The Secret Cuts: Part Six, How are those with mental health problems treated by Atos?

With complaints about the failed Atos work capability assessment flooding in, Alan White and Kate Belgrave look at some of them.

Update 5 September 2013

This piece originally mentioned allegations that a client was charged £70 by an agency called Outlook South West for a letter outlining his mental health problems. They have been removed. A spokesman for the company has since told us: "We give patients access to their clinical records for free, including any print outs they may require. We have also spoken with the client in question (before the article was published) to reassure them that we could provide what they asked for free of charge and they were quite satisfied with this."

Update, 28 August 2013

In the article below, we talked about GPs being instructed by their Local Medical Committees to stop providing medical support information for disability benefit claimants appealing “fit to work” decisions. That decision by the Bro Taf LMC in Wales had sparked real concern among claimants and campaigners, as you’ll read below.

Now, the ante is being upped even further. GP magazine Pulse is reporting “that Local Medical Committee leaders are considering a ‘Just Say No’ campaign to support [GP] practices who refuse to take on unfunded work.” The story says that LMC leaders have: “already drafted a letter to help them turn down patient requests for support when appealing against their benefits being withdrawn.”

The magazine goes on to say that:

The campaign would be designed to back GPs who turn down requests for medical reports from benefit claimants and requests for work from secondary care. The LMC leaders from Lancashire and Cumbria have already come together to create a template letter for all GP practices to use in the area advising patients against personally asking for help from their GP. But they are also planning on taking forward a campaign to widen a "just say no" campaign to other areas of unfunded workload at its next meeting, including requests from hospitals and other parts of the NHS and social care.

Meanwhile, the Bro Taf local medical committee issued another statement which took an even harder line than the first: it says that “under their NHS contract there is no requirement for GPs to provide reports or offer an opinion on incapacity for work to anyone unless requested to do so by Jobcentre Plus" (you can read the whole statement here). This and the amounts of money that benefit claimants are being asked to pay for medical support information (see below) will leave many claimants in a very bad position - they’ll have trouble getting the information that they need to support their appeals and may be priced out of getting it even if their GPs agree to supply it. That’s an impossible situation and it can’t be allowed to continue.

Original Story

Tony Lea, who runs the Cornish benefit advice charity Bufferzone, wants to tell us about Jane. She suffered abuse from the age of 13. She never went to school and she can’t read or write. She’s 33 years old and has tried to kill herself before.

In February this year, the outsourcing company Atos carried out her Employment and Support Allowance Work Capability Assessment (WCA). She didn’t score any points on the mental health ability descriptors, and was placed in the ESA Work Related Activity Group – the group for claimants that the DWP considers to be capable of work at some point.

She was assigned a career adviser by a company called Prospects, which is contracted to find jobs for the unemployed under the Government’s Work Programme. Jane told this adviser that she had mental health problems. The adviser called her a liar and sanctioned her benefits. By June, Jane had got a job. She was in the job for three days before she tried to commit suicide by overdose.

On 2nd July, Tony told the Prospects career adviser not to contact her, and asked a mental health crisis team to carry out an immediate assessment. On the 29th of that month she tried to take an overdose again. Tony says this was because Prospects sent her a letter. She’d been receiving them for months, asking why she hadn’t been in contact with them. She can’t read and didn’t want them read it out to her, so she’d been storing them in a drawer: 18 of them in total. She recognised the company’s logo on the top, and that tipped her over the edge.

Tony made an official complaint. The DWP said it would not investigate the matter because Prospects has its own internal complaints procedure. On 5th August another Prospects worker phoned Jane. Tony believes “we’d have been looking at another suicide attempt,” had another mental health team not visited her.

When we contacted them, Prospects issued the following statement:

“Prospects strongly refutes the allegations made by Bufferzone which purportedly relate to one of our customers on the Work Programme in South West.

"Prospects takes its responsibilities to its customers and staff seriously. We have robust policies on safeguarding and data protection in place to ensure their privacy and safety is always maintained. With this in mind, it would be inappropriate for Prospects to comment on individual any cases.

"Prospects is currently helping more than 18,000 long term unemployed people in the South West to return to work through its innovative ASCENT model of delivery. Prospects works with customers to help them overcome barriers to employment through bespoke support and training to increase confidence and develop skills.”


You can see why there is such concern about the way that the WCA deals with people who have mental health conditions - and concern about the DWP’s commitment to a real overhaul. Here’s a reason to question that commitment: the Upper Tribunal recently ruled that the current WCA process is unreasonable to people with mental health conditions. That ruling came after an action against the DWP was brought by the Mental Health Resistance Network. Two claimants argued that Atos work capability assessments discriminated against people with mental health conditions. The courts agreed.

That decision would have put the onus on the DWP to source medical information for people with mental health conditions right at the start of their ESA applications. Unfortunately, the DWP is fighting that decision tooth and nail - and was recently granted leave to appeal it. "We already request claimants supply any evidence they feel will be relevant to the assessment in the ESA50 questionnaire," the department said in an email. The fact that the change could improve the experience for people who must go through the appalling work capability process appears to be neither here nor there.

