Anger over ‘libellous’ Atos ‘death threat’ claims


newslatestThe government’s “fitness for work” contractor has failed to produce a single piece of evidence to back up its claim that it is withdrawing from the contract because of “death threats” against its staff.

The claims were first reported by the Financial Times (FT), the day after a national series of protests over how Atos has treated disabled people being assessed for employment and support allowance.

Atos told the FT that it was no longer fair to expect its staff to put up with threats and assaults, and that for several months it had been “endeavouring to agree an early exit from the Work Capability Assessment [WCA] contract which is due to expire in August 2015”.

The FT reported that Atos was claiming an average of 163 incidents of the public assaulting or abusing staff were recorded each month, and that “many” of the staff employed to carry out WCAs on behalf of the government had received death threats in person or on Facebook or Twitter.

But when Disability News Service asked Atos for evidence of these claims, the company was unable to provide a single example.

It was also unable to explain why there had apparently not been any prosecutions for such “death threats” or assaults when its assessment centres were usually littered with CCTV cameras.

John McArdle, a co-founder of the Black Triangle campaign, said the Atos claims were “an outrageous libel against sick and disabled people”, and added: “If we could sue them, we would.”

He said: “Where are the reports? Show us the evidence? As far as Black Triangle are concerned, we accuse Atos of telling bare-faced lies, which are libellous to disabled people as a class.

“Our disabled people’s movement has conducted itself with the utmost dignity, propriety and decorum in defence of disabled people’s rights.

“The whole principle that underpins both Black Triangle and Disabled People Against Cuts is the infinite value and preciousness of every single human’s rights.”

Ian Jones, a co-founder of the War On Welfare (WOW) campaign, which this week saw its petition debated by MPs in parliament, spoke at a protest outside the Atos head office in central London last week.

He said: “Although there were people with megaphones, I didn’t think what was being said was overly aggressive or nasty.

“I believe Atos are just using it as an excuse. If somebody abuses or is violent towards an assessor I would put my hat on them being arrested and having their benefits sanctioned.

“It would have been recorded and reported to the police. If Atos wants to hide behind that as an excuse, show us the evidence.”

And he questioned why – if Atos was so concerned about its healthcare assessors – it was not also pulling out of the personal independence payment assessment contract.

Atos is currently performing more than 10,000 WCAs a week on claimants of old-style incapacity benefit to test their eligibility for the new ESA, as well as assessing thousands of new ESA claimants every week, although routine reassessments have now been put on hold because of backlogs in the system.

Anger over the way Atos healthcare professionals have treated disabled people has gradually mounted since the WCA was introduced by the Labour government in 2008.

Although much of the subsequent campaigning has featured angry verbal assaults on Atos, the company has been unable to point to a single documented case in which a protester has been convicted of assaulting or threatening one of its employees.

An Atos spokeswoman said: “We do not publish detailed information about security incidents.

“Security incidents that are reported by our employees are recorded and form part of the management information we share with the DWP. Where appropriate we deal with the police on security issues.”

An Atos spokesman later added: “It’s not true to say we are unable to share data, we have declined to do so for reasons of staff anonymity.”

27 February 2014