April 7, 2013 7:25 pm

Under-fire Atos begins disability tests

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Atos, the French IT business, starts a five-year contract carrying out disability tests on Monday, despite being heavily criticised for its handling of the existing work capability assessments.

The company has won the bulk of contracts to run tests for the new personal independence payment (Pip), which replaces the disability living allowance and determines whether people are entitled to extra money to help cope with disability – such as cars, equipment or nursing.

Atos’s £400m contracts cover the southeast and north of the country, representing about 75 per cent of disability living allowance claimants.

For the past three years it has been under fire for its handling of work capability tests, which assess whether people are well enough to apply for work. A third of its decisions were overturned on appeal amid allegations that people with terminal cancer or other serious illnesses had been denied benefits as a result of its assessments.

Nick Barry, general manager of the Pip contracts for Atos, insists that there are several differences with the new process, which should help avoid some of the pitfalls of the work capability tests.

Most of the frontline work, such as face-to-face interviews, will be carried out by 14 Atos subcontractors, mostly NHS trusts, enabling work to be carried out in the community.

Lanarkshire NHS, for example, will receive £22m from Atos to carry out the disability assessments until July 2017, with the work carried out by trained physiotherapists, occupational therapists and medics.

Atos will also present information from a wider variety of sources to the Department for Work and Pensions at an earlier stage, reducing the number of successful appeals, he says.

Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine that the company will avoid controversy given that Pips were introduced with the aim of reducing the projected cost of the benefit by 20 per cent by 2015-16.

With this in mind, the government has made the new tests more stringent. The MS Society has warned that those who are able to walk slightly further than 20 metres, even using sticks, will not qualify for the benefit’s enhanced rate.

Atos will initially assess new claimants but everyone on the disability living allowance will eventually be moved to Pips, with about 3.2m people, or 11,000 people a week, reassessed over the next three years. Official estimates suggest that by 2018 about 607,000 fewer people will be getting DLA or Pips.

This has left disabled people worried that the new assessments are “nothing but a cost-cutting measure”, according to the charity Scope. It fears that Atos, and rival Capita – which is carrying out the remainder of the tests – have been given arbitrary targets. Mr Barry insists that is not the case.

“We’re not setting individual targets, that is not what we do,” he said. But he accepted that the new policies were causing concern. “I wouldn’t underestimate how anxious people feel. I can’t control the policy but I can ensure we have sensitively trained staff.”

Ultimately, though, he said Atos was not responsible for the government’s decisions. “Many of the allegations are based around a misunderstanding of the role we perform. We don’t make the rules: we apply the Department for Work and Pensions’ criteria.”

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