Two disabled campaigners whose brothers’ deaths were closely linked to the actions of the outsourcing company Atos have welcomed the announcement that its 20 years of carrying out disability assessments for the government will end next year.
From September next year, Atos will no longer deliver disability benefit assessments on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
DWP announced this week that it had awarded a five-year contract to carry out assessments in south-west England to Serco, which first sought to carry out assessments for personal independence payment (PIP) more than 10 years ago.
Contracts to carry out assessments in other parts of the UK were awarded to private sector providers earlier this year, with Atos again missing out.
Among those welcoming the news was Sarah Carré.
Her brother Stephen took his own life in January 2010 after he was found fit for work, following an Atos work capability assessment (WCA) that failed to seek any evidence from his GP or psychiatrist and ignored what he had told an assessor about his significant mental distress.
A coroner later concluded that his suicide was triggered by the decision to find him fit for work.
Sarah Carré told Disability News Service (DNS): “I’d like to believe that they lost the contract as a result of their bad behaviour, and I’d like to believe that disabled people will be treated with honesty and fairness now, but my cynicism appears to have become ingrained after the last 13 years.
“I’d also like to be a better person and wish the staff losing their jobs all of the best for the future – but I don’t.
“Childish of me, perhaps, but I feel nothing but contempt for anyone complicit in that company.
“I’ll reserve my good wishes for the individuals and families who have suffered the untold damage caused by them.
“A very good riddance from me, and let’s hope that we never have to hear from them again.”
Dave Smith is another whose sibling’s death was closely linked to the actions of Atos.
His brother James Oliver was desperately ill with chronic liver disease caused by alcohol dependency, as well as other health conditions including scoliosis, hypertension and depression, but he was twice denied PIP following Atos assessments.
Shortly before he died in hospital, in April 2019, he told his brother: “I can’t believe it. I am dying, I am going to be dead, and I’m still not sick enough to get PIP.”
Smith said he was “delighted” that Atos would no longer be delivering assessments.
He said the Atos nurse who carried out his brother’s second assessment ignored clear evidence of how much he was struggling in his day-to-day life, despite visiting his “pigsty” of a flat and reading his written evidence.
He said it was as if Atos was set up “to decline people automatically, not to do an honest assessment”.
He told DNS: “It’s good news that they are finally going to go, but you just wonder what’s coming next.”
He wants to see an end to the outsourcing of benefit assessments and for them to be carried out in-house, as they are by the Scottish government’s Social Security Scotland for its new adult disability payment.
This week, Atos failed to respond to requests to comment on losing out in the assessment contract awards, and failed to apologise to the relatives of those who lost their lives because of its actions, and the countless others who were caused harm.
DWP’s decision to award the final contract to Serco will mean an end to 20 years of Atos delivering assessments on DWP’s behalf, which started when the French company Atos Origin took over IT services company SchlumbergerSema – the existing assessment provider – in 2004.
Since then, Atos has been responsible for – at various times – assessments for disability living allowance, PIP and, most notoriously, employment and support allowance.
It earned more than £465 million over seven years from delivering work capability assessments (WCAs) before it withdrew from the contract in 2015, following years of negative publicity and multiple links between the actions of the company and its staff and the deaths of disabled claimants.
Atos healthcare professionals were also repeatedly accused of dishonesty in the provision of PIP assessments, following a DNS investigation.
John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said Atos had “blood on their hands” and had acted as “mercenaries” and as the government’s “dogs of war against disabled people”.
He said: “They are losing the contract, but they are not going to be held to account for the harm they have caused to people.
“They should be a pariah company.
“Those assessors that wilfully lied should be struck off by their respective professions and by no means does the fact that Atos have lost the contract means justice has been delivered.
“In fact, they have got off scot-free and they have grown fat on profits from the sufferings and deaths of the most vulnerable people in society.”
Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said: “This is very welcome news although whether Serco will be any better remains to be seen.”
She added: “The damage caused to disabled people, and the number of claimants driven to their deaths by the actions and assessments carried out by Atos on behalf of the government, should never be forgotten.”
Paula Peters, another DPAC steering group member, said the end of Atos assessments was “welcome news”, but other companies carrying out assessments were “still denying disabled people financial support and denying disability and causing distress and harm”.
She added: “We’ve a lot of campaigning to continue with.”
Tom Pursglove, the minister for disabled people, announced this week that Serco was the successful bidder for the £338 million contract to carry out WCAs and PIP assessments in south-west England, over the five years from 2024.
This was the last of five contracts to be awarded by DWP, covering assessments in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Under DWP’s new Functional Assessment Service, the successful bidder in each region will carry out both PIP assessments and WCAs, although a Conservative government would eventually phase out WCAs if it won the next general election.
DNS reported two months ago that DWP initially awarded the south-west England contract to Serco after an evaluation of the two bids saw Serco come out ahead of Atos on the scoring system by just three per cent.
Atos disputed the fairness of that decision and took DWP and work and pensions secretary Mel Stride to the high court’s technology and construction court.
That legal process appears now to have been settled – although Atos has declined to explain how this happened – and a relaunched procurement process has led to the award of the contract to Serco.
The five delayed contracts will now all begin in September 2024.
Five-year contracts have already been awarded to Maximus (for the north of England and Scotland*); Capita (for Wales and the Midlands, and for Northern Ireland**); and Ingeus UK for south-east England, London and East Anglia.
Maximus will also work as a “delivery partner” to Capita in Wales and the Midlands.
In all, the five assessment contracts will be worth more than two billion pounds over the five years from 2024 to 2029.
*In Scotland, the Scottish government is now responsible for running its replacement for PIP, adult disability payment, although Maximus may have to manage a small number of ongoing PIP cases, while also carrying out WCAs
**In Northern Ireland, DWP has acted on behalf of the Department for Communities, which will be responsible for managing the service in Northern Ireland
DNS editor John Pring’s book on DWP and how its actions led to countless deaths of disabled benefit claimants in the post-2010 era – The Department – will be published by Pluto Press next August
Picture: James Oliver (left) in a hospital bed shortly before he died, and Stephen Carré
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