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The '10,600 people died within six weeks of being declared fit to work by Atos' stat is simply wrong

July 15, 2014 11:09 PM
By Tom Chivers in http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk

It's pretty much accepted that the French IT firm Atos, which was tasked by the Department of Work and Pensions with assessing the ability of disability benefits claimants to work under the new Employment and Support Allowance scheme, has not done a good job. Atos, it appears, agree with that: they said of their contract "In its current form it is not working for claimants, for DWP or for Atos Healthcare. For several months now we have been endeavouring to agree an early exit from the contract, which is due to expire in August 2015. Despite these ongoing discussions, we will not walk away from a frontline service."

But it's been reported, in a piece by the Big Issue, that "Government statistics indicate that between January 2011 and November 2011, 10,600 sick and disabled people died within six weeks of their benefit claim ending." Ten thousand people dying, within six weeks of coming off incapacity benefit? In a year?

It sounds as though this means that 10,600 people stopped receiving disability benefits, and then, within the following six weeks, died, suggesting that they really were ill and in need of the support. It could even imply that some of them died as a result of coming off the support.

I've seen this reported all over Twitter as "10,600 people died within six weeks of being found fit to work by Atos". There's a pic going around, which purports to show a white flower for each person who died:

But this is not true. The 10,600 figure comes from this awful, impenetrably written Freedom of Information response, from July 2012. It says that "In total, between January 2011 and November 2011, some 10,600 claims ended and a date of death was recorded within six weeks of the claim end." But I've spoken to the DWP, and while that figure is correct, the "within six weeks" bit, bizarrely, does not mean "within the following six weeks": it means "within six weeks either side".

What that means is that the large, presumably overwhelming, majority of those 10,600 people died, and then their claims ended because they were dead.

And, of course, the majority of the people who died - 7,100 - were in the "Support Group", that is the most in need of support. When you think that these people are dying after the claim ended, that looks awful and bizarre. But when you know that it's both before and after, it makes sense, because, as the FOI response puts it:

It would be expected that the mortality rate amongst those on incapacity benefits recipients would be higher than that in the general population as some people receive incapacity benefits due to life-threatening conditions or terminal illness.Those in the Support Group receive unconditional support due to the nature of their illness, which can include degenerative conditions, terminal illness and severe disability.

I asked if the DWP has any records of how many people did in fact dieafter their claim ended, but they said they didn't keep those figures. It would be absolutely amazing, though, if they made up more than the tiniest fraction of that 10,600 figure.

The DWP spokeswoman was keen to say that the Big Issue has reported the issue properly: the deaths did occur "within six weeks" of the claim ending. I would say that any natural reading of that implies that the six weeks are after the death, but since the DWP's own document uses that language, they've got no one to blame for the misunderstanding but themselves. Nonetheless, the story here is not "10,600 people die right after they're told they're fit to work", but "the DWP's record-keeping system is efficient enough to stop paying people disability support within six weeks of them dying".

The case studies that the Big Issue reports are still appalling, of course, and it sounds as though by Atos's own admission their contract has been a failure. But the "10,600 people die after being declared fit to work" stat, which is in danger of becoming received wisdom, is simply not true.

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