An MP has called for Atos to be stripped of the right to bid for government contracts, after an inquiry concluded that it appears to have used “potentially misleading” information to win disability assessment contracts worth nearly £400 million.
Fiona Mactaggart, the Labour MP for Slough and a former Home Office minister, spoke out after the Commons public accounts committee used evidence provided by Disability News Service (DNS) to show how Atos used inaccurate and exaggerated information to win the two personal independence payment (PIP) contracts.
Atos had stated in a tender document that it had a network of 740 assessment sites across London and the south of England, but after the contract was signed it only managed to secure 96 assessment centres, including not a single one covering a vast sweep of north London, and only one in Suffolk and one in Cambridgeshire.
Because there are so many fewer centres, thousands of disabled people are facing delays in being assessed, and longer and more complicated journeys to reach their assessments, often by inaccessible public transport.
Mactaggart has already written to Conservative work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith to tell him how her constituents in Slough were facing lengthier, more difficult journeys to reach their assessments, because of the “misrepresentation” by Atos in the tender.
She said: “I have encountered a number of people in Slough who have conditions which make travelling to Reading impossibly challenging for them, so they don’t go to their assessment.”
She has spoken to two constituents who, as a result of PIP delays, have been “living on no money, borrowing from equally poor friends, and living on food parcels, and once you get three food parcels you are just expected to starve”.
Now she has called for Atos to be banned for a certain period from bidding for future government contracts, while she believes the government should also fine the company and use the money to improve the PIP assessment service.
Mactaggart, a former member of the public accounts committee, said: “It is completely clear that their original bids were untrue and that they let down some of the most vulnerable people in our community.
“The problem is that the government structures contracts in such a way that rewards companies like Atos that are clever at bidding but bad at delivering.
“I think we are going to see it across all outsourced public services that companies like Atos, G4S and Serco, whose expertise is winning contracts rather than providing services, will trump the ability of bespoke, client-focused [organisations].”
She added: “My genuine belief is if the government doesn’t take a genuinely punitive attitude to one of these companies, like banning them from bidding, they will just carry on.
“Atos is probably the most extreme of the lot and it would be right to make an example of them.”
The crossbench peer Lord Alton, who has been prominent in raising concerns in the Lords about how Atos won the contracts, asked the welfare reform minister Lord Freud this week whether he had any plans to re-examine the Atos tender documents, and whether he believed that Atos should be able to bid for future DWP contracts.
But Lord Freud said that Atos had won the contract in “fair, open competition and we have no plans to reopen that process”.
Anne McGuire, Labour’s former minister for disabled people and now co-chair of the all-party parliamentary disability group and a member of the public accounts committee, said: “Even if the DWP ministers are not going to re-open the process, as indicated by Lord Freud, I hope that they seriously consider whether in the award of any future contract, the final agreement should be more closely tied to the claims made in the tender document.
“Otherwise, the tendering process is meaningless and companies could promise the earth to get on a bidder’s shortlist, only to pull back on proposals during subsequent negotiations on the final contract.”
Kate Green, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said ministers “urgently need to explain why they took the decision to award the PIP contract to Atos”.
She said DWP must explain what impact the decision to select Atos for two of the four PIP contracts had had on the “appalling record of delays that PIP claimants have experienced”.
But she said ministers should also explain “what they are doing to recoup the additional cost to the taxpayer that this has incurred”.
Concerns about one of the Atos PIP tender documents were first raised in a joint investigation by DNS and the disabled journalist Richard Butchins.
Atos had boasted of its “extensive” network of 16 NHS trusts, two private hospital chains, and four physiotherapy providers, all of which it said would provide sites where the PIP tests would take place across London and the south of England.
But in the months after the contract was awarded, all but four of the NHS trusts and both of the private hospital chains dropped out.
This week, Atos repeated its claim that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was not misled during the tendering process.
An Atos spokeswoman said: “The [DWP] made clear that they were not misinformed during the tender process, that at the point of go live they knew our capacity, our partners and the number of centres we would be using.
“We completely refute any allegation of misinformation during the procurement process for [PIP].
“Not only have we written to the [public accounts committee] to clarify our position but we invited the National Audit Office in to scrutinise our documentation.
“That we could not have binding contracts in place before we signed a contract with the DWP is simply common sense and in no way misleading. What we did have were detailed written proposals from the suppliers.”
But the Atos spokeswoman refused to explain why it was not misleading to promise to provide 740 assessment sites in London and the south, and only produce 96.
She was also unable to explain why Atos stated in the tender document that its 22 “partners” had “contractually agreed” to provide assessment centres, when they had not done so and many of them did not subsequently deliver any centres.
And she was unable to say how Atos offering less than 13 per cent of what it had promised had not increased journey times and delays for disabled people.