As most of you probably know by now, yesterday the French
flying brick manufacturer outsourcing company Atos confirmed that it had agreed a financial settlement with the Department for Work and Pensions, allowing it to pull out of its contract ahead of schedule.
I’m not that critical of incompetence (it is after all universal) and I suppose if you hire people for an exercise in sociopathy, you’re going to get sociopaths turning up. But for desertion from the attack on disabled lines, it would be nice to see the Atos directors shot at dawn. Just not in front of their kids: I remain more humane than Jeremy Clarkson, and slightly more balanced about Peugeot cars. Also I’m wearing long trousers these days.
All those who revealed Atos inhumanity should see this as a victory for the internet – and proof once again that making life unpleasant for the unpleasant works. I can’t imagine all this adverse publicity has done the Atos share price much good, which included Labour MP Dennis Skinner describing the company, with clinical precision, as a “cruel, heartless monster”. However, there is more to the resignation than meets the eye.
It transpires that Atos has had to pay the DwP back, not the other way round. So the obvious conclusion is that it was their decision, and not IDS’s. This is more than mere pedantry on my part: the equally logical conclusion is that Mr Iam Dunkem-Inshit – while “expressing concerns” about their work – didn’t fire them. Let me go further: given the appalling mess this has landed the Government in, there is no way IDS would’ve provoked the crisis in such a way.
Joining another dot up here, that means there must be trouble ahead, and the French wanted out before it bubbles up to the media surface. A week ago, the public spending watchdog warned that the DwP was struggling to deliver welfare changes, particularly where they involved private sector providers. I’m all for genuine scroungers being caught, even though I’ve yet to find any evidence that such malfeasance doubled the National Debt after 2008. But my nose suspects that the issue here isn’t the tone and bedside manner of the Front Nationale, sorry, Atos. I fancy we might be talking about misrepresentation of data and other assorted frauds.
The factor that intrigues me (and, I know, several other hacks) most in all this is the ‘backlog’ of work that Atos has left behind. How big is it, and why are the cases emitting loose ends?
The history of private companies working for Government in Britain is not as the driven snow. This is 45% Whitehall’s incompetent and uncommercial idleness, and 55% the greedy unethical neoliberal factor. Ironically, if we had over the years (under both Parties) used professional procurement procedures on such projects, very probably everything from the NHS to the Welfare budget would be much more manageable.
But this didn’t happen, and so – as with so many things in contemporary Britain – it gives the Fanaticonservative Wing a further excuse to wield the axe with yet more fundamentalist venom. The flaw in their swinging routine is, as ever, the ideological unwillingness to learn one simple lesson: given half a chance, the private sector cheats.
What we’ve seen to date is, many of my own sources out there suggest anecdotally, the tip of a gigantic smelly thing. It might look like a lifebelt as SS Yookay steams towards it, but it is in reality Hellzilla the rock hard Anthrax Iceberg. Hardly anything of what G4S really got up to during the Olympics ever came out, and the practices pertaining on privatised job-finding schemes represent a massive scandal waiting to be stood up. I’m talking here about double-counting of jobs found, claiming job-finder fees after the client found one himself, putting up bogus and or imaginary jobs which are then “filled” by brilliant agencies, giving bungs to companies to advertise jobs they don’t have (which are again counted as reduced unemployment), and (as Mike Harding would’ve said) “All sorts of other ‘okey-pokey penny-a-lick”.
This is where the scale of the scandal could one day land the Hunt to Osborne chancers right in it. For example, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has impeccable standards of reporting, and guards its independence with jealous ferocity. But they can only report based on what they are given. This applies to crime figures, and it applies directly to the figures we keep reading week in week out about how Brits are finding jobs at an accelerating rate. Andy Burnham lying about his role in the Stafford cockup is standard politician mendacity. Fiddling the employment statistics is in an entirely different league: it has ramifications that stretch out into the world of sovereign bonds and Britain’s cost of borrowing. Osborne is, after all, lying about Britain’s debt, deficit and export balances. Does anyone any more think the goggle-eyed in the Cabinet would stop there?
After the pull-out deal was announced, Atos CEO Ursula Morgenstern popped up from her silo to offer the usual bromides about being committed, saintly, cooperative and disappointed, but yet still passionate. She has to say that because – inexplicably – Atos’s influence has been extended into the NHS data space. Oh dear.
But the DwP’s briefing was much more specific: in it, the Department claimed that of the 841,000 people who were on incapacity benefit and had been retested by Atos under the new system, about 230,000 have been found fit for work and shifted to a new, less generous benefit. A further 346,500 were found to be likely to be fit for work at some point in the future, while more than 1m others withdrew their claims before reaching a face-to-face assessment.
In the light of fully two-thirds of all complaints against Atos having been upheld, why should we give these numbers any credence at all? And given the Coalition’s track-record on statistical truth-bending, how should we interpret ‘found fit for work’, ‘likely to be fit for work in the future’ and ‘withdrew their claims before reaching a face-to-face assessment’?
What we have here is a very obvious and morally hazardous shared interest by the DwP and its private suppliers in bigging up what they’ve done. I think we should stay tuned into this story, and watch out for further investigations. What we shouldn’t dream of doing is holding our breath while this insane Government admits its philosophy is wrong: Serco and G4S have, I understand, already been contacted and asked to pitch for the business. So holding your breath could render you unfit for work as a result of brain damage. Breathe frequently: you know it makes sense.