The company that conducts “fitness to work” tests for the government has been accused of an attack on free speech after issuing legal threats against four internet forums and websites run and used by disabled people.
The DWPExaminations and CarerWatch forums and the websites AtosRegisterofShame and AfterAtos have all been used by disabled people to swap advice and information about the much-criticised work capability assessments (WCA) and how the tests have been carried out by employees of Atos Healthcare.
All four have either received threatening letters from Atos lawyers or have had their site shut down by its hosting company, following legal pressure from Atos.
Nelson*, a disabled activist who founded the DWPExaminations forum, has been blogging about his own experiences of Atos, the WCA and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) since 2009.
He started the forum last year, and said it soon became “a popular source of first-hand accounts of what to expect at the WCA and the treatment one would receive from Atos”, as well as a “lifeline to some kind of hope”.
But the forum’s host withdrew its service last week after receiving a letter from Atos’s lawyers that claimed some participants were libelling the company.
Nelson said he was given no warning of the action, which he described as “an attack on free speech”. His forum has now been offered a new home by the campaigning organisation Black Triangle.
The CarerWatch forum – which provides a campaigning platform for disabled people and carers and focuses heavily on issues around Atos and the WCA – was suddenly shut down on 19 August.
Again Atos had provided no warning, and instead sent a legal letter to the hosting company.
Rosemary O’Neill, the forum’s co-founder, she was “absolutely shocked” when she discovered the action Atos had taken.
She said: “We are probably one of the more moderate groups. We are not confrontational. It was a closed forum and all they are doing is sharing experiences.
“The fact that a company like this one on a whim can take a support forum away… What would be next? Where’s the freedom?”
Another resource, the After Atos website – set up in March by a disabled activist who uses the pseudonym “Aunty” and which provides a database of disabled people’s anonymous experiences of Atos and the WCA – received a letter from the Atos legal department in May.
The letter warned of “a few examples of libellous statements” as well as unauthorised use of the Atos logo, and warned of legal consequences if they were not removed from the site “immediately”.
Another disabled activist, Paul Smith, founder of the website Atos Register of Shame, set up to publish disabled people’s accounts of their assessments, said his site had also been shut down after Atos lawyers sent a letter to the hosting company.
The site has in the past published the names of healthcare professionals who have carried out assessments, but Smith said these details had been taken down by the time the letter was sent.
He said: “I do see it as an attack on free speech. The people doing these campaigns are not anarchists trying to bring the country down. They are disabled and severely ill people who have no way of really standing up for themselves.”
Atos claimed that it did not ask for any of the four sites to be closed down, but only requested the removal of the “defamatory comments about our employees or our company”.
An Atos spokeswoman said that it “wasn’t our wish that sites be closed down”, although she admitted that Atos had requested that the hosting companies “act to remove or disable access to all the defamatory content”.
She said: “We fully support the right of people to express their opinions and are working with CarerWatch to ensure the site is reinstated as soon as possible.”
She said Atos would also be happy to work with the other three sites to reinstate their service.
She added: “We absolutely respect that people can discuss the company and what we do and have views and opinions but we think in the incidents where we have sent letters they have crossed the boundary between what is acceptable and what is libellous.”
Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) criticised the decision by Atos to “close down public criticism of their record”.
Lucy McTernan, chief executive of CAS, said: “Rather than trying to silence their critics and shut down public debate, it would be better if they addressed the very legitimate concerns that are being raised.”
The Department for Work and Pensions declined to comment on the Atos legal action.
*Not his real name
25 August 2011