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8 September 2005

Benefits and Work’s attempts to get hold of a copy of the highly confidential LiMA incapacity benefit software, worth many millions of pounds and paid for in part by the taxpayer, has uncovered lies about its ownership which may reach as far as the cabinet. If Maria Eagle, minister for disabled people, did not deliberately mislead MPs in a statement to the Commons, then either the DWP are lying in order to protect the business interests of Atos Origin - the multinational company which carries out medicals on their behalf - or the company itself is lying to DWP staff.

In addition, the DWP has made the astonishing claim that it doesn’t have a copy of the software, used to assess people’s capacity for work, and doesn’t even know, except in the most general sense, how it works.

Breach of justice
LiMA (Logic integrated Medical Assessment) is a computer programme introduced by SchlumbergerSema (now Atos Origin), the company which won the contract to provide medical services on behalf of the DWP. It’s purpose is to carry out incapacity for work medicals with as little interference as possible from doctors. The computer decides which questions a doctor can ask the claimant and which points to advise a decision maker to award. The doctor can disagree with the computer but must explain their reasons for doing so. The system allows medicals to be carried out more cheaply and produces final reports which are legible, even if not more accurate. It has been fiercely criticised by claimants and their representatives, its findings are frequently dismissed by appeal tribunals and even a social security commissioner has warned that it may lead to more mistakes being made in assessments.

As far back July 2003 we published an article 'Mouse driven' incapacity medicals breach human rights? in which we argued that it was likely that SchlumbergerSema (now Atos Origin) would “jealously guard its copyright and decline to let the public or advice workers have access to the system.” We also argued that if the claimant is unfairly prevented from being able to understand the way in which the decision was reached – which questions the computer decided to let the doctor ask and which it decided not to, for example, - this may be a breach of natural justice and render a decision unfair. This is because a claimant has the right to know how a decision about entitlement was reached and to see all the evidence used.

In the case of computer generated assessments that evidence should include all the multiple choice questions which the doctor answered in relation to the claimant and all the ones which the doctor was not given the opportunity to answer by the computer. At the moment the claimant is only permitted to see the options that the doctor chose, not the ones they rejected or the ones that were never put to them.

One horse race
We also argued that the fact that assessments were now being made using a programme owned by SchlumbergerSema would mean that they were bound to win the Medical Services contract when it came up for renewal in 2005. Other bidders would be unable to compete given that they would have to start from scratch retraining doctors to use a different method of assessment.

We talked to Liberal Democrat Work and Pensions spokesperson Paul Holmes about our concerns and he put questions to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about the software in February 2004. One of the questions he asked was:

“What assessment he has made of the implications of tying the Personal Capability Assessment into the Logic Integrated Medical Assessment software for which SchlumbergerSema own the copyright; what assessment he has made of the impact on the contract renewal process in 2005; and if he will make a statement”.

Maria Eagle’s reply on behalf of the Secretary of State was unequivocal:

“SchlumbergerSema (now Atos Origin) do not own the copyright of the LiMA software. The current Medical Services contract provides that Intellectual Property Rights for Evidence Based Medicine and the LiMA software are vested in the Department.”

Security clearance required
We were somewhat astonished by this: most of the cost of developing the software had been borne by the private sector company, why would they give away the ownership? But there seemed to be nothing we could do about it at the time so we left the matter there.

This year two things changed. Atos Origin, as we had predicted, won the half a billion pound contract to carry out medicals for the DWP for the next five years and the Freedom of Information Act came into force.

Accordingly, we applied to the DWP under the Act for a copy of the software. As regular visitors will know, the DWP refused, claiming that the software will only run on networked, server based PCs, not standalone PCs. We demanded a review of this refusal on the grounds that what sort of computer Benefits and Work own is none of the DWP’s business and certainly not grounds for refusing a request made under the Freedom of Information Act, which makes no mention of taking into account the applicants IT resources.

The DWP responded by once again claiming that there is no standalone version of the software but, clearly feeling unsure of their ground, added another reason for refusal. They claimed that the software is the intellectual property of Atos Origin IT Services and bears the following copyright notice:

“The copyright of this computer system is vested in Atos Origin IT Services UK Ltd and the information contained herein is confidential and only users with the approved level of security may access this computer system. The information in this computer system and the source code, either in whole or part, must not be reproduced or disclosed to others . . . “

We contacted the DWP again and asked whether copyright of the software had ever belonged to the DWP. We received an unusually rapid written response stating that “Sema Group UK [now part of Atos] has always held the Lima computer system copyright”.

Lies, damned lies and LiMA software
Somebody is lying: government departments and multinational companies don’t make innocent mistakes about ownership of intellectual property or basic contractual provisions. On the contrary, they guard their copyright jealously and fight bitterly and at vast expense over ownership of tiny bits of computer code, let alone whole programmes. And even in the twisted and spun world of government departments, it cannot both be true that the intellectual property rights “are vested in the Department” as Maria Eagle stated and also that Atos “has always held the Lima computer system copyright”.

Ordinarily, of course, here at Benefits and Work we would take no interest in a disagreement between the government and a multinational company about copyright ownership. But this matter goes right to the heart of what we do care about, because the assessment of sick and disabled people for small sums of benefit has now been sucked into this seedy world of profit driven secrecy and misinformation. The result is that disabled people are being denied, on the grounds of commercial confidentiality, their most basic right to be treated justly by the state.

And it won’t stop here: multinationals companies have already been engaged to computerise DLA assessment and decision making and potentially put scrutiny of that process too, beyond the reach of disabled people and their representatives. A computerised alternative of the Disability Handbook, the Customer Case Management System, is to be used alongside the new DLA forms being piloted in Bootle and Manchester. No information about the new system had been released.

Outraged of Foxham
There may, in the end, be little that Benefits and Work can do about all of this. We don’t have the friends in high places that agencies such as Child Poverty Action Group and Disability Alliance have and they, unfortunately, seem to have little interest in trying to tear down the barriers of commercial confidentiality and shareholder interests behind which DWP decision making is quickly disappearing.

But our complaint has gone to the Information Commissioner, our demand for an explanation has been sent to Maria Eagle and we will continue, with the support of our members, to root out and publish the truth about what is being done to our benefits system by increasingly unaccountable government departments and their corporate accomplices.