Outgoing employment minister Chris Grayling was heckled in a parliamentary debate today as he defended Government use of Atos Healthcare despite on-going public protest.
Mr Grayling, who will move to the Justice Department following the coalition’s cabinet reshuffle, was met with shouts from the public gallery in Westminster Hall when he spoke in support of the controversial agency.
Chairman of the session Phillip Holloborne was forced to intervene after protesters in wheelchairs interrupted the minister’s speech by shouting “shame on you” and “people’s lives are at stake.”
Mr Hollborne said: “Parliamentary rules are there is to be no noise at all from the gallery. This is your last chance. If there is more noise, I will have to suspend sitting, no one will hear from the minister and I will clear the gallery.”
After continued furore, one woman was ejected from the chamber before the speakers were allowed to resume.
The 90-minute debate was demanded by Labour MP Tom Gratex following widespread protests over the private company’s disability assessments after their brand was displayed prominently on London 2012 lanyards as sponsors of the Paralympic Games.
Responding to the debate, Mr Grayling said the decision to appoint Atos followed a “long and difficult process” but rebutted accusations that there was a concerted attempt within government to reduce the number of people on benefits.
The newly minted Justice Secretary said: “It is all about trying to help people back into the workplace if they possibly can be. That was the motivation of the previous government when they established the work capability assessment.”
“We will never create a system that is perfect. That is why we have a right to appeal.”
However, Mr Gratex claimed there must be radical reforms to Atos’ assessments to make sure they work properly for claimants and taxpayers.
The shadow minister added that the taxpayer is effectively paying twice for the government’s £122 million contract with the firm – once for the assessments and again to cover the cost of appeals, almost 40% of which are successful.
“There is a degree of chaos in the system caused by the decisions of government and the failure to hold Atos to account,” he said.
During the debate another Labour MP, Katy Clark, said Atos’ sponsorship of the Paralympics has sparked significant public anger, referring to a protest by hundreds of disabled people at the company’s headquarters and the Department of Work and Pensioners.
“Many people feel it is an insult to people going through this process,” she said.
Controversy surrounding the disability assessments heightened this week after a leaked DWP letter revealed that sick and disabled claimants could lose up 70% of their weekly employment support if they refuse to take part in work-related activities.
An Atos spokeswoman said: "We do not make decisions on people's benefit entitlement or on welfare policy but we will continue to make sure the service that we provide is as highly professional and compassionate as it can be.”