James Max: Atos is the right sponsor for the Paralympics

Protesters must stop wasting their breath over Atos. Its work and its sponsorship are perfectly ethical

The main sponsor of the Paralympic Games should be congratulated and not chastised. The company is undertaking its business in accordance with the law and they can sponsor whatever events they wish.

If you don’t like it? Tough. Put up the money and sponsor the event yourself if you feel that strongly about it.

Why is Atos, a French IT consultancy business and sponsor of the Paralympic Games at the centre of a massive protest? They are contracted by the UK government to review disability payments. Take something away from people that they have got used to receiving and they’ll be uproar. Add to the mix that it’s a benefit for disabled people and that it’s not fair that they go through a vetting process to achieve the government’s aims to ensure those who claim benefits really deserve them, and there’s every ingredient for an explosive mix.

The protestors assume the IT company in question pockets millions from the government for doing its ‘dirty work’. Could it be that the company is actually doing a job that needs to be done?

“Protestors claim the means testing exercise conducted by Atos isn’t fair. Get used to it. Life is unfair. It’s unfair that some are born with a disability”

Perhaps the deficit we have in this great nation of ours is because of previous incompetence at government level?

Money was handed out in a modern day form of gerrymandering - buying goodwill through a benefits system that’s more generous than it should be. Now we are tackling the problem and making sure only those who deserve the benefits receive them.

Protestors claim the means testing exercise being conducted by Atos isn’t fair. Get used to it. Life is unfair. It’s unfair that some are born with a disability. It’s unfair that some have had limbs removed as a result of illness or injury or through having fought on behalf of their country. It’s unfair that some will live longer than others. Indeed it’s unfair that those who work have to pay tax to support those who, in many cases, cannot be bothered.

So, who are Atos? A company many had never heard of is now centre stage, thanks to their sponsorship deal. Job done by senior management! To the protestors, it’s of little consequence that the company has supported these games since 2001. So, also, is the scale of the business: operating in 48 countries with 74,000 employees this is a behemoth of an IT consultancy firm. Generating global annual revenues of over £5.5bn, it has an enviable roster of clients. A small proportion of its business is for the UK government.

The firm provides IT services to the UK Border Agency. OK, so the firm was blamed for IT systems issues that caused delays in the run up to the Olympic Games. Not ideal, but not a basis for protest.

The second and more significant government contract is with Atos Healthcare, a sub-division of the main company employing over 3,000 people. The contract with the Department for Work and Pensions is worth about £400m, managing a business process outsourcing contract. In essence, it is the job of this Atos subsidiary to review the disability benefits received by claimants. With some being turned down and assessments being carried out with varying degrees of sensitivity, there is some disquiet over their sponsorship deal. The protests are unfounded. Just because the company is streamlining payments does not make them an unsuitable sponsor.

With any large contract there will be problems. Indeed, with any cut to any allowances there will be genuine cases where the wrong decision is taken. However, that is no basis for protests.

The pious should get off their high horses and realise that if you want to host something, you need sponsors. I certainly don’t want the taxpayer to foot any more bills, thanks. The more we can get out of the big corporates the better.

Indeed, if some of the profits generated by this company as a result of their UK contracts help host an event such as the Paralympics, whose legacy will be of improved sporting facilities and training combined with a much better public awareness and acceptance of disability, then I am all in favour.

“This notion that the Olympic and Paralympic Games are some kind of wholesome sporting event that should be untouched by the commercial world is as ridiculous as it is pathetic”

Most disabled people I know just want to be able to get on with their lives.

They don’t want sympathy or special treatment. They just want an opportunity to show that they are every bit as able, determined and capable as their able bodied counterparts. Shame on us for discriminating. And shame on us for allowing protests of this nature to cloud the real issues.

This notion that the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games are some kind of wholesome sporting event that should be untouched by the commercial world is as ridiculous as it is pathetic.

Sport is massive business. It creates global superstars who themselves often earn multi-millions. Brands, manufacturers and tech companies make a mint and so do broadcasters and publishers around the world. Why? Because we love to watch sport. We like to buy the kit they wear, use the equipment they use and get sucked into the whole emotion that sporting events bring us. That extraordinary fusion of human endeavour with collective shared experience and excitement provides an irresistible cocktail for big corporates. Not only does someone have to foot the bill to host events but for that investment they’ll expect a return - and rightly so.

