Monday, 15 April 2013

The ATOS Inquisition

There was a time when the Spanish Inquisition hunted down those with the ‘wrong’ beliefs and made them recant their heresy. Now the British Government has rekindled its spirit, but with the aim of confronting the sick and the maimed so as to make them recant their disability.

Imagine you have been struck down by an illness, and according to your doctor, you will no longer be able to carry out work that would earn you a wage in today’s economy. For a time, you draw solace from the fact that you live under a state that maintains a genuine safety net for all, and you will not be left jobless, homeless, or having to beg for charity to keep you alive.

But then a Conservative-led Government comes along and decides that the best way to deflect public attention from its refusal to curb the excessive powers of the corporate elite is to serve up scapegoats. So it tells two and a half million people incapacitated by diverse forms of illness and injury that it will no longer pay any attention to what the doctors who have actually dealt with them have to say. Instead, it brings in the corporation, ATOS, to light the flame of recantation.

ATOS Inquisitors, armed with the mandate to interrogate and declare as many disabled people as undeserving of public support, have plunged countless vulnerable people into the deepest despair.

Examples of ATOS callousness and incompetence abound. Calling themselves ‘assessors’, they ask those summoned to appear before them questions such as “how long have you had Down’s Syndrome?” or “when did you catch autism?” A middle-aged woman, registered blind, was simply told that her benefit would be withdrawn. In another case, a 24-year-old epileptic, who was subject to grand mal seizures, had his benefit cut after he was ‘assessed’ to be fit for work. Just three months later, after living in fear that he could not pay his rent or buy food, he had a major seizure and died. People with debilitating and terminal cancer have also been told they had to surrender their benefits.

For those who managed to find help to appeal against ATOS, a third have had their assessments overturned. But many are too stressed or isolated to mount a challenge. Justice can only prevail if the entire inquisition regime is cast aside. The National Audit Office has investigated and found ATOS work to be unsatisfactory. The British Medical Association has asked for the assessment system to be scrapped.

But the Government is not relenting for one moment, even if people are dying from the fear and reality of losing what little money they had hitherto relied on to stay afloat. The Government is bringing in even more stringent inquisitional criteria to cut the provision of life-saving benefits. Meanwhile, they reward ATOS so handsomely that its chief executive is given a £1 million bonus.

If the ATOS Inquisition had featured in a dystopian novel about what a rightwing government might do, it would be decried as irresponsible scaremongering. Sadly it is all too real.

[To learn more about the Employment & Support Allowance (ESA), take the ESA Quiz. Note: the number of people claiming benefit as they are unable to work has not actually risen since 1997]