Why has Atos been taken on to handle NHS care.data despite the unmitigated disaster of ‘fitness for work’ tests?

The DWP deserves a big share of the blame for the disability benefit tests. It was repeatedly warned that it was a recipe for disaster


Is it cheerio then Atos? Can we ask the French IT company to kindly close the door on its way out?

Well, you might think so. Atos is almost certainly soon to be done with the Government’s fitness for work tests - or whatever they're calling them these days -  which have proved to be such an unmitigated disaster. It wants out of the contract.  But bear with me for a moment, because there's a sting in the tail (clue, Atos hasn't gone as far as you might hope).

Now, you could call feeling utterly delighted at sight of this unlovely organisation slinking off with its tail between its legs Schadenfreude. But I'm not sure. Is it at all shameful to be joyful at the apparent misfortune of an organisation that has caused such abject misery to many of its customers? Stakeholders? Victims?

Given the reports that surfaced of a terminal cancer patient being told that he should hop off to his local JobCentre Plus, I don't think it is.

The facts speak for themselves. Some 600,000 people appealed against decisions that saw their benefits cut. A staggering 60 per cent were successful. Even the Department for Work & Pensions got in on the act, disagreeing with 158,300 decisions made by the company. 

We are told death threats against its staff is the reason it wants out, although I suspect the battering that the reputation of Atos has taken is no small contributor. Let me make it clear here that I in no way condone the former.

And even though certain members of staff, and the company itself, may have behaved with the sort of bureaucratic callousness that can understandably provoke fury in those luckless enough to encounter it, they hardly bear the sole responsibility for this mess. No, the DWP, which handed out the contract and set its criteria, deserves a big share of the blame.

It was repeatedly warned before the tests were launched that it was concocting a recipe for disaster. But it ploughed on regardless and put a toxic mixture into the oven. The theory might have looked sound on a piece of paper before a bureaucrat: disabilities evolve over time. Some people can get better. It would be of benefit for those finding themselves able to work as a result of improving health were they to be helped back into it. Hey, look, we can also save money here. The right wing press says they're all feckless scroungers anyway. Let's get 'em tested and then pack 'em off to a fast-food joint for a minimum wage job! George Osborne'll love us and we'll look like the tough guys of Whitehall.

That sort of thinking caused common sense to get thrown out of the window.
Because lots of people obviously won't get better. People with terminal cancer, for example, or those with long term degenerative conditions or those with spinal injuries, or amputees. And the list goes on. And yet they were all ordered to attend re-testing.

Ministers mouthed pious platitudes. Atos staff equipped with boxes to tick and targets to meet, went to town. The results were depressingly predictable.

Mercifully the reassessments have now been put on hold, amid a mounting backlog. A new company will have to be found to take on the job.

Such is the nature of Government contracting that there will undoubtedly be someone fool enough to give it a go. G4S anyone? After the Olympic security fiasco and the annoyance it caused in Government it could to with currying some favour. Would it be willing to take on this hospital pass?

Any contractor contemplating taking on the job needs to take care. The whole system needs a re-boot. If it doesn't get one the new boy's name will soon be voiced with the sort of disgust currently reserved for Atos. So it would be in the replacement's interests to engage in hard bargaining on the operation of the tests, and on who should be re-tested, rather than just on the financial terms of any deal.

Not that the reputational damage appears to have harmed Atos as much as you might think. Here's the stinger I mentioned. The company isn't going anywhere. It will be managing the transferral of personal data from GP records so it can be stored in the enormous NHS database that many GPs appear to hate and many people (including myself) have opted out of thanks to concerns over data security.

This is the madness of the Government's addiction to contracting out. A company makes a mess of a job, a really awful foul up, and then walks away from it only to be hired for a similarly sensitive job.

Atos has been sending me press releases extolling the virtues of the job it has been doing at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Funnily enough, reading them doesn't make me feel any more comfortable about its new role.

Read more:
Atos quietly dropped from carrying out repeat reassessments
Atos to manage NHS care.data project
Care.data will help prolong our lives and those of our children

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