14 October 2005
The DWP have provided Benefits and Work with a copy of the original Medical Services privatisation contract with Atos Origin (formerly Sema), but only after removing every clause containing any reference to financial matters and transfer of public assets, because such information might “prejudice the interests of Atos Origin”. Freedom of Information campaigner Maurice Frankel has described the withholding of such information as "outrageous" whilst disability campaigners say that such secrecy will lead to fears that the DWP may now be being asset stripped.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, Benefits and Work requested a copy of the first contract between Atos (formerly SEMA) and the DWP to supply Medical Services. The contract expired in September of this year following ATOS’ successful bid to run Medical Services for another 5 years at a cost of £500 million to the taxpayer. The DWP duly provided several hundred pages of text to Benefits and Work, but an accompanying letter revealed that clauses relating to a wide range of issues such as: public assets offered for sale to ATOS; public property transferred to ATOS; cost efficiencies to be achieved; pricing and charging information, had all been removed due to their “commercial sensitivity”.
The DWP claim that the information is exempt from disclosure due to it “being commercially sensitive and release of the information would prejudice the interests of ATOS Origin and the Department’s future dealings with Atos Origin or other service providers”. For this reason, the DWP say, “it is not in the public interest to release the information.”
Benefits and Work sought the views of Maurice Frankel, Director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information and a leading authority on public interest disclosures.
Maurice Frankel pointed out that as the original contract was made in February 1988 and it will be at least 2010 before the current contract comes up for renewal, most of the figures in the original contract will be irrelevant and out-of-date and so could pose no threat to Atos Origin’s commercial interests. In addition, as he pointed out,
“Disclosure of the terms of the contract will promote effective oversight of the activities of the DWP and improve competition, issues that are very much in the public interest. Failure to disclose is likely to distort any future bidding process in favour of the current holder of the contract”.
In relation to the refusal of the DWP to disclose which assets have been transferred to Atos Origin for free and which have been sold and at what price, Maurice Frankel argued that:
“It would be outrageous not to disclose the value of assets transferred”
One of the issues that disability benefits campaigners are now particularly keen to explore is whether amongst the assets transferred to Atos Origin were any of the 21 medical centres that Atos is now seeking to close down. (See 21 incapacity benefit medical centres axed) Unless the terms of the original contract are made public, the fear that the DWP may now be being asset stripped by the private sector will be difficult to dispel.
Back to the commissioners
It is clear that the DWP consider that protecting it’s extremely close relationship with Atos Origin is far more important than accounting to taxpayers for hundreds of millions of pounds of public money. Benefits and Work does not agree and has asked the DWP to review its decision, prior to appealing directly to the Information Commissioner for full disclosure of the Impact contract.