This article titled “Paralympic Games organisers defend Atos sponsorship deal” was written by Alexandra Topping, Owen Gibson and Patrick Butler, for The Guardian on Monday 21st May 2012 19.59 Europe/London
Paralympic organisers have defended the sponsorship of the games by Atos, the multinational company whose UK healthcare arm is responsible for delivering controversial “work capability” tests for hundreds of thousands of disabled people on sickness benefit.
Atos Healthcare, tests around 11,000 incapacity benefit claimants a week under a £100m a year contract with the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). The company has been criticised by MPs for its “flawed” approach which has left thousands of disabled people wrongly denied benefits and has become a lightning rod for criticism of the government’s welfare reforms.
Disability activists have protested at Atos’s involvement in the games, and some have called for a boycott. But Sir Phillip Craven, president of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) said he valued its links with Atos as a “top sponsor”. He said: “I am very happy with our relationship.”
Speaking at a press conference of the eve of the BT Paralympic World Cup – which will see 200 athletes from 30 countries compete in athletics, basketball and football and is the last major competition before the Paralympics this summer – Craven added that Atos were “very much a part of the International Paralympic Committee”.
Craig Spence, communications director for the IPC, dismissed fears that the company’s sponsorship deal – it is spending an estimated $100m over 10 years – could lead to protests and boycotts. “I think the majority of people watching will be marvelling at the fantastic performances of our elite athletes as opposed to a small minority who will be protesting,” he said.
Any criticism of the company should be directed at the DWP, not the IPC, he added. “The Paralympic Games is the biggest ever platform for showcasing what people with an impairment can achieve,” he said. “So for people to suggest that people should boycott the Paralympics because of an issue between the DWP and the Atos, I think is really bizarre.”
But Tom Greatrex, Labour MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West said: “It is a cruel irony that the company causing so much distress to thousands of disabled people across the country is now sponsoring the Paralympics.
“Thousands of people have suffered because of the decisions Atos get wrong time and again, costing the taxpayer millions.
“It is, of course, important for the government to secure sponsorship for the Paralympics. But we must ensure that he who pays the piper doesn’t call the tune, and allow the fears and anxieties of people all across the UK to be swept under the carpet.”
Last summer, the Commons work and pensions select committee said the very mention of Atos Healthcare triggered “fear and loathing” among claimants, and concluded that there had been “failings” in the service provided by the company, which had “often fallen short of what claimants can rightly expect”.
Disability charities, meanwhile, have been critical of the company’s record. Some terminally ill cancer patients have been told they are fit for work, while other claimants have died from their conditions shortly after being found fit for work.
In a statement the British Paralympic Association (BPA) said it was “aware” that Atos’ Healthcare’s involvement with the DWP was garnering attention. “However our role as the BPA is to concentrate on promoting British Paralympians as positive role models rather than to comment on wider, non-sport related disability issues,” it said.
The BPA has vowed to use the momentum of this summer’s London Games to help improve the grassroots provision of disabled sport and “inspire a better world for disabled people”.
Its chief executive, Tim Hollingsworth, appointed last year with a brief to modernise the organisation, said it should play a wider role. “Our mission is clear in terms of being a leading Paralympic nation, but our vision speaks to a higher purpose – through sport, to inspire a better world for disabled people.
Britain’s most famous Paralympian, Tanni Grey-Thompson warned on Monday that disability benefit cuts will affect the development of top athletes and undermine the Games’ key legacy aim of widening access to sport for disabled people. She said changes to disability living allowance (DLA) would take vital day-to-day financial support away from many disabled people – including athletes.
Atos is in the running to win a series of multimillion-pound contracts to deliver eligibility assessments for personal independence payments, which replace DLA in 2013. Up to 500,000 people are expected to lose this benefit over four years as eligibility criteria are tightened.
Laurie Williams, a member of of the GB women’s basketball team said she was aware of athletes who had lost part of their benefits, though she hadn’t been personally affected. “I think with political issues like this, as an athlete you just have to focus on your performance,” she said. “We are there to win and not get involved in disagreements.”
South African sprinter, Oscar Pistorius, who hopes to become the first amputee sprinter to run in both the Olympics and paralympics this summer, told reporters that this summer’s Paralympics could transform perceptions of disability around the world.
“People in Britain are very educated and open to disability and there will be many people around the world who might not yet be at that speed or level of openess. The perception around disability will change in a lot of countries.”
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