National ATOS protests 19-2-14: My interview with Tom Smith, the man who made it happen

Tom Smith (left) and Joe Salmon (right) outside the Leeds Assessment Centre as part of the at the National ATOS Protest
Tom Smith (left) and Joe Salmon (right) outside the Leeds Assessment Centre as part of the at the National ATOS Protest


7:40am, outside Leeds Medical Assessment Centre. Transcript:

TS: I decided just before Christmas that I wanted to set up a demonstration against ATOS in Leeds so I put the idea out there on Facebook. A colleague of mine, Paul Kelly says, “Look, we’ve got something like 30,000 people saying they want to get involved, we should think about making it national”. So after some deliberation we decided, “Right, let’s go for all 140 ATOS centres in the UK”. Now, some of them won’t have anyone there today, but ATOS have had to bring in lots of extra security to every single centre today – so it’s a hindrance to them – but my main reason is not to disrupt ATOS but to try and start a ripple effect in the public’s understanding of what is happening. After seeing Channel 4’s Dispatches programme ‘On The Sick’, I said to my wife, “I’m going to do something about this. I don’t know what – but I’m going to do something”. So I started to investigate what was happening. As I dug deeper I was brought to tears by what I was finding out.

JC: What was your own experience of the ATOS process?

TS: I went through my ATOS process in January here at the Leeds Assessment Centre we’re stood outside now. I’m one of the lucky ones who didn’t lose their claim, but even so, I was called in to reception and spoken to by the receptionist like I was something you wouldn’t scrape off your shoe. So I thought, “Alright, here we go…”. I got called in to the assessment room, and it was a nurse who it turned out had just been in the country a month. I asked her in what way was she qualified to assess me – a person with complicated syndromes. Her response: “because I’ve done the ATOS training course” – the training course only lasts a couple of weeks. I have COPD, chronic nerve damage to the left leg, growths on my hips, a prolapsed spine, I have PTSD, and I have a personality disorder. How could a nurse make an assessment of me? As it turned out, she didn’t even ask me any questions. She wrote down what was on my prescription and said to go. It was the most humiliating experience I’ve ever had in my life. First of all, you’re absolutely terrified. My first appointment was cancelled by ATOS because I arrived in this very car park 3 and a half minutes late.

ATOS pay their staff £50 for every client they get through within the half hour. They get paid a further £50 if they manage to get that person off disability benefits. Now, if I told you I’d pay you extra money to do something, it’s fairly obvious what you’d do. And they’re only allowed to pass 12.3% of the people that they see. This is what the doctor who went to the training centre in the Channel 4 Dispatches programme was actually told. It beggars belief – at the end of the day these are mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, children, uncles, aunties – and they’ve been demonised by this Tory government and by the Tory press so people have started to see them as not human and therefore they become desensitised. This country has always supported its weak and vulnerable. But then Iain Duncan Smith comes in and, basically, he is doing a cull. It’s estimated by the next general election, 60,000 people will have died as a result of this policy – there are some very uncomfortable historical equivalents to that kind of thing happening. I don’t see how you can tell people who are dying from cancer that it is their own fault.

JC: What do you think about the post on the ATOS website about the protests today where they’re saying they’re just following the government’s orders ? – quote: “We have been conducting assessments for benefits for over 15 years based on the policies and processes set by successive governments.”

TS: I think if you read between the lines that they’re accepting the guilt for what they have done. They’ve said in that blog that the protesters should not focus on the staff, because the staff do not make the policy. It’s ATOS that makes the policy and it’s ATOS that’s at fault.

The tears would come flooding for anyone who listens to the stories. There was a guy in Leeds who was an activist on these issues. He hung himself at the end of last year. And then the case of the man in Bradford who was appealing against ATOS’s decision. He didn’t have any money for 10 months. The day he finally got his money the poor guy died in his flat in Bradford. He had no heating. He hadn’t eaten properly for months. He was literally skin and bone – like someone from Belsen. How we, the general public, can sit back and let this happen I really don’t know.

