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17 August 2012 | Adam Leach
The disclosure by the spending watchdog was in response to a letter from Labour MP Tom Greatrex, who had raised questions over the department’s handling of the contract. Under the deal, Atos carries out health checks on individuals applying for benefits. Greatrex claimed it did not represent value for money to the taxpayer and in an interview with the BBC accused the department of “failing to hold Atos to account”, which is disputed by the DWP.
In response to the MP’s letter, head of the NAO Amyas Morse said the DWP had made improvements to its governance arrangements for the contract, but highlighted the need for further change. He said the department itself had identified the shortcomings in September last year and has been working to address those. But, he said, they do not go far enough.
The issues it found in relation to the performance of Atos Healthcare included exceeding the agreed target of the number of customers sent home without being seen for every month between November 2010 and January 2012. It also found the processing time dropped below the target of 35 days in 2009, and for a short period in 2011.
The NAO concluded while improvements had been made, there are still a number of issues with the contract, such as “uncertainty” over how the department evaluates the quality of medical assessments within the governance of the contract. The watchdog also called for improvements to the risk management process and called for routine validation of information provided to the department by Atos.
DWP has rejected the claim that Atos has been allowed to underperform due to lax governance. A spokesman said: “Delays have not been allowed to go on without action being taken. Since Atos was awarded the contract to deliver medical assessments, there has been a significant amount of change which has had an impact on the speed with which they have completed assessments.”
SM is awaiting a response from Atos Healthcare, which told the BBC it had worked closely with the DWP to address changes to the deal and fulfil contractual obligations.