The Work and Pensions department has this morning announced that Atos, the provider of the Work Capability Assessments which determine whether a benefit claimant is fit for work, is leaving its contract early. The company, which had been underperforming on the contract for a while, was supposed to carry out the WCA until August 2015, but has made a ‘substantial financial settlement’ to DWP. Mike Penning has emphasised this in his reaction to the announcement, saying:
‘I am pleased to confirm that Atos will not receive a single penny of compensation from the taxpayer for the early termination of their contract, quite the contrary, Atos has made a substantial financial settlement to the Department.’
But it’s interesting that in its own statement, Atos makes the following points:
‘Atos Healthcare do not make the decision on someone’s benefit entitlement – the reports produced by Atos are only a part of the process with DWP-decision-makers making the final decision. Atos Healthcare have no influence on Government welfare policy. Appeals are against a DWP decision and not Atos Healthcare. The National Audit Office warned that there were dangers in the assumption that successful appeals were due to Atos Healthcare reports.’
Why does Atos feel the need to point all this out? Well, obviously it’s rather embarrassing that the company has had to leave this contract early. But while Atos is much maligned for the way it has carried out the Work Capability Assessments, it cannot shoulder the full blame for them. A new provider carrying out the tests may well do a better job of fulfilling the terms of its contract than Atos, but there are some deep problems that remain with the design of the test, such as its failure to assess, beyond a simple test, whether someone is truly capable of doing a real job. I’ve written about these problems before, and while ministers are constantly reviewing the test, I suspect we will see many of them rearing their heads under the shiny new provider of the WCA, whoever they may be.