At the end of the day, yes, I’ve sparked this demo and planted the seed, but 4,500 people are involved with just the setting up. It’s come from the ground up.

If anyone ever tells you that one person can’t make a change then have a look at this demo. I was the one person who planted that little seed, and the response has been overwhelming. It humbles you. Within about 3 hours of putting the idea online I had about 4,000 emails asking how can I get involved.

Yesterday, me and Joe Salmon were doing an interview for Radio Aire. About 20 minutes after, our phones were ringing and ringing with BBC Radio up and down the country wanting to cover the protests. I stood there and looked at Joe and burst into tears. I thought, what have we done?! They reckon on expecting 60 here today in Leeds, but I reckon they’re in for a shock – there’s going to be a hell of a lot more. You’ve got individuals who’ve said they’re coming, then the NUS, Unite the Union, Unison, NHS groups, Labour and Green party councillors too. In London we’ve got people like Hilary Benn, Dennis Skinner and John McDonald because today is Prime Minister’s Questions. My local MP, Phil Davies, who was very critical of the disabled a few weeks ago saying we’re all scroungers and should get up and work has emailed me to say he now supports the campaign.

The government have lost touch with reality – they don’t know what’s going on. Anyone who’s got a family member or a friend affected by this policy will have seen how the policy is taking away people’s dignity. People are literally having to go and beg. I know a demonstrator down on the south coast having to get by on £7 a week. You can’t do that – it’s physically impossible. But Iain Duncan Smith and the DWP think that is a satisfactory income.

JC: What will solve this? Will it be the next general election now that Labour have come out strongly against the policy? Or might it change before then?

TS: Labour brought ATOS in in the first place, but not to do what the Tories have got them doing. ATOS, who are a French IT company, have lost the contract – that was announced yesterday. But another French IT company are coming in to take over the contract – it doesn’t make sense! As for the next election, I think Labour will get in. The Tories have pushed things so far that even the middle classes are starting to realise that things have gone too far. With any movement, you can have the students involved, the working class, but it’s only when the middle classes get involved that something will really happen. I would love to think that this demonstration is the thing that starts a ripple effect. There are people from all different walks of life getting involved in it – if they haven’t already been affected they’re starting to realise, “it could be me next”. Pastor Martin Niemöller got it right when he said, “Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they got rid of the sick, the so-called incurables, and I did not speak out because I was not sick. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

It’s atrocious that anyone should defend a French IT company – one who paid no tax on their £120 billion income last year – making these decisions on people’s lives. It should be people’s own GPs who know them and understand properly what they can and cannot do. It’s a sad state of affairs, but hopefully today will raise the awareness. People are going to stand up and say, “We’re not going to take this anymore – we’re not going to stand by while this is happening to the sick and vulnerable in my country”. The disability payments only equate to 1.8% of the total amount the government pays out on benefits. The amount of actual cheating to get benefits payments is like 0.02% of the total. It’s nothing compared to tax evasion, such as by ATOS. The 8% pay raise the MPs just gave themselves would pay for all Disability Living Allowance for 6 months.

We’re hoping to have BBC Look North, ITV, Sky, Russia Today and others covering the demonstrations today. It’s really interesting to think about why the BBC are covering this. They haven’t covered any demonstrations in the last couple of years. November the 5th – 4,000 people out – no coverage. Thousands out in Manchester for the NHS rallies – no coverage. But they want to get really involved in this. Why? There’s lots of interesting things going on. ATOS putting out their blog message – that’s not normal behaviour for a multi-million pound corporation. Police forces up and down the country are actually saying they support us – they are also seeing ATOS starting to take over parts of their operation so they see the dangers too.

Enough is enough – no more. We’re not going to sit back any more.

This article was written by John Cockburn using our Community Reporters website and first appeared on his blog What Can I Do About It?