Disability campaigners laid siege to Atos assessment centres up and down the country today, in a bid to increase public pressure on the government to end what many see as a war against disabled people.
Union activists, Disabled People Against Cuts and Black Triangle targeted 144 assessment centres where people are told whether they are able to work and if they are still entitled to benefits.
The government argues the system helps millions of people off benefit and back into work. But campaigners have pointed out that the government’s own figures show 10,600 people died within six weeks of being declared ‘fit for work’ by Atos, last year.
Unite the union assistant general secretary Steve Turner said: ‘This alone should have set alarm bells ringing that the assessments were not fit for purpose. We are calling on the government to stop this degrading policy and introduce a fairer transparent system that restores dignity to the sick and disabled.’
Over 40 per cent of cases where people have been deemed fit to work have had their appeals upheld. However the appeals process can take months or even years while some of the most vulnerable disabled are plunged into poverty.
Leading Wolverhampton trades unionist Nick Kelleher knows all too well about this issue. From a protest early this morning in the city he told Red Pepper: ‘I know people who have appealed a decision by Atos have been waiting a year. They have no benefits and are relying on food banks.’
He said the government was intent on cutting the benefits bill but insisted it was a small percentage of overall spending. He added: ‘They should be going after big companies that don’t pay their fair share of tax.’
Many campaigners are eager to see people with disabilities genuinely helped back into work, if they are able to. But they say the onus doesn’t just lie with the individual.
Bob Williams-Findlay, a university equality training officer, said: ‘The system used by Atos only measures certain aspects of someone’s capability to work. Some people with disabilities like me can work but only when a good employer addresses their needs.
‘Atos is making huge profits. The system needs changing, not the welfare state.’
Another union backing the campaign against Atos today, the PCS, would be a major union in representing workers assessing disabled people if the service was brought back in-house.
General secretary Mark Serwotka said: ‘It is a scandal that the likes of Atos are profiting from this government’s cold and calculating assault on sick and disabled people. The demeaning tests should be scrapped and the work to provide the kind of professional and caring support that disabled people need and deserve should be brought back in-house.’
Today marks an important escalation in the campaign and through social media, rather than the mass media, this injustice being heaped on the disabled and sick will not go unnoticed.