The new minister for disabled people has caused confusion after he appeared to suggest that Atos Healthcare would be withdrawing from delivering the government’s “fitness for work” tests in less than two years’ time.
Giving evidence to the work and pensions select committee last week, Mike Penning told MPs that there were “global” contract negotiations taking place between Atos and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
DWP has already announced that it would be looking for other providers to deliver the work capability assessment (WCA) alongside Atos from next year.
The company’s contract to carry out hundreds of thousands of WCAs every year runs out in 2015, but Penning told the committee: “At the moment, Atos is the sole provider. They won’t be going forward.”*
But it was not clear whether he was saying that Atos would not be going forward at all as a provider, or whether they would not be going forward as the sole provider of WCAs.
DWP claimed Penning was “referring to the fact that the current contract runs until August 2015, and as announced in July this year, we are changing our approach to contracting for the WCA, by bringing in additional providers on a regional basis”.
An Atos spokeswoman also claimed that what Penning had meant was that “new providers will also be brought in”.
Asked whether Atos would be bidding to carry on providing WCAs after 2015, she said: “I am not saying anything. I wouldn’t make a comment on what will happen in 2015.
“I am not going to comment on any contractual discussions that take place with the department or on our plans for 2015.”
Atos has become one of the focal points of protests from the disabled people’s anti-cuts movement.
Protesters have claimed that the company is “most responsible for driving through the government’s brutal cuts agenda”, and that it has devastated the lives of hundreds of thousands of disabled people, and “trains its staff to push people off benefits”.
Disabled activists have repeatedly pointed to links between the WCA and the way Atos carries out the assessments, and relapses, episodes of self-harm and even suicides and other premature deaths among those being assessed.
Penning also told the MPs on the committee that it had not been possible for Atos to make a profit on the “ludicrous” tender the company submitted to win the WCA contract, which had been accepted by the last Labour government.
And he said he had had conversations “at board level” with Atos about its performance on the WCA contract, and that the company realised “how bad this was for their reputation”.
*The minister’s comments about Atos and the WCA contract come at 11.28am in the recording of the committee session on the parliament website.
18 December 2013