Atos move sparks concern over future of disability assessments
Friday, 19 October 2012Disability campaigners have raised concerns about of a Scottish NHS board’s role in assessing people’s ability to work and access to benefits.
Charities have said NHS Lanarkshire is risking its reputation by agreeing to run work-capability assessments across Scotland on behalf of controversial healthcare firm Atos.
The company has been roundly criticised for its hard-line approach, resulting in thousands of its assessments being overturned by independent appeals panels.
After increasing pressure from disability groups, the firm has now subcontracted NHS Lanarkshire to carry out assessments for the new Personal Independence Payment, which will replace Disability Living Allowance from next year.
However, leading disability campaigners and welfare rights groups are demanding guarantees from the UK Government that the heavy handed tactics adopted by Atos won’t be repeated by the new contractors.
Atos told TFN that subcontracting the work to the NHS would help assessors make more informed decisions as they would work alongside local health boards when it came to assessing claimants.
However Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) said it was concerned whether the NHS could deliver the assessments fairly in light of the UK Government’s intention to make budget savings of 20 per cent to disability benefits over the next three years. The move it said, will heap pressure on assessors to hit financial targets at disabled people’s expense.
CAS chief executive Margaret Lynch said: “There are a number of questions that need to be answered. So we will be writing to Atos, seeking clarity on all of these issues – and also on whether the companies have been set targets.
“The priority must be to make sure disabled people are treated fairly and with dignity. This was not the case with the ESA assessments, and we must make sure that those mistakes are not repeated.”
Bill Scott of Inclusion Scotland said that while it was good news that Atos was not directly involved, the entire assessment process was still tainted by unfairness and discrimination, a situation that was unlikely to be addressed by any new contractor.
“Because of this, those who administer the assessments are going to be associated, in the minds of those same disabled people, with an unfair system that reduces disabled people’s living standards and ability to live independently. In other words those companies are going to be brought into the same type of disrepute as Atos itself.”
It comes as leading disability organisations in Scotland, under the banner of the Hardest Hit Coalition, plan a week of awareness-raising action from 20 to 27 October to protests against the reforms.
The week will culminate with the launch of a time capsule video containing testimonies from disabled people directly affected by the changes and will also see a fringe event take place during the Scottish Liberal Democrat conference where disabled people and groups will call on the government to stop stigmatising the most vulnerable.
A spokesperson for RNIB Scotland said: “The government claims this is about simplifying the benefits system whilst also insisting it needs to make at least 20 per cent cuts,” he said.
“Disabled people feel that this is about them being hit harder than other groups in society and not an exercise in streamlining the benefits system.”