Atos ‘Unfit’ for the Games [Primer #3]


Atos is a French IT and Healthcare company responsible for disability work assessments. The same company is also sponsoring the 2014 Commonwealth Games and providing the accreditation systems, volunteer systems and Games information systems. This primer will provide critical information on Atos, highlighting the shameful nature of their links to Glasgow’s Games and the wider context of the policies of the government towards disability welfare payments.

Since being awarded the contract in 2008 – under the Labour Government – for a cost of £110m per year, Atos has received sustained media criticism for its treatment of some of the most vulnerable people in society. In Glasgow, the company has been subject to continued protest and criticism by campaign groups and by those directly affected. A national day of action was called on April 1st.

Glasgow Games Monitor has continually reported the anger and frustration towards Atos. The campaign groups are well organised and the chanting and banners of ‘Atos Kills’ at rallies and occupations illustrates the severity of the case against the company. Despite sustained bad publicity, Atos remains a sponsor of the 2014 games. A recent city council vote cemented this position with the Labour Party making the ridiculous claim that the two sides of ATOS – one doing disability assessments, the other doing sponsorship and information technology services – were somehow separate even if they are part of the same company. In the face of this bullshit, we support the continuing campaigns to remove the sponsorship and to prevent Atos from carrying out anymore assessments. But we also want to ask wider questions about the process of disability work assessments and the changes to welfare payments.

The assessments conducted by Atos are on behalf of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and are part of wider efforts to “simplify the welfare system”. This process of ‘simplification’ is extremely harmful to those subject to it. We argue that the DWP as well as Atos must be held accountable for their appalling policy making on disability welfare support.


The Assessment

The evidence of the degrading process that Atos is putting claimants through keeps piling up. 600,000 people have appealed against the result of their assessment and 60% of these appeals have been successful.There have been shocking cases of mistreatment, including trickery at assessment interviews, over booking of appointments, Atos call centres mishandling cases and even assessment centres not having disabled access. Our own interviews with protestors at the Velodrome occupation tell a similar story.

A recent freedom of information request to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for the exact details on the number of people who have died during their assessment process was rejected. In a speech to the UK Parliament by Labour MP Michael Meacher in April 2013,  he stated that the Government’s own figures reveal that 1,300 people had died after being told they should start preparing to go back to work, another 2,200 had died before their assessment was complete, and 7,100 people died after being put into the support group (see video below). It should be made clear that the numbers of deaths as a direct result of Atos assessments is contested and difficult to prove due to the already vulnerable nature of the people involved. However, despite these provisos it is very clear that the assessment procedure has contributed to many horrendous fatalities, as well as harrowing and widespread mental and physical stress for disabled people as discussed in the video here:

These shocking experiences are all too common and illustrate the general mismanagement by Atos. Their shortcomings have been conceded by the government and the DWP who will now be “bringing in additional provision to deliver Work Capability Assessments with the aim of increasing delivery capacity and reducing waiting times.” Atos themselves are seemingly losing interest due to negative publicity and have expressed interest in stepping down early before the end of the contract in August 2015. This will not solve the problem though. Campaigning against welfare ‘reform’ must continue. The occupation of the Chris Hoy velodrome by anti-Atos protestors is a great example.


Wider Context/DWP

If we’re going to bring an end to this dehumanising process, right now is a crucial time for these campaigns, something which the DWP, and therefore the government, are all too aware of. They are trying to reduce the issue to a problem with a single company, Atos, to wriggle off the hook with that same old excuse that governments use whenever privatisation ends up harming the people it’s alleged to benefit – “Well, we might’ve hired them, but we never expected them to do it like this!”

DWP policy documents make the intended assessment process quite clear. They state that “benefit will not be paid on the basis of having a health condition or impairment but on the impact of the health condition or impairment on the claimant’s everyday life.”

Unsurprisingly, this assessment process is clearly stressful for participants who effectively have to prove the negative aspects of their disability. The activities during the assessment include daily living activities (food preparation, washing and bathing, managing toilet needs, etc.) and mobility challenges (moving around, planning journeys). These activities cannot provide an accurate ‘measure’ of disability. A Guardian article last year highlighted how the mobility measures had been changed and that the distance participants were required to be unable to walk to be deemed suitable for mobility benefits was now 20 metres instead of 50. The definition of disability is constantly being re-drafted to suit the Coalition’s workfare agenda.

The profit making drive of the assessment process has been made clear with recent revelations revealing that Atos pay no corporation tax despite a public sector profit margin of between 3 to 22%.

