A nurse who used to work for government contractor Atos has apologised after describing how she was forced to “trick sick people out of their benefits”.
Joyce Drummond from Glasgow, told the Daily Record of the “unfair” ways health professionals were forced to grade benefits claimants.
“Atos went by the philosophy that if you had a finger and could push a button, then you could work,” she told the newspaper, labelling their grasp of disability “ridiculous”.
She told the newspaper if a woman wore makeup or dressed nicely, this would count against their claim for benefits. If a person could care for a child or even a pet they were “marked down" too, she said.
“If they smiled whilst talking, I had to mark down that they smiled spontaneously and were therefore not depressed” she told the Daily Record.
“It was so unfair. There could be a very depressed or ill person sitting in front of me but on paper, thanks to the leading questions I had to ask, they could be judged fit to work.”
A disabled person must reach a score of 15 otherwise Atos claim you are fit for work.
Although Atos do not make the final decision over whether disabled people should claim benefits, they provide recommendations on the basis of tests like the one Ms Drummond described.
A number of MPs have raised concerns that Department of Work and Pensions is "rubber stamping" the recommendations rather than taking into account the other evidence that shows the severity of person's illness.
Ms Drummond said that people were marked down if they even turned up to the assessment. Her comments come as an assessment centre in Norfolk was criticised for not being accessible to wheelchair users, something North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said left him “somewhat amazed”.
Atos have said they are able to arrange for home visits and that the centre was one that was provided by DWP.
Since Ms Drummond quit her job in 2009, she has suffered from stress and is unable to work herself. She told the Daily Record:
“I still feel sick every time I think of those people deemed fit for work, when they quite clearly were incapable of doing so.
“I only took the job so I could help vulnerable people get the benefits they needed.
“But it wasn’t long before I realised no one cared about my professional clinical opinion. It broke my heart and I went home in tears every night.”
An Atos spokesperson told the Huffington Post UK that Ms Drummond only worked for the company for 4 months in 2009 and did not carry out any of the assessments under the welfare reform bill, but was only assigned to assess incapacity benefit.
An Atos healthcare spokesperson said:
"We strongly refute these claims, which are completely unfounded. We understand that applying for benefit can be a difficult and emotional time which is why we work very hard try to make the part of the process we are responsible for as comfortable as possible."
Ms Drummond’s testimony comes amid a growing row over the company, which was contracted by the Department of Work and Pensions to assess over two million people, as part of a government drive to encourage people off benefits and get them back to work.
A recent investigation by The Independent revealed that more than 40 doctors and nurses working for Atos have been reported to medical regulators for professional misconduct.
Campaigners argue that reassessment is merely a cost cutting drive and is forcing disabled people to live in poverty and in some cases driving them to take their own life.
A survey carried out by Rethink mental illness revealed eight out of ten doctors had seen patients develop mental health problems over the work capability assessments.
One fifth of doctors believed the stress caused by the assessment was so damaging that it was causing their patients to have suicidal thoughts.
Ursula Sinclair, 42, from Gloucester, attempted to take her own life just days after going through Atos' Work Capability Assessment.
She said “I was devastated when I was initially told that I didn’t qualify for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) because I know that I’m not fit to work at all. I became extremely distressed, and that this was one of the reasons I took an overdose a few days later.
“We appealed and my ESA was reinstated. However, we now need to go to a tribunal to make the case for me to keep getting ESA in the long term. These past few months have been nerve wracking to say the least, and I’m really worried about what will happen in the future.”
Paul Jenkins, Chief Executive of Rethink Mental Illness, said: “These shocking statistics really show that the Work Capability Assessment is pushing some of the most unwell and vulnerable people in our society to the brink.
"Many people who have a severe mental illness like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder say that their condition has been made even worse as a result of the stress caused by the test.
"It’s the number one concern for our members, and our staff have been inundated with calls from people who are extremely worried about the impact it is having on their mental health.”
An Atos spokesperson said:
“Our trained doctors, nurses and physiotherapists use their clinical knowledge and apply the government's policy and criteria to each assessment. This information forms one part of the information used by the Department to make a decision on benefit entitlement.”