Benefits test company threatens critics with libel action
Users of an online carers forum are devastated after their site is closed following threats of legal action. Emily Butselaar reports on a worrying instance of internet censorship
23 Aug 11

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 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.”