Atos staff and targets

Friends and Family accompanying claimants
In his independent reviews of the WCA, Professor Harrington made a series of recommendations on how Atos could make their face-to-face assessments more humane. One of these was to allow friends and family to attend assessments with applicants. While the Government claims to have accepted this, Dr Paul Litchfield identified issues with implementation in chapter four of the fourth independent review of the WCA. In their response the Government downplay this as merely an issue of communication.

Assessment rooms
In the same chapter Dr Litchfield argues that to make assessments less confrontational and improve perceptions of fairness, Atos should rearrange the furniture in their rooms so that claimants can see what is being written about them. In their response the Government claim to accept these recommendations in principle.

Dr Litchfield also expresses concern that the training Atos staff receive encourages them to make incorrect inferences about claimant’s functional capability – see chapter four of his report. Former Atos assessor Dr Greg Wood provides a number of examples of this on his website:

  • Example 1: if a claimant can press a button on a keyboard, they can use a computer.
  • Example 2: if a claimant can buy things from a supermarket they could walk 800 meters, and it fails to acknowledge that aids sometimes fail and won’t fully remedy incontinence problems.
  • Example 3: if a claimant can get up and wash on the same day, they have sufficient mental focus to work.
  • Examples 4 and 5: If a claimant isn’t at risk of self-harm, they’re not at risk of having their condition exacerbated by stress or the physical effort incurred while at work:

Dr Litchfield recommends that Atos staff should be retrained to avoid the use of inference and in their response the Government committed to look at this, but only as part of other work on the possible use of semi-structured interviews. The Work and Pensions Select Committee also called for assessors to avoid reporting inferences in out July 2014 report on ESA.

In addition I’m concerned about the level of qualification of Atos Healthcare Professionals. In response to a Freedom of Information request the DWP stated:

The training and qualifications held by HCP’s in disability assessment are not recognised by the European Qualifications (Health and Social Care Professions) Regulations 2007 or by any such legislation.

Mental Health Champions
I’m concerned that another of Professor Harrington’s recommendations from the first independent review of the WCA – that there should be experts or ‘champions’ on mental health in each Atos assessment centre – has been watered down by the Government. In a written answer from 29 February 2012 the previous minister Chris Grayling revealed that there were champions in only 2 of the 30 assessment centres across the whole of Scotland (this answer from 10 September reveals there are 60 champions across the UK). I appreciate that some of these centres are remote and used less than those in towns and cities, but this still falls well short of the mark. It’s also frustrating that the Minister refuses to check whether the champions are actually having an impact, as indicated in this answer and this answer from 3 September 2012, and this one from 10 September 2012.

In chapter seven of the fourth independent review review, Dr Paul Litchfield argues that assessors need both better training and more experience in dealing with people with mental health conditions. In their response the DWP suggest they believe the training and performance management measures they already have in place are sufficient.

It is regularly suggested that Atos has targets with respect to the number of people it needs to declare fit for work – suggestions the Government strenuously denies. However Dr Greg Wood has suggested that Atos’ internal audit process may have the same effect as targets – see his articles here and here. This practice was highlighted in a BBC Panorama documentary from July 2012, which suggested that Atos staff were expected to see eight people per day and ‘quality assurance’ procedures were instigated if they deviated from the average spread of decisions between FFW, WRAG and SG. This has since been confirmed by an answer from 5 September 2012 (although this answer from 10 September and this one from 13 September confuses the issue somewhat).

In our July 2014 report on ESA, the Work and Pensions Select Committee concluded that:

It is very difficult to assess the extent to which those who implement a particular policy or deliver services believe there are targets, even where these do not officially exist, and what impact these impressions might have.

We made the following recommendation:

It is also very important that claimants regain confidence in the objectivity and accuracy of the WCA. DWP should be alert to the risks which norms-based monitoring may create in this respect when agreeing auditing arrangements with the new provider.

Assessment times
An answer to a parliamentary question from 9 July 2012 suggests that Atos were taking more time over each assessment. In theory this should have led to more accurate advice being provided to DWP Decision Makers, but I fear that the company failed to recruit sufficient additional staff and thus delays in processing times have risen.

Mystery shoppers
143 mystery shopper visits to assessment centres were conducted by Atos in 2010-11 – as revealed by this answer from 2 July 2012 – and that every centre in Scotland received a visit during that year – from a further answer from 6 July.