For several months now, as readers of this site will know, a group of Newcastle mental health service users and support workers and I have been asking Atos to agree to set a meeting up between us and Atos’ work capability assessment mental function champions. (Mental function champions do not advise or support claimants: they provide advice and coaching to Atos healthcare professionals).
I’m posting this article to let you know that despite repeated assurances from Atos that our meeting will be organised, it hasn’t been. Atos keeps saying it’ll set a meeting up for us, but never does. We call Atos and we email Atos and they say they’ll get right onto it. They don’t. So we call Atos and email Atos and they say they’ll get right onto it. They don’t. So, we got in contact with Atos again about a fortnight ago and were assured that a call would be made and a meeting would be set up. Nothing’s happened. It has occured to us that Atos doesn’t want us to meet with mental function champions. Or something. We’re sure that they’re there, etc. We just want to see them and find out more about the “role.”
Mental function champions are the individuals Malcolm Harrington suggested that Atos added to the work capability assessment process to “spread best practice amongst Atos healthcare professionals in mental, intellectual and cognitive disabilities,” whatever that means. Last year, the DWP told me that 60 of these MFCs were in place (I suppose we take that as written for now) and that they largely worked a phone advice line. Mark Hoban went somewhere else with it, into territory that may best be described as make-believe: on November 5, he told parliament that “we have introduced a mental health champion in every single assessment centre throughout the country.” The DWP rowed back on that and admitted that there wasn’t a mental function champion in every single assessment centre in the country. There were/are 60, apparently, and they’re mostly on the phone. The DWP didn’t much want to talk about that: its officers told me to contact Atos for more on MFCs. And as I say – pinning Atos down on the details has been a struggle.
In his first-year review of work capability assessments, Harrington observed that concerns had been raised about Atos assessors’ knowledge and understanding of mental health conditions. “The short training course in mental health that Atos assessors receive is proving nowhere near adequate to allow them to accurately assess applicants,” MIND said in the review.
I’d take it a good few steps further than that. Complaints and concerns about the appalling effects of WCAs on people with mental health problems are, as I’ve written before, widespread and well-documented: work capability assessments and descriptors for disability benefits place too much emphasis on basic physical readiness for work, do not account for the fluctuating nature of some mental health illnesses and assume that everyone is always in a position to offer a detailed picture of their circumstances. Once found fit for work, people’s benefits are cut, they must appeal or apply for jobseekers’ allowance, they can fall behind on their rent and bills and their mental health really begins to deteriorate, as this doctor will tell you. I have witnessed some of this myself, having attended work capability assessments with people who have mental health problems and followed them as they have gone through the stressful appeals process. Stephen, a 54-year-old man with schizophrenia who was one of those people, got a zero-points score in his initial WCA assessment, but was placed in the ESA support group on appeal – a monumental turnaround by the DWP that made everyone involved wonder at the criteria. Claimants with mental health problems have sought recourse in court: last month, the courts heard a case which, if won, will put the onus on the DWP to make sure medical evidence from practitioners is sourced from the start of the ESA application process for people who have mental health problems.
Those issues being very much the case, it is understandable that people with mental health problems and their supporters want to know how the MFC role works. Meeting with champions and asking them about their daily role seemed as good an approach to this as any. It certainly seemed a better approach than asking Atos directly, given the thin results that has yielded.
I asked Atos to explain exactly who MFCs are and the skills they bring to WCAs. Atos’ response was short on specifics: the company had, apparently, “invited leading external experts in mental health to help shape the role for the mental function champions,” and the champions “work alongside our healthcare professionals, supporting them in a range of different ways.” The word “alongside” could be considered a stretch – as we’ve seen, the DWP said that MFCs advise Atos HCPs down a phone (“telephone-based support” Atos calls it). Details of the “different ways” support was provided were not forthcoming in the response I received. I received this instead: “Our mental function champions are selected for the role because they have considerable expertise within the mental function field. They may already have higher training or a higher qualification in the field of psychiatry or have experience working in Mental Health, Learning Disability or Cognitive Impairment.” Presumably, the word “may” there means that some may not. There’s an awful lot of Maybe going on here.
Anyway. People want to meet with MFCs because they want to know more about the “role” and see it in action. It’s important. It’s very important. The MFC role is, it could be said, to be the main means by which concerns about WCAs and mental health problems have been “addressed” (ahem) to date. So – people need specifics. They need to know how, on a day-to-day basis, the role “spreads best practice” so that it improves WCAs for people going through them – assuming that is what is does. As I’ve observed – the jury’s out on that one. Things are too difficult for people going through WCAs for this topic to be left at a few press statements from Atos. I know we’re not the only people who are interested, too. I’m also pretty sure that Atos doesn’t want us to be.