Atos, the private company quitting its contract to provide assessments for disability claimants, warned that its successor will fare just as badly unless the government improves the system it has to run.
Atos chiefs complained that it and its staff had suffered a public “vilification” simply for carrying out what was asked of it by ministers and suggested other companies would find it hard to recruit staff unless changes were made.
Ministers announced in March that the contract to deliver work capability assessments was being terminated early by mutual consent, amid criticism of delays and the number of disabled people apparently being wrongly judged fit to work.
While campaigners welcomed Atos’s withdrawal, they also said the change should be used to “move away from a fundamentally flawed system”.
That was a stance echoed by senior Atos figures when they were questioned by MPs over the issues. Its senior vice-president, Lisa Coleman, told the Commons’ work and pensions select committee it was “difficult to see” any improvements unless the government accepted its own policy was part of the problem.
While the firm had not got everything right, it had become a “lightning rod” for public anger over the system itself, she said.
“Unless something is done around educating people what the actual operational reality of that policy really is and what they mean potentially for individuals going through that then I find it difficult to see that actually just changing the supplier will change things.
“I think it would be a real shame if moving to a new supplier wasn’t taken as an opportunity to do things in a different way.
“We often find that when somebody makes a comment that Atos has done an assessment incorrectly, actually, against the policy, what has happened has been right.
“It is very difficult to understand that somebody with a very challenging or quite a difficult condition doesn’t go through the process as you might expect.
“It is the decision-maker in the department who makes that decision and we would look for a lot more transparency around that whole process including ‘what do these descriptors mean, what is the potential outcome for people with some quite difficult conditions?’
“It is massively over-simplistic to say that a new provider is going to fix all the issues. There are other things that need to happen.”
She accepted that the inability to make sufficient profit was a factor in the decision to pull out but insisted there were a variety of factors and money “was not the overriding one”.
Helen Hall, head of communications and customer relations, pointed to the high turnover of medical assessment staff as something any future provider would struggle with.
More than a quarter are quitting at present – many within the first six months – in the face of public anger directed at them, she said.
“They are professional trained people. They care about the job they do. They are doing a very good job of applying the legislation the government has laid out and despite that they are being vilified for it,” she said.
“The level of intimidation, the level of negative coverage about professional people … I’m not sure that’s an issue that can be resolved by a new provider just throwing money at that.”
Claimants “read the media stories, they listen to the public rhetoric … they might come into that assessment feeling that the assessor they are going to see is someone who will treat them with contempt, who can’t be trusted, who isn’t trained”, she said.
“They might have to come into an assessment centre and walk past protesters, they might sit opposite someone in the waiting room with an ‘Atos Kills’ T-shirt.
“What we have seen quite often now is people coming in for an assessment and they are actually saying at the end of it ‘you’ve just been recorded on my iPhone and I am going to expose you on the internet’.
“If you put all those together and imagine how both those parties are feeling, that environment is something that has to change and I personally don’t think the private provider by themselves can achieve that level of change.”