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Benefits test company threatens critics with libel action

By Emily Butselaar / 23 August, 2011

Users of an online carers forum are devastated after their site was closed following threats of legal action. Emily Butselaar reports on a worrying instance of internet censorship 

A private firm in receipt of £100m of public money to test whether disability benefit claimants are fit for work has used legal threats to silence online criticism by disability rights campaigners.

After warnings of legal action, web host myfreeforum.org has pulled the plug on the website CarerWatch, a closed forum. The site’s users have still not been informed of the nature of the complaint.

Atos Healthcare, a division of IT services firm Atos, is sub-contracted by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to assess whether sick and disabled people are entitled to disability benefit (now called employment support allowance). The assessments are a key part of the government’s welfare-to-work policy.

The company has had a difficult summer. The chair of the Work and Pensions select committee, Dame Anne Begg MP,  criticised the company in July: “There have been failings in the service Atos Healthcare has provided, which has often fallen short of what claimants can rightly expect.” Earlier this month, an Observer investigation revealed that 12 doctors employed by the French-owned company are being investigated by the General Medical Council.

Mike Harris of the Libel Reform campaign said:

“This case demonstrates the inconsistencies in our libel laws. Because Atos Healthcare are out-sourced work by the public sector they are allowed to sue for defamation, whereas a public body performing the same services can’t. It’s unacceptable. The work that Atos are undertaking is paid for by the taxpayer and as such taxpayers, in this case a group of carers, should be able to express a strong opinion on this.”

He added:

“Atos did not approach the author of the supposedly defamatory piece, who ultimately bears responsibility for what they wrote. Going direct to the internet hosts to pull the plug on this forum, which provides help and support for many vulnerable people, is a form of extra-judicial silencing. We need the select committee looking at the draft defamation bill to make concrete proposals to stop legal threats against internet hosts bringing down entire websites.”

Frances Kelly the founder of Carer Watch claims the site has never had a policy on Atos, instead their campaign is directed at government policies that affect people with disabilities. The site had no contact with Atos, who bypassed them to take their complaints directly to the web host.

Kelly has now written to Atos Healthcare asking for an explanation. She said: “Many members who are very fragile and the sudden disappearance of a support group has caused a lot of distress and fear. Some are ringing us in tears.”

In a statement the company said: “While we fully support the right of people to express their opinions, it is our duty to protect the reputation of our employees and company against false and malicious allegations. In such circumstances, we will look to take any necessary steps to ensure that these unsupported claims are addressed swiftly and appropriately.”

 

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17 Responses to Benefits test company threatens critics with libel action

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  7. Darren Nelson Reply

    9 December at 16:21

    My wife won an ATOS appeal yesterday.It was a complete farce, I have to say.I pointed this out to the doctor present,and the stern looking Lord Magistrate,in attendence.Eventually they came round to my view,after first disputing with me that the ATOS medical was totally useless,when I pointed out they had made the same errors as the first assesment.They even thanked me for pointing out their mistakes.So where next for this medical and test that “fraudulent” UNUM managers are helping ATOS with.

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  10. WokStation Reply

    30 August at 01:11

    Just to update this story – it got even more stupid.

    http://carerwatch.wordpress.com/2011/08/28/cw-dispute-with-atos/

    http://carerwatch.wordpress.com/2011/08/26/latest-with-atos-2/

    Apparently the post in question was not only 5months old and in a members-only forum, but contained nothing but a URL to an article ATOS considered to be defamatory. The post at CarerWatch wasn’t, itself, defamatory – just a link to the article that still exists.

  11. Alan Wheatley, Green Party member and successful ESA tribunal appellant Reply

    26 August at 17:43

    At 16:38 today, CarerWatch sent out this latest update on their talks with Atos Healthcare.

    Atos has/have identified the content that they objected to on the CarerWatch forum. CarerWatch reveal that that content was just a link to material that is still viewable on another website. For further details go to the CW blog.

