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.

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.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform


254