Persistent death threats against staff who decide whether sick and disabled people are eligible for benefits have forced the private company employing them to seek an early exit from a £500m government contract. With opposition Labour MPs also stepping up criticism, Atos Healthcare said the political environment had become untenable and that it was no longer fair to employees to leave them vulnerable to attack. “It is becoming incredibly difficult for our staff; it’s pretty unpleasant,” people close to the company said. About 163 incidents of the public assaulting or abusing staff were recorded each month last year, Atos said.
At protests outside 45 Atos offices this week, names of individual doctors were chanted, while many of the 2,000 staff employed to carry out the work had received threats both in person or on Facebook and Twitter, as well as bullying at the company’s assessment centres.
The French IT company has been in discussions with the Department for Work and Pensions with a view to exiting the deal since October last year, because it views the tests as outdated. “In its current form it is not working for claimants, for DWP or for Atos Healthcare,” Atos said. “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 front-line service. Our total focus remains on delivering the services we are contracted to provide in a professional and compassionate way, until a new service begins.”
Atos has become a lightning rod for discontent over the coalition’s welfare reforms, which aim to shift more people off social security benefits and into work. For the past three years, the company has been under fire for its handling of work capability tests, which assess whether people are well enough to apply for jobs. A third of its decisions were overturned on appeal, amid allegations that people with terminal cancer or other serious illnesses had been denied benefits as a result of its assessments. Last July, the DWP told Atos to improve the quality of written reports provided to the department.
Atos said it had improved processes and that appeal court judges had said its reports were the reason for a successful appeal in fewer than 1 per cent of cases. A National Audit Office report also warned there were “dangers” in viewing high numbers of appeals as a measure of the quality of medical assessment work undertaken by Atos. “An appeal may be successful because the information available to the tribunal was not known at the time of the original assessment,” the NAO said. “In addition, a decision made by the Department on benefit entitlement will draw on other sources of information as well as the medical assessment.”
Despite the furore, Atos was awarded a fresh deal last year to carry out tests for the new personal independence payment (Pip), with the aim of reducing the projected cost of the benefit by 20 per cent by 2015-16. It replaces the disability living allowance and determines whether people are entitled to extra money to help cope with disability – such as cars, equipment or nursing. Atos’s £400m Pip contracts over five years cover the south-east and north of the country, accounting for about 75 per cent of disability living allowance claimants. Capita, a rival outsourcing company, has the remainder.
Private providers likely to be in the frame for the next work capability contract include G4S, Serco, A4E and Capita. According to an NAO report on the government’s four biggest suppliers, Atos earned £700m in revenues from the public sector in the UK in 2012, of £7.2bn sales worldwide. The company made an average net profit margin of about 2 per cent over the past decade, rising to 3 per cent in 2012.
Gill Plimmer, Financial Times
BBC News 21/2/14
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