Paralympic sponsor engulfed by disability tests row

Atos accused of wrongly classing benefit applicants as fit for work

More than 40 doctors and nurses working for major Paralympics sponsor Atos have been reported to medical regulators for professional misconduct amid growing concerns that disabled people are being wrongly deprived of benefits, The Independent can reveal.

The French firm, which has £3.1bn of government contracts, is facing accusations that its assessors are classifying seriously sick and disabled people as suitable for work. Tara Flood, a former Paralympic gold medal-winning swimmer, said: "Atos must think that by sponsoring the Paralympics they will convince everyone that they are only here to support disabled people rather than what they actual do, which is destroy people's lives."

The General Medical Council has 16 current complaints about Atos doctors, 12 of which relate directly to their role in the much-maligned benefit assessments.

The Nursing & Midwifery Council is dealing with at least 27 complaints amid similar allegations that the nurses conducting Work Capability Assessments (WCA) have fallen short of the professional code of conduct.

Anyone who claims Employment Support Allowance because they are too sick or disabled to work must pass a WCA, designed by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) but conducted by one of Atos's 1,400 staff.

The revelations come as protesters led by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) prepare to hold a vigil outside the French company's UK head office in central London this afternoon to commemorate the lives of hundreds of people who died last year after being declared fit for work. Thousands of people have had their benefits stopped overnight, with many claiming they have been forced to miss meals and switch off their heating to make ends meet. Some say they have been pushed into depression as a result.

Information gathered by False Economy and the Citizen's Advice Bureau has found non-Atos doctors are charging up to £200 to provide medical evidence for WCAs and appeals which many claimants cannot afford. Just over 70 per cent of people who attend an appeal with a Citizen's Advice Bureau officer or lawyer successfully overturn the original DWP decision – the figure is 40 per cent for those who go it alone. But legal aid for most benefit appeals will stop in April 2013.

The Independent has gathered dozens of stories which adds weight to the suggestion that the WCA is not fit for purpose. One of the most common complaints is that the conclusions recorded by the health professional in their WCA report do not accurately reflect what was said during the assessment. Atos said only eight assessments were sent back as below standard or incorrect by tribunal judges in the first four months of 2012.

Many also complain about rude, unhelpful assessors who refuse to look at medical letters or allow people to explain fully what they mean. A number of people have secretly recorded their assessments or asked someone to come along to take notes. In one case, a 32-year-old man with serious mental health problems scored zero points in his WCA – clearing him to work – despite finding it impossible to leave his house on most days. His mother, who asked not to be identified, said: "It was manipulative, the nurse was putting words into my son's mouth. He used the one thing he actually can do occasionally, art therapy, against him to say he is fit to work. I'm really worried that if he doesn't get through the appeal that he could try to harm himself." The family has referred the nurse to the NMC.

Ministers have so far rejected demands to record every WCA but say people can request a recording in advance. Atos has 98 recording machines for 11,000 weekly assessments carried out at 148 assessment centres, which many argue is grossly inadequate. There are widespread reports of machines not being available or broken, yet Atos says it has only turned down 20 out of 430 requests in the past three months.

An on-going DPAC survey has found three-quarters of the 507 disabled people who responded did not know they had a right to ask for a recording. Of those that did ask, 87 per cent said they were told no and that they would be designated as a "no show" if they didn't attend. The DWP says it has no plans to offer a recording service for the new Personal Independence Payment test, which will soon replace Disability Living Allowance. The Government wants to cuts this bill by 20 per cent; the contract is worth £400m to Atos.

Some of the most worrying stories come from people with mental health problems who frequently complain that Atos assessors have little knowledge of their condition. Around two-fifths of the allowance's claimants have mental health problems; Atos has recently employed 60 "mental function champions" to provide training to assessors. Atos say all health professionals go through some basic mental health training.

Two mentally ill people, represented by the Public Law Project, have mounted a legal challenge against the Government for failing to take into account these special needs, and hope to force Atos and the DWP to routinely seek psychiatric evidence from the outset. The judicial review could help reduce the appeals that cost the taxpayer £60m last year and reduce unnecessary distress for patients.

An Atos spokesperson said: "We do not make decisions on people's benefit entitlement or on welfare policy but we will continue to make sure that service that we provide is as highly professional and compassionate as it can be. We hope people will view the Paralympics Games, as we do, as an opportunity to celebrate sporting achievement."

The Employment minister Chris Grayling said: "We have made progress [since 2010] in giving people a more tailored and personal service and as a result we are seeing an increase in the number of severely disabled people being given long-term unconditional support…. We are working to make sure the WCA is both fair and effective, it is in everyone's interest to get the system right."

Case studies: Disabled – but declared 'fit for work'

Lesley Roberts, 54, Shropshire

Ms Roberts was diagnosed with a condition where tumours regularly grow on her nerves and tissues. She was declared fit for work by an Atos doctor and her benefits stopped.

"I had a breast-cancer scare, so when I filled in the ESA form I was in bad place. The Atos doctor gave me zero points. She said she'd examined my legs and they were normal, but she hadn't – I had 25 painful lumps. It took nine months for the decision to be overturned but I don't get the ESA as my partner, who is 60, earns too much. I would work if I could – to be around people would be wonderful."

Pete Whitehead, 59, Leeds

Mr Whitehead is registered blind. He has 10 per cent of his central vision left in his one "working" eye and no peripheral vision as a result of early onset glaucoma. He worked for 40 years but was forced to retire as a manager of a manufacturing firm in 2008 because it was unsafe to continue. Since then he has received around £130 a week in benefits.

He was assessed by Atos in April and put in the ESA "work-related activity group" – which means his ESA, £97 a week, will be stopped in April if his appeal is unsuccessful.

"I think Atos expected me to walk in with a dog and a stick. The nurse was pleasant enough but she asked me if I could walk 10 yards. Well walking isn't my problem, it's what I walk into. It was ridiculous. Do you think I wouldn't work if I could? I said: 'Let's say I get a job, what happens if I get knocked down going to work?' She said, 'It's not for me to say'.

"I live on my own, my daughter helps me, but I burn myself on the iron. I have a close call once a week with traffic because I don't want to give up my independence. It's an absolute farce."

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