Neither is the fact that sourcing people’s medical information at the start of their WCAs might improve things as far as the public purse goes – people found eligible for ESA from the start would not need to take their case through the wildly oversubscribed and costly appeals process. You’d also think the fact that the minister for employment, Mark Hoban, has been forced to admit there are problems with the assessments and the written reports that Atos produces (“an unacceptable reduction in the quality”) would give the DWP reason to pause when looking to overturn decisions which could dramatically improve the information available to Atos assessors. (Hoban has also brought in his former employers, PricewaterhouseCoopers, “to provide independent advice in relation to strengthening quality assurance processes across all its health and disability assessments.” Ahem).

And then Tony tells us about Claire. She has a history of depression and suicide attempts. The WCA said there was nothing to go on regarding her mental illness. But the mental health team and Tony told Atos and the DWP not to contact her because they strongly believed she had a paranoid schizophrenia condition.

When her case went to tribunal, Claire only had medical evidence that was over ten years old, because her GP refused to provide evidence. The DWP supplied no evidence to back up its case that she was in good mental health. The tribunal chair was deeply unimpressed with the stress to which she was being subjected, and demanded medical evidence from both the department and her GP. Now she faces another tribunal in six weeks’ time.

Tony will most likely win the tribunal. Last year he attended 104 tribunals with nine losses: a 93 per cent success rate. His overall rate of success is 98 per cent. As he says: “Atos are so bad they make my job easy.”


This whole scene is a catastrophe. The implosions are everywhere. A few weeks ago, disability benefit claimants and campaigners were shocked to read that GPs in south east Wales had been told by the Bro Taf local medical committee to stop providing support information for disability benefit claimants appealing “fit to work” decisions, because the work was an “abuse of resources”. We spoke to the Bro Taf LMC, which sent this statement (and they said they’d be issuing another one this week, so we’ll look out for that) to say that their problem was not with providing medical evidence for claims, but for the “increasing number of appeals [which] has resulted in more GP appointments being taken up to deal with such requests.”

None of which helps claimants and we’re looking for a legal view on that withholding of support information. Public Interest Lawyers’ Tessa Gregory says: "It can’t be right that claimants are left without vital medical evidence from their GPs to support them in their appeals against Atos assessments which are notoriously unfair. We are considering the position of both the DWP and the Local Medical Committee carefully to see whether a legal challenge can be brought to ensure that claimants get the assistance they require."   

The WCA’s systemic failures are causing complete havoc.

Only a day before the Bro Taf story appeared, industry magazine Pulse reported that “GPs were struggling to cope with a 21 per cent rise in requests to verify work capability since January [2013]” – saying that figures obtained by Pulse “showed the number of requests to verify claimants’ ability to work have increased by over a fifth since the beginning of this year.”

Note the anger in the comments on that story, with people arguing that they're doing the extra work for social security “reform”, while Atos makes the profit - “ATOS collects the money. GPs do the work. Welcome to the Tory vision of privatisation.”

As far as charging for medical information is concerned: it's not new for GPs and consultants to charge (there's a list of some charges here) – but the problem in the case of disability benefits is that cost could be pricing people out of vital information they need to support their claims and leave them with absolutely nowhere to go. What happens then? Around the country, people are being asked to pay £20, £30, £50 and more for medical evidence (you can see in the comments here that even last year, people were being charged upwards of £100 for support information and saying they couldn’t afford to pay it).

The Citizens Advice Bureau saw all this a mile off: they raised the issue of cost back in their January 2012 investigation (called Right First Time) into the accuracy (or otherwise) of ESA reports. The CAB observed then that: "In many cases, NHS doctors will charge an average of £30 (we have evidence of consultants charging £200 an hour) for medical evidence and few people on low incomes can afford to pay this much out of an income of £67.50 ESA (assessment phase rate) per week." That was over 18 months ago. As the number of appeals skyrocketed, this problem could only grow.

And it’s grown into a right disaster. When the Bro Taf story broke, the disability campaigner Sue Marsh wrote about Mark Hoban’s attempts to shift responsibility for the ever-burgeoning appeal rate: as she said here, Hoban has implied that the high rate of ESA appeals is at least in part because people don’t have enough medical evidence:

“DWP ministers have blamed the staggering 43 per cent ESA (Employment and Support Allowance) appeal rate on claimants not requesting and submitting enough medical evidence. As Mark Hoban claimed, “What’s happening too often is people are suggesting to claimants ‘oh, just leave the medical evidence until the appeal’ – there’s a shared responsibility here.”

In theory, within the claim process, Atos is expected to request evidence from a claimant’s doctor when the claimant is likely to be placed in the Support Group. For the year up to October 2012, Atos only requested such evidence (as an ESA113 form) in 27.2 per cent of all ESA referrals; 23.8 per cent of these were not returned by GPs.” The DWP would have us believe that extra sourcing of information is a robust part of the WCA process: when we asked why it was trying to overturn the Upper Tribunal decision on mental health claimants, the department said: “Atos healthcare professionals will continue to seek further medical evidence in accordance with the Department’s guidelines.” Doesn’t sound like that’s going too well.

Sue Marsh tells us that Hoban needs to sort it out. “The ESA50 clearly suggests that a claimant sends in medical evidence from a consultant or GP that knows them best. If those medical professionals are now withholding that vital support and Mr Hoban insists that it is necessary for an accurate WCA decision, he MUST act immediately to make sure that medical professionals cannot refuse to provide this evidence and that they are not allowed to charge punitive fees for obtaining it."


All Bufferzone client names have been changed

Atos. Photograph: Getty Images
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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear