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Atos: tick-box tyranny

Tim Hunt looks at Atos, the company charged with assessing who should receive disability benefit
February 2011

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.

Tim HuntTim Hunt is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.


Disarming DSEI

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intentionallyinquisitive 27 February 2011, 21.02

Your piece covers a topic that ought to have been featured in such ex-liberal leaning outlets as the Guardian. Even the Staggers is lacking in any inquisitiveness. You have raised a number of issues all of which merit serious follow up. Any chance of this happening by including empirical reports from claimants?
You may like to know that David Fraud was unable to substantiate a single one of HIS claims against claimants when he appeared a few years ago on Channel 4 News and was quizzed quite thoroughly by presented Samira Ahmed. Fraud failed. No wonder then that he went on to be treated with preferment by the wonderfully detached G Brown! Having considered all the key policy evidence, what is the way forward for Society on this one? Nothing so far uttered by Ed Miliband shows any promise whatever that he is going to be any better than Aaron Porter who had to quit the NUS after the most recent exhibition of the National Students Uddin bureaucracy as a stooged outfit FOIA the central bureaucracy! Any public display of lawfully configured anger is probably still a few years off!

Activist 28 February 2011, 11.53

Quote from the above article “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”.

Th above happens all the time, and has been going on for years. Look at A4e, JHP Employability, Ingeus, Reed in Partnership and the rest of the private sector cowboys contracted to run job-programmes for the unemployed in the UK by Labour and now the Con-Dems . Poor results – followed by poor results time and time again! All paid for by taxpayers money!!

Andy 11 April 2011, 22.03

It was actually SEMA who were the original contractors for carrying out medical exams, they took over the former Benefits Agency Medical Service.

It’s worth noting however that while Atos design the software and actually do the assessments, the misery is caused as much by the actual test they are told to carry out and that’s down to the politicians.

In fact, despite the reassuring words that the government would follow all Prof Harrington’s recommendations, all that has happened is that they have introduced a stricter version of the test, the design of which began under the previous government.

Mozza 12 April 2011, 10.29

Interesting if outdated piece. You didn’t mention the union between Atos and UNUM – another corporate giant – that is planning to flood the UK with income preotection insurance for when people become disabled and need help – and this will happen as soon as the UK have worked out that Lord Freud is working very hard to remove welfare funding from the UK budget.
‘Atos Healthcare or Disability Denial Factories’ gives more info and is on the above website.
The website detailing the tyranny imposed on a man dying with a brain tumour can be found at another

frances 12 April 2011, 11.21

CarerWatch is a group of unpaid family carers. Carerwatch are dismayed by the alarm and fear the roll out of ESA is causing our members. CarerWatch do not think ESA is fit for purpose and think the roll out should be halted until it is made fit for purpose.

The Welfare Reform Act says that any one allocated to ESA has a condition which makes it unreasonable to require them to work. If this is a long term condition they will always have barriers to finding and keeping work. The WRAG is a half way house – it is time limited and people will be sanctioned and forced off benefits. It is effectively requiring people to work which is illogical when this has been declared unreasonable. The WRAG should revert to its original role of a rehabilitation group for people who will get better

People with long term disability should be helped back to work from the Support Group.

With this one simple change to ESA the fear would go. ESA could become an excellent initiative to help people work and once the fear is removed people with long term disability might take a more positive approach and take a few risks to try and work

ron chester 16 April 2011, 19.04

i have been looking into this company..i found that they did a network job for trafford hospital..when i tried to go to their site it came up with a warning ‘DO NOT ENTER site uncertified’ so, as well as being rubbish at the medical assessment they are rubbish at the hit tech end too…
btw am alarmed to see deloitte (tax avoidance advisers re vodafone) now getting into bed the welfare to work company Ingeus..(created by ex DWP guy) you can hear that tax payers money being hooverd up already

Robert 2 May 2011, 18.54

Mozza once your disabled you cannot get insurance UNUM Provident are all about medical insurance and then not paying it out, which is you look at both Labour and the Tories we are heading down that road.

I’m disabled the fact is the help which labour stated was forthcoming was ended because it was to expensive.

I have been seeking work now for ten years and to be honest the only help I have was to be told you have no chance…

stan 12 May 2011, 11.46

Look at the Statistics from Oct 2008 to April 2011
The month on month results are virtually the same.
6% of claimants will be placed in the support group in May 2011,June 2011,July 2011,August 2011 on and on the same results.
How is it possible with so many variables the numbers never change.
The required results MUST be preset into the computer programme ,with each assessment office conected to a central server.
Assessments are done at approx 150 centres constantly how then are these figures arrived at without manipulation, it is immpossible.
Atos and the DWP have now stated in letters and FOI answers The Atos HCP’s do award points, this is a turn round in imformation from the early days when they said only the DM awards points.
The points gathering is the criteria to pass, 15 being the magic number,If it is Atos who award the points ,WHO THEN MAKES THE DECISIONS?????????????

HONEYBEE 30 May 2011, 12.35

many Atos doctors are not even experts in that field eg a mental health assessment done bya doctor with no psychiatric experience. Whilst working for a govt dept I was off sick so longI went onto ESA. I therefore had a staff medical with Atos and an ESA medical with Atos within a fortnight. The work medical doctor said I was unfit for work and he suspected I had a personality disorder( I didn’t- he was totally unqualified in mental health). the ESA medical found me fit for work. Work couldn’t take me back and ESA stopped paying me so I had no income at all. Both Atos doctors based at the same offices.Thanks Atos!

HONEYBEE 30 May 2011, 12.37

needless to say I went back to work within a couple of weeks and found I was fine once I wasn’t worried about having no income anymore.

Gattaca 2 July 2011, 23.02

I had an occupational health assessment with Atos which was really rather good. I saw a doctor because of stress I was experiencing; this resulted in a diagnosis of dyslexia and a workplace assessment; because of this I got text to speach software and other help at work…and things are now going really well.

Comments are now closed on this article.

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