Claims that the private IT firm Atos made misleading statements about proposed co-operation with disability groups to help secure a £400m contract to perform disability assessments must be immediately investigated, Labour and several disability charities have demanded.
Leaked information from the tendering documents reveal that the firm said it would work with a number of disability organisations to carry out eligibility tests for a new disability benefit.
Four of the organisations named in the document said they had no contact with Atos before being named as possible partners and strongly objected to any suggestion that they planned to co-operate with the company.
Anne McGuire, the shadow minister for disabled people, said the process by which Atos won the contract should be scrutinised by external auditors.
“These revelations raise extremely serious questions over the £540m PIP [personal independence payment] contracts. There is now clear evidence that Atos won a £400m contract with a bid that was misleading,” she said. “There must be an immediate investigation because the integrity of the entire process is now in serious doubt. Ministers must now explain exactly how these claims got through unchecked.”
She said the party would ask the public accounts committee to refer the matter to the National Audit Office if there were no “rapid answers”.
In its bid for contracts to provide assessments for PIP, which is due to replace the disability living allowance from 2013, Atos said it would be working in partnership with charities “such as” the Essex Coalition of Disabled People (ECDP), the Greater Manchester Coalition for Disabled People (GMCDP) and Disability Cornwall.
Several of the charities named said they were surprised to find themselves on the list and made it clear they would never consider working with Atos, which has been much criticised for inaccuracies and lack of sensitivity on the part of staff carrying out another disability test, the work capability assessment (WCA). This determines eligibility for a different disability benefit.
Disability Cornwall said in an emailed statement: “We would not consider working with an organisation which has caused so much distress to so many disabled people. We have also voiced our concerns about how Atos Healthcare were able to win contracts [and] implied it would work with organisations such as ourselves without first seeking permission from the organisations it quoted. We hope the pressure on the government to investigate the manner in which this tender was won is successful.”
A spokesperson for Atos Healthcare said: “We would hope that disabled people and their organisations will work with us to make the delivery of PIP as smooth as possible for those going through the process. We are making contact with those named in our tender document to ask them to share their expertise and knowledge with us.”
Only one of five named organisations contacted by the Guardian said it might consider working with Atos. Charlie McMillan, director of operations at the Scottish Association for Mental Health, said: “We are disappointed that this has happened, we do not expect our name to be used in a tender document without our permission.” However, he said the organisation would be happy to consider working with Atos in the future to help ensure the assessments were fair.
Richard Currie, spokesperson for GMCDP, said the suggestion of any future co-operation was “preposterous”. He said the group had found out about the organisation’s proposed involvement only when contacted by a journalist for the Disability News Service. The group was “absolutely outraged” by Atos’s attempt to “gain credibility in the sector … trying to curry favour by putting our organisation’s name on this contract,” he said. “It does damage to our brand to be associated with them.”
A spokesperson for ECDP said staff had been “very disappointed” to find themselves named in the tendering document without having been consulted previously. “We would like to know the circumstances in which we were included in their bid,” he said.
He said his organisation did not have great confidence in Atos. “Many of our members have concerns about Atos and the work they have done for the DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] with regard to existing assessment contracts,” he said.
A spokesperson for the DWP said the inclusion of proposed partner disability organisations was not central to the decision to award the bid to Atos, and so there was no need for any investigation.
“The providers in each lot were selected following the usual procedures for open and fair competition and assessed against established and published selection criteria. The mention, or not, of any particular organisation in the bids to deliver PIP was not material in the evaluation. This had no impact on the result and there is no reason to review the competition,” it said.
The tender documents said Atos had established relationships with a range of disability charities, and named DPAC (Disabled People Against Cuts) among a handful of charities that it had “engaged with”. Linda Burnip, co-founder of DPAC, said it was “scandalous” that the organisation’s name was on the list. “None of us have ever had any contact with them,” she said. She said the group would be making a formal complaint to the National Audit Office.
Colleagues had found it “difficult to know whether to laugh or to cry” when they saw the group’s name on the tendering documentation, she said, “given that we have organised so many protests outside their offices, that they should have the audacity to say that we have been working with them. We haven’t had a single meeting with them.”
She said the group believed Atos’s contract to perform the WCA should be removed because of the ongoing problems with its delivery. “We wouldn’t do anything to help them get a new contract,” she said.