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Atos: tick-box tyranny

Tim Hunt looks at Atos, the company charged with assessing who should receive disability benefit

February 27, 2011
4 min read


Tim HuntTim Hunt is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.


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Successive governments have fed us the line that they want to help those with disabilities to become ‘more independent’ by giving them the ‘incentive and opportunity’ to work. To help them in this noble aim, they have enlisted a company called Atos.

But this public-private partnership acts less like a professional carer aiding a client and more like a Metropolitan police officer tipping a disabled person out of their wheelchair.

Atos uses a computer system to assess disabled people’s ‘fitness to work’ for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). This assessment consists of tick-boxes on a screen, and it doesn’t allow for any medical or qualitative evidence. In fact it often undermines medical evidence.

Claimants complain they are asked irrelevant questions – for example, sufferers of depression are asked if they can load and unload a dishwasher. The system nets the company a massive £500 million from its seven-year contract with the DWP, but as you might expect with this sort of unscientific approach to assessment, the company’s record is terrible. There are 8,000 tribunals hearing ‘fitness to work’ appeals every month across the UK – and 40 per cent of decisions are being reversed.

In November, this poor treatment of claimants was recognised in the House of Commons following the release of Professor Malcolm Harrington’s report on work capability assessments. The report concluded: ‘Atos has damaged the public perception of medical assessments, and has also created a serious risk of maladministration of incapacity benefit checks.’

MPs called on the government to ‘act swiftly so that medical assessments are more localised, humane and sympathetic’. But the system remains unchanged.

Despite its poor record, Atos – a French multinational with offices all over the world – keeps on winning contracts. It has expanded quickly by buying up smaller companies, including KPMG Consulting and Sema Group in the UK.

In total Atos now employs 50,000 staff and operates in 50 countries. The company is deeply involved in military applications: it has contracts with the Chinese, French, Dutch and UK militaries.

Atos eats up tax revenue by ensuring that the firms it takes over lobby for and win government contracts – all the while setting up subsidiaries in tax havens, as Ethical Consumer magazine has revealed.

In Britain, Atos has 6,500 staff and is one of the top 20 suppliers to the state. As well as the DWP contract, it has two substantial IT contracts with the NHS, one with the Ministry of Defence Veterans Agency and one with the Scottish government, delivering more than 100 projects annually. Last year the NHS alone paid the firm more than £36.5 million.

Beyond IT, the company claims to be the biggest provider of medical services in the UK after the NHS, with 2,500 staff on its books. This includes direct provision of healthcare services, including two NHS walk-in centres in Manchester and Canary Wharf in east London, as well as GP and nursing services for NHS Tower Hamlets. It also provides various services to individual NHS trusts.

Atos was also at the forefront of the now defunct ID cards scheme. It advocated the use of automated fingerprint identification software, used by the US Department of Homeland Security among others.

As if all that isn’t enough, the company even provides software and communication technology for oil and gas exploration, and has been selected to provide the Dungeness B nuclear power plant in Kent with a new computer system.

With its tentacles in so many pies, it’s perhaps no surprise that Atos is doing pretty well. In the first quarter of 2010 alone, its revenue hit the 1,231 million-euro mark, while last year the company had revenue in excess of 5 billion euros.

After all, hoovering up taxpayers’ money is a lucrative business.

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Tim HuntTim Hunt is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.


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