Coffee House

The weak contract worth £100 million

17 August 2012

6:05 PM

17 August 2012

6:05 PM

Moving people off sickness benefits and back into the workplace was never going to be an easy job. It’s a sensitive process dealing with all the grey areas that complex illnesses and disabilities throw up, and has always needed careful handling. But today ministers came under fire for the way they hold the company that carries out the assessments for fitness-to-work decisions to account.

The National Audit Office has identified weaknesses in the Work and Pensions department’s contract with Atos Healthcare, which carries out the work capability assessments. Comptroller and Auditor General Amyas Morse has written a letter to Labour MP Tom Greatrex, who is investigating Atos’ performance, saying:

‘We do not consider that the current contractual targets are sufficiently challenging, and in our view this allows the contractor to deliver a significant number of assessments before financial penalties became due.’


The NAO also criticises the department for failing to demand sufficient financial redress for Atos’ underperformance. In short, the contract – worth over £100 million a year – is not currently providing value for money.

Now, it’s worth remembering that the work capability assessment was set up under the last Labour government, and the contract with Atos was renewed in November 2010. A spokeswoman for Iain Duncan Smith made that point when she responded to the letter today, saying:

‘The contract has changed considerably since it was signed by the last Labour government – it continues to evolve as we have it under constant review. In 2010, the work capability assessment was not working properly and since then we’ve substantially improved it. It is a complicated area but we are committed to making it a success to ensure it is both fair and accurate for the user and value for money for the taxpayer.’

The DWP says it agreed improvement plans with Atos to speed up processing times for assessments in both 2009 and 2012. It has also made changes to the process for applying financial penalties, and is reviewing the contractual targets for Atos. Ministers will have a chance to explain this further when parliament returns from recess in September as Greatrex has a Westminster Hall debate scheduled on the Atos contract.

I argued last month that the work capability assessment process needs to be fit for purpose so that ministers can take pride in their efforts to bring those who are truly capable of returning to the workplace back into jobs while protecting the most vulnerable. They also need to demonstrate that they are holding Atos to account in the most rigorous way possible: this isn’t just a sensitive process, it’s an expensive one, too.

P.S My predecessor Pete Hoskin was also keeping a beady eye on this assessment on Coffee House. He pointed out the danger of the public turning against the system all the way back in 2010.

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Show comments
  • IDS

    Is The the Nazi salute IDS is doing. That would explain why he`s trying to be a mini me Hilter

  • Hexhamgeezer

    What folk in the DWP, or any other Ministry, need is practical people with expereince not just in NEGOTIATING massive contracts (which they haven’t got) but experience in MANAGING massive contracts. Unfortunately limp wristed chinless Gramscian wonders like Cameron and Clog have absolutely no interest or experience in identifying those who have it and can apply it to the public good and save billions.
    Personal Disclaimer: My Mrs has exactly this sort of ability gained with major UK blue chips. She took some time off and decided to offer herself to the public sector. She failed to get a job with any of the slack-jawed jobsworths. Ot of 4 private sector applications she was offered 3 jobs.

    • 2trueblue

      This was set up by the previous government so little point in trying to place the blame totally on the current government.

  • Janes

    A very quick way to make the WCA more reliable would be to secure 18-24 months of the claimant’s GP records at time of claim and provide these to ATOS.

    • 2trueblue

      The people conducting the ‘examinations’ on the claimants do not look at reports that people bring with them from their doctors/psychiatrists, do not understand the medication that the claimants are on, and do not conduct basic procedures, like taking the persons pulse, blood pressure, weight, etc. I have no idea what they are supposed to be doing but fear for those who do have a medical condition that interferes with their capacity to get employment. There must be a better way.

  • TonyB58

    An old friend of mine has dealt ATOS and did not have any real problems with them. He is obviously unfit for work but he also turns up for his appointment on time, is a graduate so articulate and has the sense to describe to the doctor his worst days and not his best. Despite this I do suspect that his waved through because he is manifestly unfit for work and is the type of person who will kick up a fuss and appeal immediately if rejected.

    This is of course is not right and ATOS should be giving a consistent service to all of those who genuinely need assistance. Those who are unfit for work are entitled for support they should not be driven to an early grave by bureaucratic incompetence.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Tony, your friend has no problems with ATOS but stupid, lazy people might, and that proves the bureaucrats are incompetent. Is that how it goes?

      • TonyB58

        If a person is genuinely unfit for work then they have a right for help. The point I am making is that lazy and incompetent bureaucrats want an easy life hence if you are a person knows how to play the system and is likely to kick up a fuss and so make their life difficult they are less likely to mess that person around. What is particularly disgusting about ATOS is that it is those who lack these skills or are too depressed, demoralized and sick who suffer or indeed die!

        • Jelly Jim

          Part of the problem with the Atos system is that bureaucrats aren’t making decisions. These are being left to the IT system, which is merely operated by a healthcare worker or professional.

          The underlying focus is on capability, rather than a wholistic appreciation of the claimant’s circumstances: I might be able to walk 100m, but that’s no good if it takes me three hours to complete.

          It’s not wholly surprising, then, that around 40% of decisions to reject claims are reversed at tribunal, which in itself is a costly and not altogether necessary element of the claim process.

          It doesn’t help that Atos are less interested in engaging with other agencies and organisations who have contact with DWP claimaints. A more systemic approach to managing the WCA and associated processes could mitigate the more nightmare-ish elements of it.

          I am opposed to the client welfare state, but I accept that my views are in the minority, so I believe that it isn’t entirely unreasonable to assume that we can at least make it more efficient, effective and ‘human’ for those in genuine need. That last part is perhaps the most important, given that it is a system designed and partially operated by bureacrats for the benefit of some people who have very personal needs.

  • Marcus

    Of course it needs to be fit for purpose, what doesn’t?
    It is crucial to understand that the old system employed to assess if people could claim incapacity benefit, was completely and utterly useless in the extreme. It was worse then useless, it put people on benefits that could and should have had the dignity of work and it costs billions that could have gone on the sick and needy.
    Any attempt to reverse the pernicious legacy of the previous incapacity assessment system will cost MORE than the old system (which is why no one tried to do it before). The more thorough your assessment, the more it costs.
    Reversing benefits culture was something to be attempted when we were booming, it is a very costly enterprise.

    Also remember to concentrate on the glitches of the new system with the same ‘vigour’ that non-Daily Mail journalists used to scrutinise the old, useless and damaging system. We don’t want people jumping on easy band wagons.