Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Surely ATOS Should Pay for Appeals

The Coaltion Government have mounted frequent attacks on workers rights including increasing the qualification period for unfair dismissal claims to two years and decreeing that unfair dismissal cases would be added to the list of cases to be heard by judges sitting alone. This was a significant move from having such cases dealt with by an industrial jury composed of a legally qualified Judge and lay members from both employee and employer backgrounds, an arrangement that had the support of employers trades and trade unions alike.

These were was ideolgical attacks on the rights of working class people, disguised as justified in order to reduce the costs to the taxpayer of running employment tribunals, estimated to be £84 million pounds per year.

The bad news for those wishing to take unfair dismissal claims, those relating to any aspect of discrimination or equal pay is that these cases will attract the higher level of fees, £250 to lodge a claim and a further £950 if it goes to a hearing.Fees for equal pay claims, due to misdrafting of the orders, will be charged at the lower fee rate until this error can be rectified.

The Government frequently misrepresents statistics in order to justify these fees, choosing to conflate the number of individual claims with often complex multiple claims to paint a picture of an Employment Tribunals Service that has an increasing workload and is over burdensome on the taxpayer. The reality is that individual claims have been decreasing in the last few years.

The Government rationale for this attack on justice; why should the taxpayer have to meet the costs of delivering a service they will never have to access.

However, perhaps the fastest growing tribunal and the one at risk of becoming an increasing burden on the taxpayer is Social Security appeals. Appeals against decisions taken by ATOS judging people fit for as part of the Government's £112 million per year contract are now costing the taxpayer £66million, roughly 80% of the cost of running employment tribunals.

But ATOS, whose failures blight the lives of the most vulnerable in our society, some of whom do not live long enough to appeal their decision, suffer no financial penalty for consistently getting this wrong .

When representatives of the STUC Disabled Workers Committee met with Chris Grayling MP, former Minister for Employment in January 2012 and put the case for financial sanctions we were informed the concerns and anger of the STUC and other campaiging groups should not be directed at ATOS as it was the Government's assessment and ATOS were purely delivering the service.

Now we have Mark Hobban MP, successor to Chris Grayling, admitting there are flaws in the system and now being all too willing to point the finger at ATOS. Irrespective of who is at fault the cost of running this draconian assessment is £180 million pounds when appeal costs are taken into account, over twice that for employment tribunals.

ATOS have had a monopoly on this contract to deliver a flawed assessment, an assessment has not and never will be able to assess an individual's capacity to work However, any inroads into ending this monopoly, as promised by Mark Hobban will only be to the benefit of another private sector, probably multi-national, occupational health provider.

Any confidence in the Work Capability Assessment is gone, assuuming there had been any in the first place. There appears to be no political will to charge the cost of failure against ATOS decisions back to them. We also have the prospect of Personal Independence Payment appeals just round the corner. In a question on this issue to Esther McVey, Minister for Disabled People in the Commons on 17th July she replied that the Government are expecting an appeal rate of 12.5% for new claims and 40% for reassessed cases. However she added these forecasts are necessarily pessimistic so they can ensure Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunal Service have sufficient capacity!!

So the Government  intentionally underestimates the amount of anticipated appeals to ensure we have adequate resources to hear them in the Courts and Tribunal Service.  This is just nonsense and will only result in disabled people having to wait longer to appeal PIP decisions while ATOS continues to make increasing profits at the taxpayers expense with no penalty for delivering a substandard service.

Just how duplicitous can the Government get, they demand fees from individuals wishing to make claims against employers for breaches of employment rights. However when ATOS get it wrong and vulnerable individuals have to fight to retain their benefits, sometimes facing  a greater fight for their lives at the same time, no costs are awarded against ATOS; costs that if awarded would help to meet the rising tribunals costs for those fighting decisions to cut benefits and reduce the financial burden on the taxpayer.