While GP Greg Wood might say in a recent article that the Atos assessment process is not appropriate for its purpose as the assessment “leans towards finding reasons not to award points”, in fact it totally suits the purpose the DWP has for it. Atos are doing exactly what the DWP want them to. Chucking loads of people off the support they require in order to fulfil even their most basic needs, and putting them, along with the rest of the workforce, into a nightmarish world of endlessly applying for jobs that don’t exist or don’t pay well enough for basic needs.

The descriptors used in assessments, devised by the DWP, and expanded by Atos WCA guidelines, emphasise the performance of work-related manual tasks, and furthermore the exact kinds of tasks that correspond to jobs with the lowest pay and worst conditions. The descriptors are inappropriate for working out someone’s health situation, but for the DWP’s purposes they are exactly what the pseudo-doctor ordered.

With this in mind, we can look again at recent government reviews admitting that the Atos disability assessment process is ‘unacceptably poor’.  The DWP are simply attempting to deflect criticism from their own culpability by simplifying the problem, saying ‘It wasn’t us!’  (even though we hired them, and told them what to do, and actually we like what they’re up to anyway). But welfare ‘reform’ – e.g. forcing people into shit jobs – is exactly what the government doctor ordered.

Getting people ‘back to work’ is not the solution to our problems. The business model in the UK is low skill, low paid jobs as a model of success. The approach is not only to accept the low-wage model but to actively exploit that low-wage model, offering up our hides at the lowest possible cost to businesses who want nothing better than a cheap labour force to exploit. Between 2008 and 2013 real average income fell for Scots by 9.9%. Decent work is at a premium. Unemployment levels remain high and ‘working poverty’ is endemic. For young people starting work, for instance, “the norm is becoming a low wage and casualised work environment or an unregulated and degraded training system”.

That ATOS are managing the volunteer system for the Games is instructive. When an area like the East End of Glasgow is renowned for ingrained levels of unemployment why are 15,000 people doing 11 days of full time work for absolutely nothing? Maybe because it’s an ideal scenario for business? Maybe because the creation of no wage and low wage work is the business of welfare ‘reform’.

Where Next?

Atos have rightly been exposed as profiting from performing dehumanising assessments. The work to continue this exposure must continue and Atos must be shamed until they are no longer conducting these assessments. However, if Atos are to be removed, pressure must be maintained on the Government and their determined policy of reducing welfare payments to those that need it most.

While the Tories are the current front for austerity, Labour, who hired Atos in the first place, also view austerity as the only option. What we need is not just the end of the degrading Atos assessments; we need the end of a way of structuring work and welfare that could create a role for an organisation like Atos in the first place. What we need is more solidarity between the ever expanding ‘working poor’, and disabled people and the unemployed. Let’s remember that our common enemies are the bosses, the governments, the managers and the landlords!

We need to press on with the heartening Anti-Atos organising already taking place, while also pointing the finger at Atos’ government accomplices. The issue of Atos is much wider than their sponsorship of the Commonwealth Games, but the media spectacle attached to the Games makes it a potentially very useful detonation point for wider resistance. The ‘legacy’ for disabled people in these Atos sponsored Games, as is made clear above, is persecution, stress, and in some cases death. Atos are ‘unfit’ for the Games.

* Postscript

In another important victory for ‘people power’, after sustained campaigning by disability and welfare groups, Atos have agreed with the DWP to exit the contract to run work capability assessments early. They will leave the contract early next year instead of August next year. However, the battle is far from over. The remain as sponsors of the Games despite leaving the DWP contract because of their infamous record. Moreover, a joint statement by the Black Triangle disability rights group, Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), and War on Welfare (WOW) resistance group, states that the Atos exit from the DWP contract is only a ‘partial victory’:

The alphabet corporations (G4S, A4E, SERCO, CAPITA) are already lining up to take over the multi-million profits and the mantle of the new Grim Reapers. The misery imposed by this Government and the DWP will continue as long as its heinous policies continue“.

They demand:

(1) That the WCA be ended with immediate effect to be replaced with a rigorous and safe system that does not cause avoidable harm to disabled people, those with chronic health issues, terminal illnesses or long term health issues.

(2) That the UK Government at Westminster and the opposition follow the Scottish Government’s pledge that private for-profit companies are removed entirely from having anything to do with the assessment of disabled people. This area of public policy belongs firmly within the NHS and the public sector.

(3) That all support and commend the initiative being led by Black Triangle in union with DPAC and WOW to work together with the BMA to ensure that GPs are able to flag up a substantial risk of harm to disabled people, those with chronic health issues, terminal illnesses or long term health issues at the very outset of the WCA process.

(4) That the personal independence payment (PIP) contract be removed from ATOS with immediate effect. They have shown errors beyond incompetence affecting thousands of disabled people, leading to waits of up to a year and leaving people without income or food.