Posts Tagged ‘Unitarians’

Observations on the Suicide of Jacqueline Harris

November 26, 2013

Like very many other people, I was saddened and angered to read Johnny Void’s and Tom Pride’s posts on the death of Jacqueline Harris. This lady took her own life after ATOS found her fit for work, despite her multiple disabilities and the great pain she suffered from them. This poor woman, like me, came from Bristol. I’ve also had a run-in with ATOS. Here are a few more of my observations and comments on the case. I intend to write a much deeper article attacking the pseudo-scientific nature of the ATOS assessment form later.

I don’t know if there are any other ATOS centres in Bristol, but there’s one at Flowers Hill in Brislington. This is a suburb of Bristol, which contains a mixture of light industrial buildings and former warehouses along with residential homes, and some of the most historic buildings in Bristol. It has Arnos Vale cemetery, dating from the 19th century. The funeral monuments there are impressive, with one of the most striking the tomb of Rajah Rammohan Roy, an Indian reformer and one of the founders of his country’s independence movement. He was married to the daughter of Bristol Unitarian minister, and preached in her father’s chapel. I believe there is an annual visit to his grave every year by members of the City’s Indian community. Other monuments include the Black Castle, an 18th century factory in the shape of a castle, made from black stone. There is also a 19th century mental hospital. Established by those guardians of peace and humanity, the Quakers, this was pioneering in its day for the humane treatment given to the inmates. It possessed extensive grounds and gardens for the patients’ enjoyment, as it was found that this greatly assisted their healing and recovery.

If I recall correctly, the ATOS offices are in a complex of buildings just down from a DIY centre and other stores. ATOS share the site with a complex of buildings, which include an NHS administration and a driving test centre.

When you go for an assessment, bring someone into the interview with you, or record it. It has been my experience that ATOS will lie and try and falsify your answers. You need to keep some kind of record of the interview, and that other person will remember or pick up on things that you may not notice or forget. Similarly, when going through the form it is very wise to photocopy it after you have filled it out, so you have a record of your answers there.

This poor woman’s suicide, along with so many others, raises the following points and questions.

Firstly, ATOS have tried to distance themselves from the tragedy. They state that they have no part in any decision on benefits. This is disingenuous. While the decision to end someone’s claim is taken by the DWP, rather than ATOS, ATOS clearly have the contract for the development and administration of their tests on the express knowledge that those, who fail it will lose their invalidity or disability entitlement. With this in mind, they cannot justly deny responsibility for the loss of benefits from those they judge fit to work.

In view of the number of people, who have committed suicide after ATOS declared them fit for work, it should be asked what training ATOS gives its personnel to deal with extremely distressed or suicidal interviewees. Johnny Void and the other left-wing bloggers have carried stories reporting that some Job Centres are training their staff to deal with such emergencies. I myself have seen a stack of cards for the Samaritans on the desk of one of the interview staff at the Job Centre Plus in Eagle House, St Stephen’s Street in Bristol. Are there similar items stocked by staff at ATOS? If not, why not?

Seventy-five per cent of ATOS decisions that someone is fit for work have been overturned on appeal. This suggests that either the ATOS assessors are criminally negligent when administering the tests, or that they are under pressure to falsify results to get a negative decision which will please their paymasters in the DWP. I said before that it has been my own experience that ATOS will lie in order to be able to turn down your claim. There have been revelations of secret quotas for benefit sanctions within the DWP and Job Centres, along with bonuses and gifts awarded to staff, who have the most number of claimants disallowed. Is there are a similar system operating within ATOS? What pressure are its staff under to declare someone fit for work? Are they also given financial incentives and gifts, like Easter Eggs, for so doing?

What policies and procedures does ATOS have to protect the vulnerable adults they interview? We have had reports of people with severe mobility problems forced to take their assessment in centres, which are some distance from where they or their lifts may park, or else on the upper floors of buildings. Does ATOS consider this acceptable? The ATOS form itself is heavily biased towards physical disability. It and its administrators therefore appear to have little experience or awareness of mental health issues. What procedures have been put in place to safeguard people with schizophrenia or disorders, like depression during the interview and afterwards? Shouldn’t their fitness for work or otherwise be assessed by a trained, objective psychiatrist or psychologist?

