27 Mar 2014

Now Atos is judged unfit for fit-to-work tests, what next?

Atos and the Department for Work and Pensions are “consciously uncoupling” – to coin a phrase. As is often the way with high profile separations, we’ve known it was coming for some time.

Today though, it was announced that the French IT company, who’ve been carrying out the hugely controversial and much criticised back to work tests for the government, are to end their contract early.

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And the settlement? Well the DWP are proudly stating that the company will not receive a “single penny of compensation.”

“Quite the contrary,” the Disabilities Minister, Mike Penning said. “Atos has made a substantial financial settlement to the department.”


But even though Atos are paying out, it’s clear they don’t feel they are the only guilty party.

The Work Capability Assessments were to designed to assess whether people who had been off work through illness or disability were fit to return – and crucially – to come off benefits.

But they were under assault almost continuously from the “clients”, as the claimants were called, and by a raft of charities and campaign groups.

The assessments – a rigid, computer based questionnaire delivered by Atos employees – were derided as being crude, cruel and simply unfair.

There were numerous stories of people being found for work who died within weeks.

For a Channel 4 Dispatches programme, we filmed an Atos training session for medical employees which bordered on the farcical. The trainee assessors were seen being told that even if someone was so disabled they could only move a finger, then they could be found fit to work in a supermarket checkout.

The criticism mounted. There were independent reviews which demanded changes. And the numbers of successful appeals – at times reaching around 40 per cent – said quite clearly something was very wrong.

Last summer the DWP identified significant failings with some of the reports written by Atos and in February said standards at the company had “declined unacceptably.”

Atos, for their part – conscious, no doubt, that the company still has contracts with the government – say, “things have changed around us.”

But they point to a couple of interesting facts.

The National Audit Office warned that there were dangers in the assumption that successful appeals were due to Atos Healthcare reports and that feedback from judges reveal that Atos Healthcare reports “are a reason for a successful appeal in less than 1 per cent of cases.”

It’s worth noting that the assessment – now constantly referred to as the Atos assessment, much to the frustration of the company – was drawn up not by Atos but the DWP. All the descriptors were government-written, and the company had strict guidelines to adhere to in terms of how the assessments were carried out.

It’s also worth pointing out that a good deal of the criticism we heard from claimants over the last few years was directed at the way Atos staff dealt with them personally, on a human level.

So as Atos walk away from the contract, the real test will be how things work when the DWP find a new partner to carry out this controversial area of work.

There will be few tears shed among many of the millions of people who’ve gone through the assessments that Atos will be gone, but a great deal is riding on what happens next.

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