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theweeksubThe number of disability assessment centres provided by the controversial IT company Atos will only be one seventh of the number it promised when it won a £184 million government contract, Disability News Service (DNS) can reveal.

Atos won the contract to carry out assessments across London and the south of England by boasting 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 tests would take place.

But in the months after it was awarded the contract last summer, all but four of the NHS trusts and both of the private hospital chains dropped out.

Now the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has finally revealed – in a response to a Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) request from DNS – how many sites Atos now has in its supply chain to assess disabled people for their eligibility for the new personal independence payment (PIP).

When it submitted a tender for the contract last year, Atos stated that it had a network of 740 assessment sites across London and the south of England.

But DWP has now admitted that Atos only has “up to” 108 centres available that meet its requirements.

The crossbench peer Lord [David] Alton, who raised his concerns about the contract this week in a letter to the National Audit Office, said the difference between what Atos had pledged to provide in the tender document and what it was now offering was “staggering”.

He said this difference “begs endless questions about the basis of the original tender; the grounds on which that contract was then awarded; and, now, how the DWP can say with any certainty that the radically reduced number of centres will be able to undertake the assessments with efficiency and expedition”.

He added: “Are they saying that the original assumptions were not worth the paper on which they were written?

“As significant sums of public money are involved, I hope that the National Audit Office will carefully examine these questions.”

The disabled Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Lloyd went even further, and called for DWP to re-open the tendering process.

He said: “This figure is shocking. Atos can only now offer a derisory 15 per cent of the assessment centres in London and the south of England that they originally promised.

“I really do believe the DWP should re-open the tendering process, as Atos have spectacularly failed to get anywhere near their original figure for assessment centres.”

Because there are so many fewer assessment centres, thousands of 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.

An Atos spokeswoman said in a statement: “Our success in winning the PIP contract was not based upon the number of suppliers or locations but instead on being able to meet the department’s needs for coverage, which we have.

“No pledges have been broken. It is absolutely usual for there to be changes between point of tender and delivery.

“We were asked by the department to include the names of all those we were in discussion with and they were fully aware that commercial contracts could not be in place at this time.

“We did not win all the lots for which we bid or sign commercial contracts with all those we had discussions with. The volume of assessments is lower than anticipated and this is reflected in the number of hospitals and other centres we now have in place.”

A DWP spokesman said in a statement: “DWP is confident that Atos has the capacity and coverage to meet the demand and that the locations used will meet our standards for accessibility, security and a professional environment.”

4 July 2013