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theweeksubThe controversial IT giant Atos Healthcare has broken a series of firm pledges that helped it win a £184 million disability assessment contract, Disability News Service can reveal.

It comes as the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) rolls out the assessments – for the new personal independence payment (PIP) – across the country.

The failure by Atos to fulfil the promises it made in the tender document that won the company the contract means there will be far fewer assessment centres across the south of England and London.

Whereas the tender document states that Atos has “contractually agreed” with 22 sub-contractors for them to provide a network of 750 assessment sites across that area, this has fallen to just eight sub-contractors since the contract was signed.

Atos has refused to say how many of the 750 assessment sites are left, while a DWP spokeswoman told DNS: “We do not have that information. We really don’t know. We are not sure.”

But the changes will mean that many disabled people with significant mobility and care needs will face longer journeys – possibly up to 90 minutes by public transport – to reach their assessments, rather than the maximum of 60 minutes promised by Atos when it bid successfully for the contract.

Disabled campaigners say the revelations raise serious concerns about the tendering process, and how far Atos has been able to keep the promises it made in its tender document.

It is the second time concerns have been raised about claims made in the documents submitted by Atos when tendering for four regional contracts to assess PIP claimants.

Last October, DNS revealed that Atos had used misleading information about its links with disabled people’s organisations to help win two of the contracts.

The new claims are even more serious, as they relate to a key part of the tendering process, and could call into question the award of the two PIP contracts, together worth nearly £391 million to Atos over the next four years.

Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson, who has been a figurehead for attempts to resist many of the government’s benefit reforms in the House of Lords, said she was “extremely concerned” by the revelations.

She said: “There were many assurances given during the debates on PIP [in the House of Lords].

“People believed that a significant number of assessment centres would be available, and the geographical location would make travelling much easier.

“If the number of assessment centres is radically different to the number that were in the tender document then that should be openly explained.”

Richard Butchins, the disabled documentary-maker, whose recent work includes films on the government’s “fitness for work” assessment and the PIP reforms for Channel 4′s Dispatches, said: “At the very least it would seem that Atos and the DWP have some serious questions to answer about this particular tender process.

“It raises some important issues around transparency in the tendering of public services by the DWP and their management of these contracts.

“Atos have already been shown to have made dubious claims in respect of the PIP assessment bid. This would appear to be another example of that.”

In the tender document, submitted to DWP in May 2012, the company states that it has prepared an “extensive” network of 16 NHS trusts, two private hospital chains, and four physiotherapy providers, all of which will provide sites where assessments will take place.

But in the months after it was awarded the contract – last July – to assess claimants in London and across the south of England, 12 of the NHS trusts and both of the private healthcare providers walked away from the venture.

By January this year, three months before DWP began trialling the new assessments for PIP – the replacement for working-age disability living allowance – Atos was left with just four NHS trusts and the four physiotherapy providers.

In the tender document, Atos states clearly several times that the 22 sub-contractors it is working with will carry out assessments if it is awarded the contract.

Among these firm pledges, Atos states: “Each partner has contractually agreed to providing accommodation to the required specification.”

It also says: “We conducted an evaluation process, including site visits, to select the PIP consultation locations of the highest quality. This has allowed us to identify sufficient, suitable accommodation, ready for go live and available for the length of the contract.”

It adds: “The NHS locations will be provided by [a list of the trusts]… BMI and Spire will provide the private hospital accommodation… and the physiotherapy practices will be managed by…”

It also stresses the importance of NHS locations, which it says are “often at the centre of established transfer links”, and will “assist in not highlighting the fact that a benefit assessment is being carried out”.

And it estimates that its “hyper-local” service will mean that no claimant will have to travel more than 60 minutes by public transport to attend an assessment.

But a whole string of the NHS trusts told DNS this week that they had certainly not “contractually agreed” with Atos to provide assessment sites, despite the statements in the tender document.

A spokesman for Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust said: “We never got that involved at all. They put our name in the tender document, although they shouldn’t have done. I think they emailed us, but we said, ‘No, we are not interested.’”

A spokesman for North Essex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, also mentioned in the tender document, said: “The trust never had an agreement or contract with Atos.

“We had exploratory discussions as part of a consortium… which did not go any further.”

Norfolk Community Health and Care NHS Trust, which was part of the same consortium, said it only became aware it had been mentioned in the tender some time after the document was submitted to the government.

A trust spokeswoman said: “We cannot be responsible for what they have put in, but it wasn’t with our agreement.

“There were some initial conversations or discussions. All of that ended around August last year and there was no agreement reached. We didn’t even make an agreement in principle.”

A spokeswoman for Norfolk and Norwich University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust said they had also been involved in discussions with Atos, but she stressed that there had been “no agreement”.

Mid Essex Hospital Services NHS Trust, yet another of the trusts named by Atos, said: “There was no agreement with Atos.”

And a spokeswoman for University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust, also named in the tender document, said that although they had held “constructive discussions” with Atos, “no formal agreements of any sort were reached before discussions were terminated by mutual agreement”.

An Atos spokeswoman insisted that it won the contract through a “fair, open and transparent competitive process”, while there were “absolutely no misrepresentations made to DWP throughout the year-long procurement process”.

She said: “If you think this contract wasn’t hugely scrutinised, you are crazy. It was an incredibly robust process.”

And she said DWP was “fully aware throughout of the fact that contracts were not in place between Atos and its selected suppliers”.

She claimed that during “verbal discussions”, carried out before the tender was submitted, Atos clarified with DWP that it did not have binding contracts in place with the suppliers.

She said DWP assured Atos that it “fully appreciated that formal agreements could not be in place at the time of the submission of the tender, but that trusts should be named in the tender in any event”.

DWP told DNS it was confident that the providers for each of the four regional contracts had been “properly selected following rigorous evaluation and assessed against appropriate and published selection criteria”.

Despite the certainty of the language used by Atos in its tender document, a DWP spokesman said it was “always obvious” that the subcontract partners listed in the document “could only be based on initial exploratory discussions”, while he claimed that all of them “had agreed to be put forward”.

DWP also said that one of its contractual requirements was that claimants “do not have to travel for more than 90 minutes by public transport”, and that Atos “have agreed to this contractual requirement and can deliver upon it”.

A DWP spokeswoman added: “We have no reason to doubt that Atos and their partners are able to deliver [the contract] successfully.”

13 June 2013

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