In the run-up to the Olympics Games there was outcry that soft drink manufacturers and fast food restaurants were among those companies sponsoring the main event. This is about being healthy and children and sport, they said. Wrong. This is about making sport commercially viable.

The golden arches and fizzy bubbles enveloped the games and gave us a warm cuddly feeling. The main event was an extraordinary success. The dissent died down and most realised that we had all benefited from the sponsors’ deep pockets.

Indeed many of us recognise that you have a choice. If you don’t want to go to McDonald’s or drink Coca-Cola, no one’s forcing you to. Personally I like what they do, support their globalised approach and appreciate that their size and commercial muscle (and money) makes our lives better.

If the Paralympic Games tell us anything, it’s that for too long as a society we have made judgments about the skills and capabilities of those with some form of physical disability. We’ve been too critical of the role of investors and corporates and what they can do for us. As the games continue it’s not bravery that we are witnessing but dedication, talent and human endeavour. It’s truly awe-inspiring.

If they tell us something else, it is that we have got our benefits system pretty much wrong for the past 40 years. We have not provided facilities and help, training and opportunity but simply paid people off to keep them quiet. Strip benefits away from those who don’t need them by all means, but let’s make sure the legacy of these games is that never again will we treat those with a disability as second class citizens and never again will we criticise corporates who make a real and lasting difference by sponsoring the greatest events on earth.

James Max presents Weekend Breakfast every Saturday and Sunday mornings on London’s Biggest Conversation, LBC 97.3 FM. He is a qualified surveyor and worked in property and finance for 15 years. After working for one of the country’s leading property advisory firms, he completed healthy stints in investment banking and private equity, before becoming a candidate on The Apprentice, which launched a career in broadcast media. Visit JamesMax.co.uk.

Readers' comments (8)

  • I could write a whole column in response to this, so many points :) But I'll try to be brief.

    I agree that corporate sponsorship should be accepted. Without them the Games organisation, venues etc would have been insufficient or would have cost the taxpayer even more than they already did. But the issue of who the sponsors are is tricky. Normally you expect the sponsor to have a similar target market, e.g. Cartier and polo... indeed Cartier switched their sponsorship from the International Day when they felt the crowd no longer matched their image or target market. I guess the issue people have with the Games is the sponsors are the polar opposites of the events they're promoting! Enjoy a burger or a coke while watching athletes who have given up both for the last 4 years! Be inspired by Paralympians, who will be deemed 'fit for work' and lose their benefits if they're good enough to win a medal! Those are exaggerations but that's the gist. It's like an anti-smoking group investing their pensions in tobacco companies... it may happen but as far as I know, fund managers try to avoid it!

    Another issue is the branding police. Yes I'm aware of the corporate world and exclusivity rights for sponsors etc, but it's a shame small businesses weren't allowed to benefit as much as they might have done... almost anything featuring the word Olympics or the rings were banned. If it was something disreputable then fine, but simple promotions were being banned.

    Atos is particularly thorny. Reviewing disability benefits is an emotive issue and again I agree with you that it needs to be done. But it looks like it's being done badly and genuinely disabled people are having their benefits withdrawn. 15% withdrawn on appeal isn't good. The protesters include the disabled, in contrast with the furore of Frankie Boyle's comments, which many disabled people seem to think are actually funny, and it's others getting offended on their behalf.

    I think my conclusion is yes we need sponsors, and yes they need a return on their investment, but perhaps there needs to be more sensitivity into who sponsors such high profile events.

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  • Anonymous

    Oh James ...you really should research before you comment. I have worked all my life and indeed was classed as a upper tax payer before I became ill. I have a terminal condition but have been declared "fit to work" by Cameron's Atos because my life expectantcy is more than 6 months.
    We are all entitled to a opinion but pure hate as shown by you against people through no fault of their own can't work ...is quite frankly UNACCEPTABLE !!!

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  • Anonymous

    Unfortunately it started on a lie, therefore the rest of the article is pretty much redundant.

    Atos currently have the contract for assessing ESA which is NOT a disability benefit.

    They have also won a contract for the new Personal Independance Payment PIP which is an expenses allowance.
    However that will only be trialled next year, and all the available contracts are not yet fulfilled.

    They are not doing a job that needs to be done as they are not diagnostic, neither are they decision makers. Their role is totally superfluous, except as a buffer between the public and the DWP.

