Labour has called for an “immediate investigation” after evidence emerged that Atos Healthcare won two lucrative disability assessment contracts by using “misleading” information about its links with disabled people’s organisations (DPOs).
Anne McGuire, the shadow minister for disabled people, said the revelations – passed to her by Disability News Service (DNS) – raised “extremely serious questions” over the award of contracts worth £540 million to assess disabled people for eligibility for the new personal independence payment (PIP), the planned replacement for disability living allowance.
Atos suggested in tender documents that it would be working closely with organisations “such as” Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People (GMCDP), Disability Cornwall and ecdp (formerly Essex Coalition of Disabled People) if it won the contracts.
The pledge helped to ensure that Atos won two of three five-year government contracts.
Atos suggested in the tender documents that organisations such as GMCDP, Disability Cornwall and ecdp would help it design “disability awareness training” for its staff, and work with it on how to communicate with disabled people claiming PIP.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) made it clear in August that the successful PIP assessment bids had “demonstrated strong evidence… of close working with disabled people’s representative groups”, after it awarded two regional contracts to Atos and one to the outsourcing giant Capita.
But GMCDP, Disability Cornwall and ecdp were horrified this week when told by DNS that they had been mentioned in Atos’s tender documents.
McGuire said there was a “state of chaos” at the DWP and “clear evidence” that Atos won the contracts with a bid that was “misleading”.
She said: “There must be an immediate investigation because the integrity of the entire process is now in serious doubt.
“Ministers must now explain exactly how these claims got through unchecked, and they must urgently appoint external auditors to get to the bottom of what on earth is going on, before we have another West Coast Mainline fiasco on our hands.”
Disabled activists have spent much of the last two years protesting about the way Atos has carried out its most high-profile government contract, to assess disabled people for their “fitness for work”.
The grassroots campaigning organisation Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) is already considering legal action against Atos for suggesting elsewhere in the tender documents that it had been engaged in regular discussions with the company, a reference Atos is now claiming was “a mistake”.
Many of DPAC’s direct action protests have focused on Atos, which it says has “devastated the lives of hundreds of thousands of disabled people”.
It even held The Atos Games, a week of protests during the Paralympic Games, to highlight disabled people’s anger at Atos’s sponsorship of London 2012.
Mike Adams, chief executive of ecdp, said he was “absolutely not” happy with his organisation being used by Atos in one of the tender documents, and said he would be writing to the company to complain.
He said: “How we got named in any tender documentation I have no idea. If anything in that tender document suggests we did [meet or plan to work with them], it is simply not true.
“There is a huge inference there that they have been discussing possibilities with us and that is not true. It is simply not true.”
Richard Currie, an executive member of GMCDP, said the idea of his organisation working with Atos was “absolutely preposterous”.
He said: “I would like to state in clear and unambiguous terms in no way would GMCDP be a party to anything to do with Atos.
“As an organisation we are not keen to work with organisations that actively make life more difficult for disabled people.
“We would never want anything to do with Atos. We do not feel they are a fit and proper company to do the assessments, as they proved with the employment and support allowance claimant debacle.”
Disability Cornwall also said that it had been completely unaware that it was mentioned in the Atos tender document until contacted by DNS. A Disability Cornwall spokesman said the organisation had never worked with Atos and never would.
Atos refused in August to name the DPOs and other disability organisations that helped it win the contracts, or even to say how many such organisations it had worked with, or why those organisations had refused permission to have their names released.
Linda Burnip, a member of DPAC’s steering group, said: “It is difficult to know whether we should fall about laughing because it is so ridiculous.
“Given The Atos Games and all the protests around the country, how can they have the nerve to say this?”
An Atos spokeswoman claimed that the statements it had made about DPOs being involved in its training and communication were “future intentions with regards the development of PIP”.
She added: “We have not stated anywhere in our bid document that organisations have been involved with Atos Healthcare in developing our PIP solution when they have not.”
DNS has not yet been able to confirm the accuracy of references to a string of other DPOs and disability charities in the documents.
The government has so far been unable to clarify whether it was aware that the DPOs mentioned by Atos had no intention of working with the company.
Instead, a DWP spokeswoman emailed a statement which said: “Atos have confirmed that they have not stated anywhere in their bid document that organisations have been involved with Atos Healthcare in developing their PIP solution when they have not.”
And she said that Atos had shown “a good understanding of the organisations who represented customers in the PIP space and offered robust, quality delivery proposals”.
Last week, DNS reported that Disability Rights UK (DR UK) was strongly disputing several references to help it had supposedly given to Capita, which won the third PIP assessment contract, in Capita’s tender document
Neither Capita nor DR UK has so far been able to clarify whether these references were included with DR UK’s permission.
25 October 2012