Johnny Void and the others have also reported that many of the employees administering the test are not doctors, but nursing staff. This is unacceptable. However, the medical qualifications of ATOS’ assessors are, in my experience, superfluous and irrelevant. They do not examine you themselves under their own initiative, but simply ask you the questions on the form. Presumably medical staff are employed in case a physical examination, such as to confirm some of the claims made by the interviewee, is necessary. Mostly I think it’s just to provide a pseudo-professional medical gloss to the proceedings.

The interviewing staff do at least have some medical qualifications. What are the medical qualifications of the decision-makers? Are they doctors, surgeons, psychiatrists? Or is that an entirely risible question, and they are really just another bunch of faceless bureaucrats? Again, from the procedure it seems that no proper medical experience is required or needed. All the decision makers do is go through the form, tot up the answers and then declare a person fit, even if that person is in a coma or possibly dead. This is no exaggeration. These things have happened. If the decision makers are medical personnel, have any of them expressed reservations or criticisms about the tests? Or resigned? What mechanisms are in place to assure that any criticisms or complaints they have about the test are passed on and accepted?

The ATOS assessment has also led to violations of British disability law, and contravenes the Hippocratic Oath. This was for centuries taken by British and European doctors. It has now been discarded, but is, I believe, still held in great respect by parts of the profession. At its heart is the stipulation that the doctor should ‘first do no harm’. Clearly this lies at the heart of all medical practice. If you can’t cure something, then for heaven’s sake don’t make it worse. But ATOS does make it worse. Clearly the individuals who have suffered heart attacks due to the stress of their assessment, or mentally ill people who’ve taken their own lives, have been made worse by the procedure. Private Eye a few years ago ran a story about one woman, who had already frequently attempted suicide. Tragically, she succeeded after ATOS told her she was fit for work, and no longer eligible for benefits. ATOS broke the law. According to the Eye, it is explicitly against the law to force the mentally ill to undergo such tests if this will exacerbate their condition. Has ATOS ever been prosecuted for one of these incidents? Were staff disciplined for such legal and medical negligence? What procedures were set in place to stop this ever occurring again?

Well, it seems to me that the answer is obviously none, but the question still needs to be asked.

Ordinary doctors, nurses and other medical professionals can be sued for malpractice. They have medical insurance to provide for this, and practice under the knowledge that they are responsible for the care of the patients and may be sued and convicted if they abuse or criminally neglect this sacred trust. The Coalition are considering passing legislation that will further criminalise and inflict severe penalties for negligent hospital staff. The question must be raised here of whether similar procedures are in place to discipline and try ATOS staff generally – the interviewers and decision makers – for similar negligence and malpractice in or through the administration of the test, quite apart from the horrific incidents mentioned above.

These are a few of the questions I feel still need to be answered. I believe strongly that the ATOS assessment form and process does not constitute proper, valid medical practice but a form of pseudo-medical bureaucratic quackery to provide a professional gloss to what is at heart an entirely bureaucratic procedure. Science is meant to be objective. According to Popper, the essence of science is falsification: the experimenter arranges his tests not to prove a theory, but to disprove it. If this occurs, new theories must be devised, and further experiments conducted. This is how science has progressed, and it has resulted in astounding advances in nearly all areas of endeavour, including biology and medicine. The ATOS test is the exact opposite of this. It has been devised and administered according to a narrowly and ideologically driven pre-conceived notion of what constitutes ‘fitness for work’, regardless of the personal needs and abilities of the individual to whom it is administered. It has been expressly designed to get as many people off benefit as possible according to the Neo-Liberal imperative of reducing government spending (but only on the poor). In this, it is strongly reminiscent of other pseudo-medical and pseudo-scientific fads, such as monkey glands, the removal of vestigial organs in order to make us more evolved, and the Stalinist ‘proletarian’ science of Lysenkoism. The only proper solution to this is to have ATOS shut down immediately, its wretched assessment permanently expunged from responsible, ethical medical practice. Oh yes, and the prosecution of Thierry Breton and his minions for culpable negligence and serious malpractice.

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