Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Atos Deaths: Counting the corpses [AAV]

Last week someone began demanding that I provide evidence to back an assertion I had made in an article I wrote last year about Tory Work and Pensions minister Iain Duncan Smith's callous contempt for the dead victims of his welfare reform policies.

In the article I made the claim that "thousands of people have died after having been found fit for work" after enduring the stressful WCA regime administered by the French outsourcing company Atos. Now, I'm not complaining about the fact that I've been asked to substantiate my claim, far from it. If I make an assertion without providing a link to supporting evidence, I should be able to back it up with some kind of evidence or analysis, which is what I intend to do here.

It is undeniable that people have died after having been found "fit-for-work" by Atos. One of the examples Iain Duncan Smith reacted so angrily and disrespectfully towards was the case of Brian McArdle, the 57 year old (suffering paralysis, blind in one eye and unable to speak) who died one day after being declared fit for work by Atos. There are many other documented cases of people dying after being declared fit by Atos too, you only need to read the Hansard transcript from the January 2013 Parliamentary debate on the Atos WCA for many more harrowing cases.

The main problem with justifying the claim that thousands of people are dying after being declared "fit-for-work" by Atos is that the government don't bother to collect the statistics for those people stripped of their disability benefits to have subsequently died. Here's what they say about it:
"Data on the number of ESA claimants that have died following a fit for work decision is not available, as the Department does not hold information on a death if the personhas already left benefit."
Incapacity Benefits: Deaths of Recipients, DWP Report July 2012
The fact that the government openly admit that they can't even be bothered to count the victims of their own policies is absolutely shocking stuff. Not only is it shocking that they don't bother to collect the data, but it is also worthwhile noting that this refusal to collect and publish this data makes the job of opposing the hopelessly flawed WCA regime significantly more difficult. It doesn't however make it impossible as I intend to demonstrate.

The same DWP document does include the number of people that died after being told that they must prepare to return to the workplace (put in the "Work Related Activity Group"). This figure stands at 1,300 for the 11 month period January 2011 to November 2011. From this we can extrapolate a reasonable estimate for the number of people to have died after being told that they are fit enough to prepare to return to the workplace. If we increase the figure by one 11th to extend it to cover a full year, we get 1,418 and extend it again by 15% to reflect the fact that the number of WCA assessments undertaken in 2012 has been significantly higher than those conducted in 2011, we get an estimated figure of 1,630 people to have died in 2012 within six weeks of having been told that they must start preparing to go back to work.

This estimate of 1,630 deaths within six weeks amongst the 20%-30% of people that are told to prepare to return to work is a shocking figure, however the main problem is that similar statistics simply are not recorded for the 50%+ that are declared "fit-for-work" and thrown off their disability benefits entirely. That these statistics are not collected is callous and revolting, yet it is still possible to generate reasonable extrapolations to show that significant numbers of people declared "fit-for-work" are dying within weeks too.

The most important area to consider is the truly appalling failure rate of the Atos WCA regime. 30%-40% of people that appeal their Atos assessment win their case, and with adequate legal representation this figure rises to 70%-80%. It is safe to assume that with adequate legal representation, many more people would have their "fit-for-work" assessments overturned. However, I'll take Tory welfare minister Mark Hoban's own dubious and extremely conservative estimate that "just"15% of Atos decisions are completely wrong. For the last period for which data is available (April 2011-March 2012 - a PDF entitled "Statistical Release January 2013" can be found here) 203,700 people were found "fit-for-work". Using Mark Hoban's extremely conservative 15% inaccuracy rate, that gives us an estimated figure of 30,555 people incorrectly declared "fit-for-work". We know from the previously mentioned DWP impact assessment that the death rate within six weeks of assessment for people on ESA was 10,600 people, around 1% of the caseload. This gives us an estimated figure of 305 people that would have died within six weeks of being incorrectly declared "fit-for-work", even using Mark Hoban's deliberately underestimated figures for inaccuracy within the Atos WCA regime.

