The disturbing truth
about a company embraced
by Nicola Sturgeon
It's officially 'great news' and we have the deputy first minister's word for that. The great news is that an 'international IT services company' called Atos, French-owned, has been named as a principal sponsor of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
Nicola Sturgeon's justification for this claim is that the support of Atos will 'ensure that the IT at Glagow 2014 is among the best in the world'. She is, however, Scotland's health secretary as well as Alex Salmond's deputy, and it would be very strange if she was unaware of the extreme concerns surrounding that branch of the operation known as Atos Healthcare.
One of these concerns is its enthusiasm for closing down public debate on its own shortcomings. The Scottish Review would almost certainly be sued if we used the company's logo in illustrating this piece. Criticising Atos also risks legal action; several websites have already been taken down by hosting companies in response to threats.
Perhaps this explains why the Scottish mainstream press so meekly covered the 'great news' announced by Nicola Sturgeon and chose to regurgitate the official press release more or less unaltered. Atos must be happy about the positive vibes of the last few weeks: the unqualified blessing of Scotland's SNP government, the personal endorsement of its health secretary, acres of uncritical press. The favourable PR could even be celebrated as a revival of the Auld Alliance. No doubt it will be at some stage.
Great news, indeed. Not so great news, however, for the many thousands of vulnerable people who are currently undergoing disability assessments by the new sponsors of Glasgow 2014.
Atos has a £100m-a-year contract from Cameron's welfare-unfriendly government to undertake these assessments. The aim is to establish whether claimants for ESA (Employment and Support Allowance) are fit or unfit to work.
Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS), an authoritative source, has received thousands of complaints from disabled people who are deeply unhappy about the treatment they have received. It has evidence of clients with serious health conditions who have been found fit for work, including people with Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, terminal cancer, bipolar disorder, heart failure, strokes, severe depression and agoraphobia. It describes the suffering of these people as 'terrible'.
The main complaints are that some doctors on the Atos register (who are paid a fee per assessment) fail to listen to answers, attribute answers which the claimants insist they did not give, and make rushed decisions.
Last month, the Advertising Standards Authority upheld a complaint against Atos about misleading information on its website. Despite the ASA ruling there was no immediate move by Atos to correct these statements. However, when we checked the site last night, all the disputed figures had been amended. Atos formerly claimed that it employs 1,700 healthcare professionals. This figure has been reduced to 1,400. Its website emphasises that all of them are 'fully trained to undertake disability assessments'.
Nevertheless, there remain serious doubts about the involvement of the medical profession in this process. A Glasgow GP, Dr Margaret McCartney, who attended an Atos recruitment seminar, concluded that she did not feel it was possible for a doctor to work as an Atos assessor and simultaneously adhere to her or his professional reponsibility to place the needs of the patient first at all times. She said it was 'clear that the medical examination consisted of a computerised form to be filled in by choosing drop-down statements and justifying them'.
Her critique in the British Medical Journal provoked an assurance from the General Medical Council that Atos assessments are indeed a doctor-patient interaction and that doctors employed by Atos do have to make the interests of their patients their first concern at all times. This was a serious reminder of an ethical obligation; it is disturbing that it was found necessary to issue it.
The number of disabled people judged fit for work has risen substantially, in line with the Cameron goverment's harsh requirements. But how many of these decisions are just?
The number of ESA tribunals, at which appeals against assessments are heard, is rocketing. In 2010-11, of the 127,000 appeals, 47,600 were successful. There is another way of putting this. In 47,600 cases, the Atos assessment was held to be wrong. In 47,600 cases needless distress was caused to disabled people. Why is the UK government apparently indifferent to this scandal? Why is Atos not penalised for it? And why are Cameron and his work and pensions secretary Duncan Smith (who once took such a close interest in the welfare of the Glasgow poor) paying no heed to an independent review which concluded: 'There is strong evidence that the system can be impersonal and mechanistic, that the process lacks transparency and that a lack of communication between the various parties involved contributes to poor decision-making and a high rate of appeals'. This indictment does nothing for the humane reputation of the medical profession – or for the credibility of the Westminster government.
There are many individual testimonies about the impact of Atos assessments on the lives of disabled people. This is the material which Atos is most anxious to discourage, no doubt because it gives a powerful human dimension to the statistics. Much of it – which used to appear on forums run for and by disabled people – is no longer accessible on the internet as a result of legal threats. Citizens Advice Scotland wants to know why Atos is so keen to suppress public criticism of its work. 'Why,' it asks, 'does Atos not address the very legitimate concerns that are being raised?'.
Nicola Sturgeon talks of 'great news' for Glasgow 2014. The chief executive of the Commonwealth Games has said that the Atos sponsorship deal 'demonstrates the company's commitment to sport'. Like so much else connected with these games, it is all so much guff. Scotland's health secretary has got her priorities wrong. 'Ensuring that the IT at Glagow 2014 is among the best in the world' is not a priority. Instead she should examine how many people in the east end of Glasgow, supposed beneficiaries of this 10-day party, are victims of the system.
That won't be great news.
Kenneth Roy is editor of the Scottish Review