    So so ar we have an article based on a totaly false statement, followed by;
    "Could it be...?" and

    Further you then suggest that life is not fair, and to get over it, still on the assumption that the uproar is about a disability benefit.
    The only disability payment that people recieve, and it is for those far more disabled that the vast majority of paralympians, is to level the playing field by covering a small percentage of the additional costs of disability.
    That payment is to make life a bit more fair.
    I'll repeat that;
    The benefit in question is NOT available to paralympians.
    The benefit in question is NOT for disabled people.

    If you need to write an article, please dont build your arguement on falsehoods, innaccuracies and basic guesses - your audience will only be insulted by your ignorance.

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  • Awful, hateful article. Yes Atos can sponsor whatever they like, but shame on you for downplaying the ruinous impact their testing has on the life of many disabled people. With Atos it's not so much a question of stripping benefits away from people who don't need them, but of stripping them from plenty of people who do. I am sickened, but sadly not surprised, by the example given by the anonymous commenter above.

    Life isn't fair, no -- but the mark of a civilised society is one which tries to even out the naturally-occurring disparity. Atos' work does not lead towards this, and therefore among those of us with a heart and a conscience, there is every reason to protest.

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  • I agree with almost everything written by James. I would like to add that it is possible to go to fast food places and eat relatively healthily. If you bought a chicken sandwich and black coffee or salad and a bottle of water, that's pretty good nutritionally.

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  • I knew that this would be a horrendous article, and only had to go as far as the first sentence before I cm across a lie:

    "The main sponsor of the Paralympic Games should be congratulated and not chastised. The company is undertaking its business in accordance with the law and they can sponsor whatever events they wish."

    What ATOS does is NOT in accordance with the law. They are fradulently pretending to do MEDICAL assessments, whereas in reality they are working to targets and not taking medical considerations into account. This is a criminal violation of all medical ethics, is a fradulent grab of taxpayers money through fasle pretences, and is a violation of disability discrimination laws enshrined in the Human Rights Act.

    ATOS is a criminal organisation. There American arm has already been convicted in a court of law for the exact same reasons. Just because our own government is colluding with them to break the law, does not change the fact that it is against the law, it merely makes them harder to prosecute. But it changes nothing legally or morally. The author does not seem to grasp this. He says:

    "In essence, it is the job of this Atos subsidiary to review the disability benefits received by claimants."

    Which is incorrect. It is the job of ATOS to carry out medical assessments. They are not doing so. This is fradulent.

    The author then says:

    "Most disabled people I know just want to be able to get on with their lives. They don’t want sympathy or special treatment. They just want an opportunity to show that they are every bit as able, determined and capable as their able bodied counterparts. Shame on us for discriminating. And shame on us for allowing protests of this nature to cloud the real issues.""

    Maybe thts because the only disabled the author has come across are high functioning. Tell someone who is bedridden and in constant pain that they are just as able-bodied as yourself, see what reaction you get.

    I will choose to put this authors offensive view of reality down to ignorance, rather than malice, because if it were the latter this post would not be so polite. There is however o excuse for such ignorance. I advisw this author to watch the recent Pnorama and Dispatches documentaries on the subject, and actually educated himself on the topic. Wjhich would have been more appropriate BEFORE writing on it.

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  • On Tuesday 4 September 2012 there was a debate in Westminster Hall with regards to Atos Healthcare (Hansard www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmhansrd/cm120904/halltext/120904h0001.htm#12090423000002). One of the MPs taking part pointed out that the chief medical officer of Atos is now Professor Michael O’Donnell and that "He was previously employed as chief medical officer by the American insurance company, Unum, which was described by the insurance commissioner for California, John Garamendi, as an “outlaw company” that has operated in an unlawful fashion for many years, running claims denial factories. Is that the kind of person that the Government should allow to be in charge of a work capability assessment system?"

    Atos carry out assessments not medicals and the reports they provide to the DWP Decision Makers have, in a lot of cases, appear to be more akin to works of fiction.

    Whilst DWP appeal figures are given at 40% this increases to over 70% when claimants have support and representation by the likes of CAB (one CAB in Kent has a 95% success rate).

    Tom Greatrex MP has queried with the DWP about penalties it may have imposed on Atos as a result of the number of appeals where their findings were overturned.

