Atos holds £3bn of government contracts
Controversial Paralympic sponsor has won work across Whitehall as well
as running work capability assessments
Ministers have outsourced more than £3bn of public services to Atos, the
multinational IT firm whose sponsorship of the Paralympics has prompted a
nationwide campaign by disability activists.
A series of parliamentary questions from Labour MP Tom Greatrex reveals
the value of contracts with Atos is now more than a third higher than the
amount outsourced by the last government. The replies expose how far the
reach of the company extends in Whitehall.
The revelations come as the company, which conducts controversial
medical assessments for benefit claims on behalf of the government, reaps
the benefits of its association with the Olympic and Paralympic movement.
City analysts estimate that Atos's work for the London Olympic and
Paralympic Games is worth £200m in revenues. They say its sponsorship of
the events helps showcase "its technology and project management
On Wednesday disabled protesters will deliver a coffin filled with 85 pages
of complaints from people and their families who have been told they have
to get a job despite suffering from serious impairments. They point out that
1,100 people died last year after failing the test for the new incapacity
Linda Burnip, the co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, which is
leading the campaign, said: "The fact is that Atos is getting all the credit for
the Paralympics and at the same time it is destroying disabled people's lives
through the work capability assessments."
Greatrex has secured a Westminster Hall debate on Atos and the work
capability assessments on 4 September.
While 10 government departments have contracts with the company, its
most high-profile deal sprang from a Labour pilot project in 2008 to decide
whether people were fit to work or eligible for Employment and Support
Allowance (ESA). This contract – worth £112m last year – has been
extended across the country by the coalition government and been the
focus of campaigners' ire.
The company has conducted about 738,000 work capability assessments
on benefit claimants in the past financial year. However the assessments
have been widely criticised and it has emerged that 40% of people appeal
against the decisions – with 38% of those successful. The cost to the
taxpayer of the tribunal system alone is £50m, around half of the amount
spent on reassessment.
Charities say jobcentre staff have been shocked "when someone who is
clearly unwell turns up having been told that they are fit for work". In May
GPs called for the assessments to be scrapped. Greatrex, whose
investigation into Atos led to the National Audit Office this month calling for
an overhaul of the government's medical testing contract with the company,
said the firm "would not fix its reputation by sponsoring the Paralympics".
"Despite the huge concerns that have been raised about the way in which
the work capability assessment is delivered by Atos, it seems the Tory-led
government is happy to increase the value of its contracts with the firm," he
said. "Ministers appear to be either unconcerned or unaware of the
problems with Atos – both of which reflect badly on the very people who
should be doing their job in getting better value for money for the taxpayer,
and a fairer assessment for those who have to go through it."
Disabled activists who have campaigned against the medical assessments
say they are astonished to learn that this contract is the tip of the iceberg.
Atos won three contracts from the Department for International
Development worth £270m, including £20m to run a federal public
administration reform programme in Nigeria. It also won a £33m contract to
run IT for the Highways Agency and ran computers for the Home Office in
an arrangement which cost the taxpayer £62m last year.
Ministers have been impressed with Atos's performance – the company was
the first IT firm to sign a new "memorandum of understanding" after the
Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, redesigned Labour contracts he
considered too favourable to the private sector. In a vote of confidence in
the company this month, Atos won government contracts worth £400m to
test whether disabled people should continue receiving disability living
allowance benefits. The Cabinet Office said all contracts were "based on the
best value for money for taxpayers and are subject to strict scrutiny".
The disability campaigners are being backed by UK Uncut, which hopes its
tactics of peaceful occupation and canny use of social media will galvanise
the wider public in action. Tony Smith, spokesperson for UK Uncut, said:
"Atos are doing the government's dirty work, taking away benefits from
disabled people without regard for their needs, leaving many in poverty and
driving some to suicide. They are being paid millions of pounds of
taxpayers' money to rip apart our welfare system."
Analysts said the company had become a whipping boy because of the
tests. Rachael Stormonth, of NelsonHall analysts, said Atos had inherited
the assessments when it bought a company that used to test coal miners for
emphysema. "Both the amount of time Atos gets and the quality of the
assessment is up to the government. They are the whipping boys here,"
An Atos spokesperson said: "We are proud of our association with the
Paralympic Games and have provided technology and support since 2002
to help ensure their success.
"We run a number of contracts in the UK, both in the private sector and
within government, and offer our customers good value for money alongside
high standards of service, delivery and flexibility. In particular, Atos has
been providing medical assessments to government for 13 years."
A government spokesperson said sponsorship was a matter for Games
organisers, saying: "Locog and the International Paralympic Committee
make all decisions on sponsorship for the Paralympics. All the partners
provide vital funding without which the Games would not happen and they
operate within the supplier guidelines."
"It's disappointing that a small number of organisations are protesting
against sponsorship of the Paralympic Games, which is an opportunity to
showcase the talents of disabled people and act as a catalyst for our
sporting talents of the future."