illness, where many such claimants have subsequently been found 'fit for work' and forced onto jobseekers benefits and work support programs - in spite of medical evidence and documentation that claimants can supply to back up their case.

Currently, campaign groups argue that up to 100,000 patients with mental health issues may have had their benefits removed in recent times, and thereby forced into seeking employment. And pretty much without a 'cat in hell's' chance of finding any employer to employ them.

Atos quit their contract with the British Government after claiming that its employees were being subjected to abuse and violence from claimants and threats of bomb attacks at assessment centers, after wave after wave of local and national protests, with constant picketing of assessment centers themselves. In reality, Atos may have quit their contract for two main reasons. Firstly, immense damage was being caused to Atos's global business reputation, and secondly, Atos found it increasing difficult to employ staff.

Additionally, the contract that Atos had with the British Government to administer WCA is only small fry compared to the contract Atos has with the British Government to supply other services. So no big deal, and a reality that dents campaigners claims that the protests against Atos and the Government have been successful. Atos may have gone, but Maximus takes over a WCA program in what may only be a 're-branding' exercise.

Atos to Maximus: Business as usual

Since Atos decided to quit its contract, some disabled groups have reported a slight softening of policy at many of the WCA centers. Whether this softening approach is permanent, time will only tell. However, campaigners point to the general aggressive nature of WCA, which they believe originates from Government target setting and political pressure to reduce the numbers of disabled on welfare. But while Maximus have given assurances that WCA under their watch will be conducted sensitively, many campaigners see the Maximus takeover as little more than a re-branding exercise, and one where former employees of Atos have actually been taken on by Maximus, including many its former senior managers.

One question to ask is that if claims are true that Atos and their staff where abused and subjected to violence or threats of violence, why on earth would Maximus want the job? Certainly it's a nice little earner. Maximus are reported to be getting paid much more than Atos was, and something reported to be in the region of £590 Million to £650 Million, over the next three years. It is certainly helpful for the company to finally get a toe-hold in Europe, in order to meet further expansion plans - a company that has been dogged by controversy in the past. But should the British Government be paying global companies such as Atos and Maximus to perform sensitive welfare tasks like WCA, and for a profit? Many of us think not.

The logic of WCA

Many disabled groups believe that a change of Government from Conservative to Labor within the UK this year, via the next general election, will bring about a softer approach to disability and welfare reform. This is unlikely to happen. It needs to be repeated that it was the last Labor administration who brought in WCA in 2008, not the current Government. An analysis of the papers connected with WCA at the time, indicate an establishment belief that the numbers of people claiming 'sickness' benefit could be reduced somewhat, by highlighting those judged to be capable of working but won't for whatever reason. What WCA is trying to do, is primarily to move the goalposts. Where disability is suddenly 'cured' or removed by a redefining what disability is.

There may indeed be disabled people who could work and want to work, but end up on welfare benefits after finding problems with discriminatory attitudes of British employers, particularly negative attitudes towards mental impairment and mental ill-health. However, the introduction of WCA is primarily misguided, based solely on the premise that there are millions of people within the UK who are just far too lazy to find work. An expression of a long standing, deep-rooted establishment fear that is generated time and time again throughout British social history.

However, there is also very little evidence to suggest that Britain has ever suffered widespread abuse of its welfare system or of charity, but it's an argument that is constantly generated, and one that encourages people's fears that some people are getting something for nothing, that some people are cheating the 'system', and that some people simply don't have a 'work ethic'. Even to an extent that the thousands of 'food banks' that have sprung up in Britain in the wake of austerity welfare reforms, are now argued by some to also encourage dependency and erode the work ethic.

One of the myths often spouted by British politicians and the media is that there are generations of workless, work-shy families in Britain, ripping off an over generous welfare and charitable system. However, organizations such as The Center for Labor and Social Studies, consistently highlight that only a very small number of households within the UK have had generations of families who have never worked. Additionally, for the vast majority of people, working pays far more than they could ever receive from claiming welfare or from charity.

One of the main problems we have within the UK is that our media picks up on the small number of cases that don't fit that pattern and sensationalize it, either in order to generate stories that sell more newspapers, or more than likely, help support the vested-interests and self-interest of their proprietors. Similarly, disabled people get victimized and vilified by the UK press for being benefit frauds and cheats, yet benefit fraud is not as wide spread as the general public is often led to believe, and far more is lost to the economy in welfare over-payments due to official error than to welfare fraud itself.

But is this type of political and media behavior legal? Certainly, the press seem to get away with benefit fraud stories that are sometimes not only fabricated, but may contain elements that many view as overt 'bias and prejudice' towards disability.

Legitimated 'bias and prejudice' towards disability.

A few weeks ago, the British media was aghast when Chelsea football (soccer) fans were filmed pushing a Black man from a train in Paris while shouting racist abuse. The incident rightly caused global media outrage, and a nationwide search within the UK for the culprits. However, the disabled are also treated to similar abuse and behavior when negotiating public transport within the UK itself, yet very rarely would these stories make media headlines, and even more rarely would the police investigate them. These incidents when occurring to disability often get written off as mere 'anti-social' behavior.

By and large, negative attitudes and behavior towards disability are arguably treated less seriously within the UK than say, race or religion. For example, while 'stirring up' hatred towards race, religion and sexuality is illegal under current British law, it is not illegal if directed at the disabled. While these laws are undoubtedly difficult to police, as evidence is needed as proof that intent to 'stir up' hatred was indeed the aim, they still may act as a general deterrent to those stirring up hostility for their own political ends. Many disabled people believe that they have been deliberately targeted by the press for being benefit cheats and fakes for political reasons, in order to sell welfare reform to the British public. A belief that stems from abuse, harassment and violence directed towards disability that many argue is motivated sometimes by such stories.

A recent Law Commission consultation exercise looked at changing UK law in order to further protect disabled people from acts that 'stir up' hatred. They concluded that although the disabled are not given the same protection under British law than race, religion or sexuality, no changes where necessary, despite initial indications that the law would indeed be changed.

It's very hard not to see some kind of political skulduggery at hand in this decision, as undoubtedly such an change would make it more difficult for the media to play the benefit fraud card as much as it does at the moment. Media nonsense that plays into the hands of a political elite who would have us believe that benefit fraud is the mother and father of all sins within the UK.

In May 2015 the UK goes to the polls to choose a new Government. However, whoever gets into power will unlikely make much difference to the way the disabled are treated. Within the UK we have a political elite who pass power back and forth to each other, with very little attempt at positive change, except cosmetic change. For Maximus read Atos, for the Conservatives read Labor.

Atos Healthcare & MAXIMUS

Atos Healthcare - Provides independent assessments on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for Personal Independence Payment (PIP). Their role is to provide DWP with a report that meets their rigorous quality standards and forms part of an evidence pack that enables their Decision Makers to reach a decision on a person's entitlement to benefit.

MAXIMUS - Specializes in delivering health and employment services for governments across the world. It is a key Work Program provider in the UK and was recently awarded the contract to deliver the new Fit for Work service.

Facts: Fit for Work - Work Capability Assessment

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