If we realise that the appeals success rate doubles when appellants have adequate legal representation, instead of attempting to manage their own appeals, it becomes clear that many people that are actually unfit for work are having their appeals turned down because they are unfamiliar with the legal process and simply don't know how to demonstrate adequate evidence to the court. If we add the estimated 1,630 people to have died within six weeks of being told to prepare for a return to work in 2012 to the estimated 305-610 people to have died within six weeks of being told that they are "fit-for-work" and stripped of their disability benefits in 2012, we have an estimated figure of some 1,945-2,240 people dying in such appalling circumstances in the previous year. To this can be added a number of people that may have died due to stress related conditions (heart attacks, strokes, suicides) due to the enormous stress of the WCA regime and having their benefits revoked and a further 2,000+ people that died before their Atos decision was even completed.

I accept that these figures are rough estimates based on extrapolated data conducted by someone that has a reasonable understanding of (but not formal training in) the use of statistics, which is far from ideal. However, this is the best I can offer due to the government's refusal to collect the data on the number of people to have died after having been declared "fit-for-work". If the government bothered to "count the corpses", then bloggers like me wouldn't be left conducting our own statistical analysis and exptapolations from what data has found it's way into the public domain.

The appalling Atos failure rate

As a side note, it is worth considering exactly how bad a failure rate of at least 15% actually is. Imagine you're running a parts manufacturing business (lets say brake components for HGVs) and less than 85% of the items you produce end up being functional. Imagine that you don't bother to quality control these brake components and sent them off to your customer to fit onto their wagons. How long do you think your customer would put up with their corporate reputation being irreparably tarnished as their new wagons suffer a 15% brake failure rate resulting in tens of millions of pounds worth of damages claims and the tragic deaths of numerous civilians and wagon drivers? How long do you think that they would retain your company as a supplier? Do you think they would be likely to offer you a range of lucrative new supply contracts after such a demonstration of negligence?

Well, this analogy isn't far-fetched stuff. The £50 million+ cost of all these WCA appeals is being borne entirely by the taxpayer. The courts are being packed with WCA appeal cases and the Citizens Advice Bureau have complained that they are being flooded with cases, which means that the courts and the CAB are unable to deal with all kinds of other important legal issues; a Parliamentary Select Committee has slammed the DWP for drawing up such a one-sided contract with Atos and failing to trigger virtually any of the penalty clauses that were actually written into the contract; and worst of all, Atos have even been handed more lucrative contracts by the DWP, despite their appalling legacy of failure!


It shouldn't be the job of bloggers like me to collate data on how many people are dying and make reasonable extrapolations from known statistics, it should be the job of the government to collect and publish the data properly.

That they chose not to collect this data is a clear demonstration of the callous disregard for the consequences of their own policies. That they don't even bother to "count the corpses" looks is a demonstration of their contempt for the value of ordinary people's lives.If the 1,300 odd people in January - November 2011 that died within weeks of having their benefits cut and being told to prepare to go back to work, the dozens and dozens of documented cases other cases of people dying after being told that they are "fit" for an immediate return to work and my  extrapolations (from the fact that at least 15% of Atos decisions are wrong), that many more people must be dying isn't enough to make you very angry indeed, then the fact that the government doesn't even bother to collect the data on how many people are actually dying really should be.

What you can do

If you feel strongly that the government should be collecting data on the many hundreds of people a year that are dying within six weeks of being thrown off disability benefits, then there are a couple of things you can do.
  • Write a letter to your local MP requesting that they raise the issue in parliament, or at the very least contact the responsible government ministers (Iain Duncan Smith, Mark Hoban, Anthony David Freud and Esther McVey) to raise your concerns. 
Tips on writing to your local MP.
  • You can find their email address easily by using the search function here.
  • If you include your name and address, your local MP has a statutory obligation to reply to your communication. If they do not, you can report them to the Parliamentary Standards Authority.
  • Please remember to be polite, if you resort to abuse you will do nothing but harden their stance against the argument you are trying to make.
  • Try to be concise and explain what you would like them to do in very simple and unambiguous terms.
Another Angry Voice