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Atos: Welcome to Hell

When I heard that the contract to provide the government’s new childcare subsidy scheme had been awarded to Atos, I had a heretical thought.

“Perhaps they’ll be quite good at it,” I speculated.

Thanks in no small part to blogs like Vox Political, Atos is now infamous as the company that cocked up the assessment of claims for incapacity and disability benefits. It is possible that tens of thousands of people have died as a result.

It can be no surprise, then, that the announcement of this latest contract has had people up in arms.

But consider this: The Atos work capability assessment was pilloried because it was a tick-box system that required people to provide simple “yes” or “no” answers to quite complicated questions about their physical and mental health. Start explaining how your condition varies and your assessor would invariably have some kind of mental breakdown, as demonstrated in the number of successful appeals against bad decisions.

Isn’t a simple, tick-box, “yes” or “no” system all that is needed to make the childcare subsidy work?

Ask yourself: What sort of questions would the government need to ask, beyond a couple’s personal details, before handing out the cash?

“Delete as applicable: Are both parents in work? YES NO

“Is the aggregate income of both parents greater than £300,000 per year? YES NO

That’s about it.

There would be a need to check applicants’ employment and childcare details with the relevant organisations, but that isn’t particularly onerous. A school pupil on work experience could manage it.

The next question that occurred was: How much will Atos be paid to manage this system?

The work capability assessment fiasco cost the taxpayer more than £100 million each year. If a similar amount is being paid for this scheme, it would be the most lucrative period of work experience ever.

At this point, I discovered that Atos will not be involved in eligibility testing. The company will be involved only in making payments to claimants.

I’m not willing to blame Atos for this decision; we can lay it at the door of the Coalition government. Faced with a choice between giving Atos a contract for something it can do or asking it to manage something it can’t – and with a 50/50 chance of getting it right – ministers have blundered.

But there is good news!

Apparently the assessment contract has been awarded to a consortium of school pupils.

They’ll be doing it as part of their work experience.

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