Published: 15th April, 2011
by PETER GRUNER
ANGRY demonstrators waving banners yesterday (Thursday) targeted the offices of a company that decides whether or not disabled people are fit to work.
Dozens of protesters, many of them disabled, made their feelings known outside Atos in Elthorne Road, Archway, describing the tests the firm carries out as “demeaning” and “demoralising”.
The multi-national has been given a £500million contract by the government to conduct medical assessments on 1.6 million people which have so far resulted in 69 per cent of claimants being denied Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), the allowance that replaced Incapacity Benefit in February this year.
Many Islington residents who have been disabled all their lives, including the mentally ill, face losing benefits unless they can prove they are unable to work.
David Milner, of the Islington Poverty Action Group who organised the protest, said: “Atos Healthcare couldn’t care less about people’s health. They’re only interested in the money they get from cutting people’s benefits.
“The fact that 40 per cent of appeals are successful shows how unreliable the tests are and how badly they are carried out.”
Disability activist and London Metropolitan University lecturer, Rob Murthwaite, who is blind, said: “Disabled people are already the most disadvantaged people in the country. It’s disgusting these millionaires in the ConDem cabinet are taking away their benefits.”
Unison representative Paul Murphy, who is based at Islington Town Hall, said: “The old system where a doctor was trusted to give an opinion on whether or not a person is able to work was far more reliable.
“Under this new system mechanical decisions are made that throw people off benefits which are later rescinded on appeal.”
Ken Muller, representing Islington National Union of Teachers said the protest action “just shows how important people take this issue”.
DISABLED people in Islington, including a former Lib Dem mayor, hit out this week at the government’s “insensitive” tests for those claiming incapacity benefit.
They spoke out following a demonstration yesterday (Thursday) outside a private firm in Archway which has been tasked by the government to carry out annual assessments.
Ian Jentle, 64, a trustee with Islington Disability Action, said he was very alarmed by the assessments.
Speaking in a personal capacity, he added: “A colleague who is totally blind with steel implants was sent a 40-page form to fill out to qualify for new disability benefits.
“She was told she has to present herself every year for medical re-examination, presumably in order to see if her eyes had grown back.
“There are people who are amputees who will have to go back every year for medical examination.”
Mr Jentle said that even at this late stage he hoped the Coalition would drop the scheme.
Former Islington mayor Doreen Scott, who uses a wheelchair, said that while she agreed there may be people who take advantage of the system, the majority will have genuine disabilities.
Ms Scott, who as mayor in 2003 promoted access for the disabled, added: “These new assessments are an insult. Most people with disabilities would love to work. But the majority can’t and should not be penalised for it.”
Former Barnsbury housing worker Rob Ross has cerebral palsy with arthritis in most joints and is partially sighted.
He said: “I worked for 45 years, mostly as a housing advice worker, until I was forced by ill health to retire. I get incapacity benefit but I’m waiting for the letter for reassessment.
“These are very worrying times for me. If they decide I can work they could reduce my benefits if I refuse or can’t find a job. It’s all pretty heartless.”
Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn said the tests will cause distress for many people with disabilities.
He added: “This is demeaning, unpleasant and a great waste of public money. We should treat people with respect and give them opportunities, not give them punishments.”
The one-and-a-half million people in Britain who claim incapacity benefit have started receiving letters asking them to be tested on their ability to work.
The new assessments are part of government plans to reduce the number of long-term claimants in a rolling programme through to 2014.
Almost 30 per cent of those who took the test during pilot schemes in Burnley and Aberdeen were declared fit to work.
Work and Pensions minister Chris Grayling said: “My message to people who are worried about this process is that this is all about helping those who can return to work. It’s not about forcing people to return to work, but unless we do the assessments, unless we identify who has that potential, we’ll never be able to offer that help.”