Posts Tagged ‘Nestor Healthcare Group’

From 2000: SEMA – the Atos of its Day

January 31, 2015

Private Eye in its issue for Friday, 19th May 2000, carried the story below on the establishment of the Work Capability Tests. These were originally a Tory idea, but where put into practice by Blair’s Labour after their election victory in 1997. The contract to administer the tests were awarded to Sema. Their conduct of them was so appalling that it was the subject of a report by the House of Commons social services committee.

Cringe Benefits

It was a Tory idea to begin with: how to make more money out of the disabled for a big private company.

After a “study of options” about what to do with the rather expensive government system for examining disabled people to see if they were entitled to benefit, the Tory government concluded that contracting out to the private sector was “most likely to deliver the improvements sought”.

Tory ministers agreed and the publicly-owned Benefits Agency Medical Services was divided into three areas “to encourage competition in terms of bids”. the Tory government fell in the spring of 1997, to be replaced by Labour with a huge majority and a secretary of state for social services, Harriet Harman, who had been eloquent in her condemnation of privatisation.

Ms Harman, however, was at once convinced of the case for privatising the testing of the disabled, and in February 1998 (in the interests of competition) she awarded the contracts for all three areas to one company, SEMA.

It was a juicy contract too. A government memorandum at the time announced that the three contracts would cost the government £305m, a figure, which the memo announced, “represented savings of £62m” compared with what the service used to cost the taxpayer.

One problem which soon became clear was that SEMA had no medical experience whatever. The British Medical Association, disgusted by the company’s treatment of doctors and patients, complained officially that SEMA executives “did not understand the complexities, having had no experience of employing doctors”. This obviously worried the company so much that when the five original bidders were invited to discuss the complexities of their new contract with the BMA, which represents most British doctors, two declined, including SEMA.

If it didn’t have any doctors or medically qualified staff, SEMA made sure it was well-stocked with “new” Labour lobbyists. It hired Westminster Strategy, which had a batch of such lobbyists on tap: Jo Moore, former Labour press officer; Mike Lee, who used to work for David Blunkett; and former chair of the Fabian Society and wanabee Labour candidate Mike Dauber. To clinch the business, SEMA acquired the then employment minister Andrew Smith as a speaker at its glittering conferences (see Eye 955).

Partly to make up for this lack of experience, SEMA engaged two companies as sub-contractors to do the new work, Nestor Healthcare Group and Nestor Disability Analysts. The board of the former was graced by a former Tory MP, Charles Goodison-Wickes, who quickly made way for the more acceptable Anne Parker, who chairs the Carers Association and is an examiner for the Child Support Agency. Nestor Healthcare has just branched into prisons, explaining in true “new” Labour tradition that “prisoner numbers are steadily growing”.

The performance of these SEMA subsidiaries and of privatisation in general, has recently been examined in detail by the House of Commons social services committee, whose shocking report has just been published. “To often”, says the report, “the organisation fails to deliver an adequate service … at its worst it puts claimants through examinations which are painful and distressing and gives poor advice.”

Bizarre examples of the doctors’ hostility to the people they are examining are provided by the report. In one case a patient was described as healthy because she could sit up watching television for up to two hours. In fact this patient could only watch television lying down. In another case a patient’s dirty fingernails were submitted as evidence of his ability to work in the garden – whereas in fact he could not even wash himself.

The conclusion makes sad reading for the “new” Labour lobbyists and privatisers of past years. There has been no improvement whatever. “Our inquiry has led us to conclude that, so far, the primary focus of SEMA has been on operational efficiency to achieve value for money rather than the delivery of a quality service.”

How has Labour responded so far to these devastating allegations? It has handed over a confidential contract for running the Labour party’s own membership records to … SEMA. And SEMA’s subsidiary Nestor has won a contract for the provision of an immigration centre for Group 4.

Since then, SEMA has been replaced by ATOS, who have now been replaced by Maximus, but still have the contract for administering the test for the Personal Independence Payments. ATOS made sure it avoided one of the criticisms of SEMA – that it didn’t have enough doctors or medically qualified staff. For patients and claimants, however, this has made absolutely no difference. The administrators of the Work Capability Test are still hostile towards those whom they are examining. Subsequent Tory policies, like those of Iain Duncan ‘Tosser’ Smith, have made this even worse. Maximus are going to be no different. Given the previous performance of the companies administering the test, they are likely to be worse.

There is even a lesson here for the recent recruitment of Sue Marsh, a disability campaigner, by Maximus. SEMA’s subsidiary, Nestor Healthcare, had on its board Anne Parker. As well as being an examiner for the Child Support Agency, she was also the chair of the Carers Association. This was doubtless to give the impression that the tests were to be fair, with the object of helping the disabled and their carers. It wasn’t, and isn’t.

This is the policy the Tories produced and are developing. It becomes nastier, more vindictive and humiliating every day. It’s high time the Tories were kicked out of office.

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