Home > Uncategorized > Zoe Williams, The Guardian: Atos is doing a good job – as the government’s flakcatcher

Zoe Williams, The Guardian: Atos is doing a good job – as the government’s flakcatcher


Two things surprised me, the first time I saw Atos emblazoned all over the Paralympic Games: first, what a bizarre idea, for a company that is the single biggest identified threat to disabled people, to want to sponsor the event. ; second, what’s in it for them? They already have incredible brand recognition. Anyone with even a passing interest will have heard wordplay (“they couldn’t give a tos”). It is well known that the value of their contracts from the UK government currently stands at £3bn. We know from Dispatches and Panorama that Atos assessors are being given targets for removing people from the benefits “support group” – effectively, Christ-like, pronouncing them not disabled, in the hope that they will thereafter no longer be disabled.

It doesn’t appear to work – 40% of people have appealed the decision, and 38% of those were successful. It’s a mistake to infer that the rest were, therefore, caught bang to rights. Some of them simply give up, some die of their lack of illness, some take their own lives. The appeals process costs the government another £50m, but that comes out of some other budget (it will probably be used, somewhere along the line, as an argument for legal aid being too expensive).

There is no reason to suppose that a large number of disabled people are faking it. The DWP’s figures give a preliminary estimate for 2011/12 of benefits overpayment through fraud and error at 2%, but wait: 0.8% is customer error, 0.5% is DWP error. Only 0.7% of claimants are fraudulent.

On the subject of appeals, we know that you’re more likely to be successful if you’ve got audio of the assessment. For “security reasons”, Atos will not let claimants use their own recording equipment, and has purchased only 11 machines, to be split between 123 centres, to interview 11,000 people a week. At the last check, several machines were broken, but “unfortunately” assessments couldn’t be postponed until they were mended.

We know that Atos requires no mental health training from its assessors, has no specific test for the mentally ill, and takes no account of fluctuating conditions; so that’s a discrimination case waiting to happen.

Sorry to recap, when all of this has been established – but it underlines the puzzle. This is a company for whom scrutiny, indeed any kind of attention, can only lead to greater unpopularity. So why do they put themselves through it?

Because it’s part of the deal – they are not simply the government’s henchmen. They are its flakcatchers.

At a public meeting in Westminster Hall last night, various Labour MPs put questions about Atos to Chris Grayling; John McDonnell MP tweeted “Protesters sum up exactly what this debate is all about. The Atos system is causing immense suffering & killing people.” It’s true but it’s also wrong: all Atos does is enforce a government policy that causes immense suffering.

People at the coalface of the work capability assessment already know this. Disability campaigners protest outside the DWP as much as Atos headquarters. Tony Smith, spokesman for UK Uncut, pointed out: “Atos are doing the government’s dirty work.”

Analyst Rachael Stormonth, of NelsonHall, calls Atos “whipping boys” for the government, which I quote not to make anyone feel sorry for them – rather to point out that the very visibility, the signposting of this firm’s deficiencies, should wise us up to the fact that it’s a diversionary tactic. There is nothing easier than to dislike a faceless foreign corporation with apparently no attachment to the people whose lives it wrecks. But they wouldn’t do it if they weren’t being paid to; all our ire should go to the people who are paying them. The spectacle of the minister appearing in public to defend a company of his own commission, which enforces policies of his own devising, is ludicrous.

On the one hand this is an inevitable side-effect of outsourcing. When services go wrong having been contracted out, of course questions are going to be asked about the company that undertook them. The Olympics security debacle was a G4S failure; while there was debate about the nature of the contractual process, G4S remained the culprit.

But what’s interesting is that these failures are rewarded with more contracts. About £400m of Atos’s contracts with the government were won last month, by which time the deficiencies of their work capability assessment had been widely flagged. G4S is apparently set to win £2bn worth of contracts for five prisons, its recent shambles notwithstanding (this has yet to be announced: I hope I’m wrong. I bet I’m not) And welfare-to-work firm A4e was repeatedly awarded new contracts despite an abysmal record. It looks like mismanagement from a distance, but the more often it happens the more obvious it becomes – this isn’t an accident. These firms take the fall, and their reward is that they are lavishly paid to enforce other unpopular and/or ill-considered policies, for which they will again take the fall. It’s the perfect division of labour, since the government needs popularity and will throw money at masking its unpopular decisions, while the firms care nothing for popularity and will hoover up the money.

At root, this is an attempt to privatise our anger – take it out of the public domain, where it might mean something, and direct it towards the private sector, where it means nothing. The flaw in this calculation is that anger is a limitless resource. You might as well try to privatise air.

Twitter: @zoesqwilliams

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