As part of wider Welfare Reform, the Department of Work and Pensions have contracted French company ATOS Healthcare to carry out Work Capability Assessments (WCA). Work Capability Assessments are intended to assess whether a benefit claimant, whose claim is based on their disability, is “fit to work”, or eligible for support. Anyone currently claiming Employment Support Allowance (ESA) is required to undergo a WCA, while anyone claiming Disability Living Allowance (DLA) – even those granted an award for life – will be required to have a WCA over the coming 4 years, as the DLA changes to Personal Independence Payment (PIP). From now on claimants will be reassessed with varying frequency to make sure the conditions for entitlement are maintained.

ATOS carry out their assessments using criteria given to them by the DWP. These assessments are not about considering the impairment of the individual, but rather the impact the impairment has on everyday activities, cognitive skills and dexterity – your ability to work. It consists of a questionnaire, followed in most cases by a face to face assessment with an independent ATOS Health Professional. As an example, one of the questions in the questionnaire asks whether you can carry a one litre container with either hand. In the guide to the WCA on the website, it says “No claimant will be found not to have limited capability for work without either having a face-to-face assessment or having been offered one”, so your benefit will not be cancelled without an assessment.  The final decision on benefit claims will also be made by a DWP “decision maker” not by the ATOS Health Professional.

Controversy about the ATOS assessments has been rising this year. In April/May 2013 the DWP carried out an audit of 400 ATOS WCA assessments, finding that 41% were graded “unacceptable”, while 42% of appeals against the results of ATOS assessments have been upheld. This comes at a cost of £20m in tribunal and court costs, and much uncertainty and lost benefits for those subject to poor assessments. Due to the back log created by the sheer quantity of appeals, appellants can be made to wait several months.

A few weeks ago in Prime Ministers Questions, MP Dennis Skinner gave an example of one of his constituents who died of cancer, after waiting 11 months to hear back regarding his appeal against his ATOS assessment. Mr Skinner, red faced, demanded “abolish this cruel, heartless monster called Atos - get rid of it."

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