The decision to award benefit assessment contracts to the company that carries out controversial “fitness for work” tests for the government has caused widespread shock and anger among disabled activists.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) finally announced today (2 August) that two of three regional contracts to assess claimants of the new personal independence payment (PIP) will go to Atos Healthcare.
The third contract has been awarded to the outsourcing company Capita, while two further contracts have yet to be awarded.
The two five-year contracts awarded to Atos will see its staff deliver PIP assessments across Scotland, north-east England and north-west England, as well as in London and southern England, while Capita will assess disabled people in Wales and central England.
PIP will begin to be introduced from April 2013, as it gradually replaces disability living allowance for working-age people.
The announcement came only three days after two prime-time television documentaries were highly critical of Atos, which carries out thousands of work capability assessments (WCAs) every week for DWP.
One leading disabled activist said the decision to grant the contracts to Atos was “like turning the knife when they stab us”.
Sasha Callaghan, former president of the University and College Union, went even further and said: “If this decision doesn’t end in open civil disobedience and even bloodshed I’ll be amazed. People can only be pushed so far and we could well be at the tipping point.”
Another activist, who tweets under the name La_crip, said: “No real surprise. They seem immune to effects of criticism & will no doubt reach Govt targets.”
Others told Disability News Service on Twitter that they were “disgusted but not surprised” and “mortified”, while another said Atos’s treatment of disabled people through the WCA had been “abysmal”.
Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), which this week announced plans for several days of direction action against Atos in protest at its sponsorship of the London 2012 Paralympics, said it was “astonished” that Atos had been awarded the new contracts.
DPAC said that Atos was the company “most responsible for driving through the government’s brutal cuts agenda” and had “devastated the lives of hundreds of thousands of disabled people”.
But Neil Coyle, director of policy and campaigns for Disability Rights UK (DR UK), said Atos had been in prime position to win contracts because of its existing WCA infrastructure.
He insisted that the biggest problem facing disabled people was with the government’s testing system, rather than the way it was applied by Atos.
He added: “The same is likely to be true with the PIP assessment, which we know is designed to allow a government policy that will take 20 per cent off the budget and deny support to half a million disabled people.
“Atos could be better, but they are delivering government policy. Government policy on PIP is going to be much more significant for disabled people [than who carries out the assessments].”
Members of the Disability Benefits Consortium – including DR UK – had asked all the bidders for the PIP contacts to sign up to 10 pledges that they hoped would ensure the assessments were delivered more fairly than the WCA. As yet, none of the bidders have signed up.
But there are also unanswered questions over the involvement of disability organisations in helping Atos win its contracts.
DWP has made it clear that the three successful bids “demonstrated strong evidence of working with a range of partner organisations such as health groups and the voluntary sector, and of close working with disabled people’s representative groups”.
Capita said it had carried out “extensive consultation” with “representative groups” – including Assist UK, a national disabled people’s organisation which promotes independent living – that would now be “a part of our supply chain”.
Some of these organisations will help Capita train assessors, while some will provide premises where the tests will take place.
A Capita spokeswoman said: “We believe that peer-to-peer interactions will provide the best claimant experience and as a result we expect that around 40 per cent of our advisers, centre hosts and administrators will have long term health conditions or be disabled.”
But Atos has so far not released the names of any of the disability organisations it has worked with, or is planning to work with to deliver PIP assessments.
A DWP spokesman said the three contracts were awarded “following the usual procedures for open and fair competition, and assessed against established and published selection criteria”.
But he said it was up to Capita and Atos to name those organisations they had worked with.
2 August 2012