    "One measure that I and many others have been questioning is the imposition of financial penalties on Atos Healthcare to compensate for poor performance. In February, in response to my written question on whether the Government had considered imposing such sanctions, the Minister appeared to absolve Atos of the blame for the number of decisions overturned on appeal by saying:

    “it would not be appropriate to impose financial penalties on Atos to reflect the number of work capability assessments which are overturned on appeal.”—[Official Report, 22 February 2012; Vol. 540, c. 852W.]

    I tried again in July by asking for a note of when penalties had been imposed and what their total value was, but that time, rather than absolving Atos of blame, he decided to protect the company’s commercial interests, replying with the frequent defence of “commercial sensitivity” as the reason for withholding that information. I find it difficult to understand how commercial sensitivity comes into play when we are talking about a single company that is paid from the public purse to carry out an exclusively public function on behalf of a Government Department. Transparency would help to ensure that there could be confidence in the system and to highlight where performance was not being properly managed. It is important that the Minister seeks to address that.

    It was not until the NAO responded to me last month that some light was shed on the issue. It said:

    “We do not consider that the current contractual targets are sufficiently challenging, and in our view this allows the contractor to deliver a significant number of assessments before financial penalties become due.”

    It continued:

    “Our review also concluded that the Department has not sought adequate financial redress for contractor underperformance.”

    One of the most concerning revelations from the NAO was that in only 10% of the cases in which financial penalties could have been imposed did the Government do so. That is astonishing. Given that the Government and the Minister quite frequently comment on the importance of value for money for the taxpayer—in some respects, I agree with that—it beggars belief that when there are opportunities to put that into practice, the Government have done so in only one in 10 cases."

    In the Channel 4 Dispatches programme "Britain on the Sick" an undercover GP attended an Atos training course for assessors.

    The trainer was a foreign national who informed the trainees that "My speciality is not recognised in this country so there is a bit of a problem that I don't have much choice so I decided to love Atos and marry Atos for some time, a long time now."

    She went on to say: "This is a very specific job in my opinion, it's frustrating, it's toxic that's why I don't do overtime. It's specific, you like it or hate it you get crisis every so often, at least I do.

    She also stated:

    "We shall remember this new benefit, Employment Support Allowance, was meant to take people off the benefit . . this was specifically designed to take people off incapacity benefit"

    Atos are very keen to tell everyone that they do not make the decisions regarding entitlement to benefit, yet the the Atos trainer tells her trainees:

    "I will emphasise that we are only giving advice but the final decision belongs to the Decision maker and I will always emphasise that you will say that to the clients just to push kind of, the guilt from yourself. That's how I say because really they wait for our advice but, officially, according to the procedure guidelines final decision is made by the Decision makers."

    The narrator goes on to state "In practice DMs agree with Atos 94% of the time. What the assessors put in their reports is usually final".

    "Good thing for us is that even if you make the wrong decision because you have no evidence, you don't see x-rays, you don't see ECG you just only see the person so you can be wrong but you never go to the tribunal, this is the good thing, you never go to the tribunal so, sort of, you won't be blamed."

    The government may insist that there are no implicit or explicit DWP or Atos targets yet trainees are told that if they assess more than 12 or 13% of claimants for the Support Group then they will be monitored and their work checked "...you will have your own mentor and they will deal with you so you will have no real freedom..."

    The DWP say there are no targets but they do have averages so "If individual Atos assessors record results considerably outside the average, their work may be audited to ensure quality."

    The undercover GP worked for 2 days & produced eight reports and of those four were queried. He apparently received a telephone call and was "asked to take the points off" and to "change his examination findings" by someone who hadn't seen the claimants in question.

    During Tuesday's debate, Dame Anne Begg said "When up to 40% of appeals are successful and there is no penalty for the company carrying out the assessments, there is something wrong with the contract. When so many appeals result in an award of ESA support group status when the original assessment was no points, there is something wrong with the contract. When there is no penalty for a high percentage of wrong decisions, there is something wrong with the contract. When there is no incentive for assessors to get the assessment correct first time, there is something wrong with the contract. It is time for the Government to act, because there is something fundamentally wrong with the whole system."

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  • Anonymous

    Well James, you sound utterly deluded to me. Is the City of London full of like-minded people? If so, then therein lies this country's chief problem I think. I couldn't even finish reading your drivel as it's so bad.

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