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Government's Use of Atos to Combat Benefit Fraud is Flawed, Costly and Counterproductive

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Benefit scroungers. They're everywhere, according to the tabloids. They laze about, watching Sky TV on their giant plasmas, whilst decent, hardworking taxpayers pay for their various addictions and holidays abroad.

But are they really everywhere? Despite the hype, the figures show the claimants in a different light. According to the government, who should know about these things, the Incapacity Benefit 'Fraud and Error' figure is 2.4%. Of this 2.4%, only 0.3% is down to fraud. This amounts to a loss of £20m. The rest is down to customer error (0.9% or £50m) and official error (1.2% or £70m). It would appear that not that many people are faking a sore back or depression after all.

However, we must weed out those fraudulent people who are wrecking our economy. That is why the Department for Work and Pensions pays Atos Healthcare 100 million pounds per year, and they'll be doing so through to 2014. On top of that, it is estimated that the large amount of appeals against assessment decisions costs the taxpayer in the region of 50 million pounds. With a success rate of appeals of 40%, rising to 70% in Scotland, it begs the question if Atos is worth it.

It makes sense to assess claimants. It makes sense to check how their condition is progressing, and if there is any way the DWP can help them back into work. This could take the form of useful and suitable training, an update of people's skills, confidence building, interview techniques, or career advice if a previous field of work is no longer suitable.

Such assessments and support should be tailored to the individual claimant. Someone with an illness or condition that could reasonably be expected to cause a short-term setback would probably require more frequent assessments than someone with a life threatening condition, or severe mental health problems that have a negative impact on the individual and those around them. It wouldn't make much sense to drag these people to assessment after assessment, because it is unlikely that there will be significant changes in a short period of time. Indeed, frequent assessments could cause undue stress and could actually have a negative impact on the claimant's wellbeing.

It is baffling, then, that those who have been placed in the ESA Support Group find themselves constantly harassed. These are the 7% of claimants who were found too sick or disabled to work and who are therefore excluded from the Work Programme. They are people with severe conditions, unlikely to benefit from frequent assessments. And yet, just weeks after they've received the result of one stressful assessment they can expect another lengthy form to arrive, to be filled in for another assessment. It never ends.

It is baffling, because it is completely counterproductive. It doesn't help the claimant, and it doesn't help the taxpayer or the government. For many people in receipt of ESA Support, it's a frightening process. The form is lengthy, time-consuming and difficult to fill out. It makes the claimant think about everything that's wrong with them and all the things they find hard to do, which is rather depressing. Then there is the wait, and the assessment itself, often accompanied by lengthy waiting times at the centre before a person is actually seen.

The assessor doesn't always have the knowledge to judge a person's specific condition, or how it affects their daily life. It is a terrifying prospect for any claimant to be assessed by someone who doesn't have the required insight, because their future quite literally rests in the assessor's hands.

If they're declared fit for work when they aren't, they can lose everything. How can a person with a severe condition meet the requirements for Jobseeker's Allowance? They'd have to sign on on a regular basis, they'd have to actively look for jobs they know they can't do, and on top of that, they'd have to reapply for Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit, so they could get into serious trouble with their landlord.

Imagine having to go through this process every three months. Picture the stress, and the fear, and the knowledge that you're not allowed any sense of security until the system changes. How would that affect a person who is already suffering with mental health problems? How would it benefit a person with a life threatening illness?

The DWP's website states that "People who are found too sick or disabled will continue to receive unconditional support and a higher rate of benefit." It would appear that the support on offer is conditional. In order to receive support, a person has to prove themselves again and again... and again.

It's not helping them. Those who might, given time and proper treatment, rejoin the workforce can actually find their progress hindered by these too frequent assessments. And if they're kept in a terrified, insecure state and it prolongs the healing process, it means that the government and the taxpayer will have to support them for longer than necessary.

If some common sense and empathy were applied, it would be of benefit to all. Yes, assess claimants, but not at this rate, and not in this manner. A yearly assessment for those on ESA Support, carried out by proper, knowledgeable health professionals, would make far more sense. It would still allow the DWP to learn what's what, and it would give the claimants some peace of mind. It would help them along the road to recovery or, for those sadly unable to recover, it would show them that there's still some humanity left in this world.