Claims by Atos Healthcare that it was pulling out of the government’s “fitness for work” contract because of assaults on its staff by disabled benefit claimants appear to have been exposed as lies.
The revelation by Disability News Service comes as the government confirms it has agreed to let Atos pull out of the contract to carry out work capability assessments (WCAs).
Atos claimed last month that it was withdrawing from the contract – although continuing with two lucrative contacts to assess claimants of the new personal independence payment (PIP) – because it could no longer expect its staff to put up with assaults and threats by members of the public.
The claims caused outrage among disabled activists, who say the company has devastated the lives of hundreds of thousands of disabled people, and “trains its staff to push people off benefits”.
Only this week, the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland concluded that the move to strip a disabled woman of her out-of-work disability benefits, following a WCA carried out by Atos, was a “major factor” in her decision to kill herself.
Disabled activists have pointed to links between the way Atos carries out the assessments – which test eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA) – and relapses, episodes of self-harm, and even suicides and other premature deaths among those being assessed.
But instead of acknowledging any blame, Atos painted its own staff as the victims, claiming it was recording 163 incidents a month in which members of the public were assaulting or abusing its staff, and alleging that “many” of the staff employed to carry out WCAs had received death threats.
But the company has been unable to provide any evidence for these claims, and now a response from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to a DNS Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) request appears to explain why.
DNS asked how many incidents of the public assaulting or abusing members of Atos staff in connection with a WCA had been passed to DWP.
DWP says, in its response, that there were 1,678 “security incidents” recorded by Atos in 2013, but only five of them could be “easily identified as assaults on staff”.
Atos carried out more than half a million WCAs last year.
DWP said that Atos could not provide similar data for 2012, and that it was also unable to say how many reports there had been of Atos WCA staff receiving death threats, or how many incidents had led to someone being charged with a criminal offence.
But an Atos spokesman confirmed today (28 March) that he was not aware of a single case in which criminal charges were brought against a WCA claimant in 2013.
He said: “Any assault is something to be taken seriously. Yes, there were a small number of physical assaults, but there were a larger number of verbal incidents, threats, abuse and so on. These are things that we take seriously.”
He added: “We understand that the WCA process can cause huge anxiety but there can never be any excuse for directing anger at our staff who are doing their best to be professional and compassionate at a difficult time.”
He was also unable to say how many threats there had been on social media, and added: “We do not collect that data for DWP. We only collect incidents in assessment centres, not online. Internally we monitor these things but we are not going to publish those figures.”
Andy Greene, a member of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said Atos had “done nothing but create smokescreens and lied through its teeth from the outset”.
He said the Atos claim that its staff were regularly being assaulted by benefit claimants was an attempt to shift the blame “and provides cover for them to continue delivering contracts they should have never been given [to assess disabled people for PIP].
“But the veil has been lifted on this company now, and the country is starting to see them for what they are: shameless opportunists, cashing in on the misery of others. We won’t rest until they have been driven out of the welfare system.”
John McArdle, co-founder of the user-led grassroots campaign group Black Triangle, said the FoIA response proved that Atos had lied about the assaults on its staff.
He said: “It just shows that they are bare-faced liars. It confirms what we expected all along – their reason for withdrawing from the contract was commercial, it was to do with the damage being caused to their reputation.”
McArdle said the claims Atos had made were just fresh examples of the “demonisation and vilification” of disabled benefit claimants, and showed that disabled people can be “defamed with impunity”.
The WCA contract had been due to end in August 2015, but Atos will now be replaced by another company, which will probably use most of the same staff and premises and take over the contract “by 2015”.
Atos will pay “a substantial financial settlement” to DWP for the early termination of the contract, but will continue to provide WCAs in Northern Ireland.
Reaction to the confirmation that Atos was quitting the WCA contract was muted.
Disability Wales (DW) welcomed the decision, but said it called into question the ability of Atos to carry out the PIP contract.
Fiona McDonald, DW’s policy and public affairs manager, said: “Disability Wales does not believe that the inherent flaws in the privatised social security assessment regime will be eradicated by simply replacing one giant corporation with another.
“It is time for DWP to completely rethink their approach to welfare reform, which is quite clearly more concerned with cutting budgets than with providing a much needed safety net for people to fall back on when they need it.”
Many disabled campaigners, including Dr Sarah Campbell, principal co-author of the Spartacus report, pointed out on Twitter that the new provider would be operating with “the same staff, system and in the same buildings”.
The WOW Petition campaign added on Twitter: “Over 104 000 signed WOW petition calling for the failed WCA to be scrapped, whole system in meltdown from PIP to ESA, people at receiving end.”
And David Gillon, on the Where’s the Benefit? campaigning blog, said the WCA was “now so toxic that Atos are willing to buy themselves out of it and take the reputational damage of having walked away/being kicked off a major national contract, rather than face the ongoing month-by-month, day-by-day damage that goes with being the WCA contractor”.
Black Triangle and DPAC warned the government that “should any future disability assessments be performed by yet another private company we will oppose them as vociferously as we have opposed Atos and we will hound them out of their contract”.
McArdle added: “If they appoint another private company, we are going to give them the same treatment that we gave Atos.”
Meanwhile, in its response to the fourth independent review of the WCA – the first by Dr Paul Litchfield, BT’s chief medical officer – DWP said it was rejecting outright only one of his 32 recommendations, although eight were accepted subject to further “scoping” or “feasibility” work, and another was deferred.
Litchfield is currently leading the fifth and final review, and is due to report by the end of 2014.
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com