    Meanwhile, I note that the number of blog items referring to Atos’ attempt at censoring CW seem to be increasing daily. Given that Atos and UK government are in cahoots over making poor people pay for the misdeeds of others, surveillance state crackdowns on social media has potential for ‘burying bad news’.

  12. P Benson Reply

    25 August at 19:22

    I also do not think so called medicals should be outsourced.Its the Governments attempt to deflect criticism.It was not us,It was Atos.

    Atos has no right to complain about a private,members forum.It would be like us complaining about their board room meetings which or other staff meetings.

    How did Atos gain evidence of alleged Libel on a Closed Forum.Did they join by subterfuge.It says a lot about this companies ethics and integrity.

    Atos are making a fortune on the backs of the Poorest in this country.Sack Em.

  13. Alan Wheatley, Green Party member and successful ESA tribunal appellant Reply

    25 August at 13:29

    The DWP Select Committee, RCN, and Citizens Advice Scotland are just a few of the bodies that have found the joint workings of Atos and the DWP to be grossly unsatisfactory. These organisations take much longer to substantiate their findings than poor people in the firing line of smear stories that manufacture consent for slash-and-burn ‘austerity measures’.

    It takes about eight months for an Employment & Support Allowance tribunal to come to fruition, and months further for the DWP to process the ‘sandbags’ of tribunal outcomes on the assessment and appeals section floor. Their leave to appeal expires after one month. So what do they do when a vast number of claimants’ success at tribunal threaten their targets? They got those claimants to reapply for ESA at their whim, now usually about every six months as a form of ritual harassment. A heart patient was helped through his tribunal by Derbyshire Unemployed Workers’ Centres. He won his appeal, but was summonsed for reassessment just months after his successful tribunal outcome. Yet the reason he — in the statistical jargon of the DWP — failed to complete the process, was that he died the day before the scheduled appointment. (‘The medical was an absolute joke’.)

    Now, they are making decisions on claimants’ fitness for ‘work related activity’ without even calling the claimant in for examination. And the DWP is reportedly making it more difficult for claimants to know how to appeal.

    An online forum is quicker to report on the worsening of Atos and DWP joint-working. That truth hurts Atos while it profits from the misery it inflicts on vulnerable people.

  14. Jackanory Reply

    25 August at 13:03

    I agree with Anna – our benefits system should not be left to market forces – especially firms who think they should be so far above criticism they can attack and control media.

    There’s already sufficient (in fact excessive) legal recourse in this country for defamation – especially for large firms with substantial resources. Their critics aren’t so lucky.

    This whole affair stinks – and in fact says far more about Atos than the defamation they complain about.

  15. Anna Hayward Reply

    24 August at 20:01

    Whatever the rights and wrongs of ATOS’ claim that their reputation is being defamed, surely shutting down a support website like this has got to be awful for their reputation?

    Particularly in light of recent cases like Castlebeck and other companies in the care sector, surely those dealing with disabled and sick, vulnerable people need to be whiter than white and show they care about complaints?

    If they have nothing to hide, why not meet their critics head-on and use websites like CarerWatch to audit their systems and even (let me dream for a minute) improve them? Good companies welcome criticism because it is a way to improve, they don’t censor dissatisfied customers.

    Personally, I do not believe the benefits system should be out-sourced to a private company. It is part of the administration of government and needs to be accountable to the electorate.

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  17. Gari Reply

    24 August at 12:18

    It is becoming increasingly essential that events like this are better publicised in the mainstream news media – and not just on a national level.

    These examples need to be compiled and presented to politicians with their reactions recorded. This is something that can be done by citizen journalists.

    This citizen journalism should then be released to the international media. The truth is: Its very unlikely a broadcaster will distribute content that is critical of its own government (even in the UK).

    However, if that recorded content is as available to foreign news broadcasters as easily as it is to national ones, then the national broadcasters will have to think again about the centent they refuse to broadcast.

    In short: Citizen journalism can, if handled correctly, set the news/political agenda.

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