The three Atos executives were giving evidence to a Commons work and pensions select committee inquiry into the work capability assessment (WCA) and employment and support allowance, the new out-of-work disability benefit.
The trio made a number of unsubstantiated claims about threats made by disabled benefit claimants and activists against its staff, as one of the reasons for the company’s decision to quit the WCA contract.
Lisa Coleman, an Atos senior vice-president, told the committee that the company’s staff were often threatened, both in person and online, and that there had been a “30 per cent increase” in “issues” experienced by Atos healthcare professionals.
Helen Hall, the company’s communications and customer relations chief, spoke of claimants wearing “Atos kills” tee-shirts to their assessments, others telling assessors that they had recorded their assessment and were going to “expose” them on the internet, and how there were “all sorts of threats against people” on the internet.
Dr Angela Graham, clinical director for the WCA contract for Atos, claimed that claimants came into assessment centres with knives and “threaten to throw acid in the face of the receptionists”.
But this week neither Atos nor the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) were able to provide any detail about any of these claims.
An Atos spokesman refused to say how many such incidents had taken place in the last year, what “issues” Coleman was talking about, how many actual assaults there had been in the last year, or whether police had been called to any incidents at Atos assessment centres, or if there was any other evidence for their claims.
He referred instead to a previous statement, which said: “We take any threats to the safety of our staff seriously.
“The data we collect for DWP relates to verbal abuse and threats, incidents where the police had to be called and in some instances actual physical assault.
“It does not include threats or comments on social media. Although these are not reported we do take these up with relevant parties, for instance search engines, as they can have a profound impact on our people.
“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.”
A DWP spokeswoman refused to say whether the department was aware of any more detail than was made available to the committee, or whether it recognised the statements made by the three executives.
She said: “You would need to speak to Atos to get more details on their comments.”
Disabled activists have written an open letter to Dame Anne Begg, the Labour chair of the committee, to demand that Atos be asked to back up its claims with evidence.
In March, DNS reported that claims by Atos that it was pulling out of the WCA contract because of these alleged threats and assaults appeared to have been exposed as lies.
Atos had claimed it was recording 163 incidents a month in which members of the public were assaulting or abusing its staff.
But a response from DWP to a DNS Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) request showed that of 1,678 “security incidents” recorded by Atos in 2013, only five could be “easily identified as assaults on staff”. The company carried out more than half a million WCAs last year.
Atos also admitted in March that it was not aware of a single case in 2013 in which criminal charges had been brought against someone attending a WCA.
19 June 2014