Benefits and Work has obtained documents via the Freedom of Information Act that may undermine claims by Atos that its staff were the subject of nearly two thousand episodes of assault or abuse, including death threats, by claimants in 2013 alone. Atos used the claim to justify wanting to exit early from the contract to carry out work capability assessments (WCAs).{jcomments on}

In February of this year, the Financial Times reported that Atos wanted to end its contract for carrying out work capability assessments because of “persistent death threats against staff”.

The FT quoted someone close to the company as saying “It is becoming incredibly difficult for our staff; it’s pretty unpleasant,”

Atos claimed that they were experiencing about 163 incidents of the public assaulting or abusing staff each month, which would add up to around 1,956 incidents throughout the year.

This was, by any standards, a very serious accusation.

Characterising thousands of sick and disabled claimants as violent thugs that Atos could no longer expose its staff to is likely to have increased the level of prejudice against benefits claimants. It may even have contributed to a rise in the number of violent hate-crimes committed against disabled people.

Many commentators cast doubt on the claims, with some even going so far as to contact individual police authorities to try to find out how many times they had been called out to Atos assessment centres.

When Benefits and Work initially asked the DWP for a breakdown of the 163 incidents a month by type, the DWP denied any such information existed, claiming:

Atos are not required to provide any documentation to the Department in respect of threats towards their staff or any associated security incidents. Therefore we do not hold the information at this time.’

Unfortunately for the DWP we had also asked for, and obtained, copies of instructions issued to Atos on reporting ‘Unacceptable Claimant Behaviour’. This guidance made it clear that Atos were under a duty to report every such incident to the DWP.

We asked for a review of the DWP’s response and this time we received a single sheet which provides a month-by-month breakdown of all the incidents of violence and abuse reported by Atos to the DWP throughout the whole of 2013. The DWP noted that the figures relate to “all benefits, not ESA exclusively, although the majority of the assessments carried out were Work Capability Assessments.”

The full figures for the whole of 2013 are:

Difficult claimant / verbal abuse / threats


Security called/police called




Alcohol/drug fuelled aggression


Aggression from companions


Recording/attempted recording/photographing




Bomb threat


Threat made to staff – direct or implied


Staff assaulted


Threatening/offensive mail


DV – threat


Near miss


Media, threats

1 (should be 6)

Total incidents 2013

1,678 (should be 1,683)

The figures are confusing, it’s true and we are now seeking further clarification.

For example, there is a category of ‘Difficult claimant / verbal abuse / threats’ with 946 incidents but an entirely separate category for ‘Threat made to staff – direct or implied’ with just 110 incidents. It’s not clear what a ‘Difficult claimant’ is or why threats are listed under this category and under a separate category as well. It is not even clear whether the same incident may be listed under several different headings.

But three of the most important figures from our point of view, are:

Security called/police called’ 215

Threat made to staff ‐ direct or implied 110

Staff assaulted 5

Benefits and Work would be the first to agree that no deliberate assaults on Atos staff can possibly be justified.

But some episodes of abuse or assault may not even be attacks at all.

Atos carry out many thousands of medicals every month throughout the whole of the UK. Often these are on people with severe mental health conditions who should not be there in the first place and who may be feeling vulnerable, cornered and afraid when examined by strangers with no specialist mental health knowledge or skills. In these circumstances their distress may be misunderstood and misrepresented as aggression when it is, in fact, panic or fear.

In view of this, an average of one alleged assault every two and a half months, does not seem shockingly high. It does, however, seem shockingly different from the impression given by Atos of a constant barrage of 163 assaults, death threats and episodes of abuse a month.

If the figure of 110 threats or implied threats against staff is also correct then that adds up to nine threats a month. Again, it is unacceptable, but very different from the figure of 163 incidents a month.

By not breaking down the figures, Atos may have given a hugely misleading impression of how many times their staff have, in reality, been the subject of assaults or threatening behaviour.

It would be reasonable to expect an employer to call the police every time a serious threat was made to harm one of their staff or if an actual assault took place. In-house security would be likely to be called if a claimant was raising their voice or behaving in a way that an Atos assessor found threatening or alarming.

In 2013 this happened on average 18 times a month, with no indication of what proportion of these incidents involved calling the police rather than in-house security. Again, it’s a very long way indeed from 163 times a month.

Even if you add absolutely everything together - including attempts to record interviews, ‘near misses’ (whatever they may be), ‘difficult claimants’ and demonstrations outside assessment centres – and completely ignore the fact that these figures cover other benefits assessments too, the total still adds up to 23 incidents a month fewer than claimed by Atos.

Readers can decide for themselves whether they believe Atos’ claims by downloading the whole year’s figures here.


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