A MULTINATIONAL firm contracted by the Government to assess benefit claimants has been accused of using heavy-handed legal tactics to silence its critics, after a series of online discussion forums were threatened with legal action.

French company Atos Healthcare, which has a £100 million contract to carry out work capability assessments on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions, claimed it had acted to protect staff from malicious allegations and libel.

The loss of one site, CarerWatch, this week provoked a storm of criticism of the company. The discussion forum, which provides mutual support for the families and carers of disabled people, was taken offline by its internet service provider, without any chance to respond to Atos’s complaints.

Another website, AfterAtos, received a legal letter in May while another, Atos – Register of Shame, was forced to close last week after receiving a legal threat from Atos’s solicitor.

The former site included strongly worded complaints about the way Atos staff carry out assessments and the impact it has on people’s lives. The latter purported to name and shame company staff members.

CarerWatch did not know about any concerns with its content until it was taken offline at the weekend. CarerWatch’s administrator, Frances Kelly, told The Herald the forum was the only point of contact for many isolated carers who had been upset by the sudden disappearance of the site.

Meanwhile, the chief executive of Citizens Advice Scotland, Lucy McTernan, said people who wanted a forum to report experiences and complaints about Atos and the Government’s Employment Support Allowance could come to them.

Ms McTernan said the Government should look into Atos’s approach to its critics. “Those who are criticising Atos are not cranks or troublemakers,” she added. “Scottish CABs have heard from thousands of sick and disabled people who have been unhappy with the treatment they received from Atos.

“Their assessment system has been shown to be deeply flawed right from the start and the evidence for this is overwhelming. It is no surprise, therefore, that the internet is full of complaints against them.

“Rather than trying to silence their critics and shut down public debate, it would be better if they addressed the very legitimate concerns that are being raised. We will be writing to the Government to ask whether it feels Atos’s attempts to close down public discussion of its performance is appropriate.”

Aberdeen South MP Anne Begg chairs the Westminster Work and Pensions Select Committee, which issued a report last month critical of the work carried out by Atos.

She said: “I can appreciate Atos might feel uncomfortable with some of the things on some of these sites, which are not very polite. But if they had contacted CarerWatch they might have been able to avoid taking the whole site down. People in the disabled community are very frightened of some of the things Atos are responsible for under the Government contract. Unfortunately for Atos, what this has done is reinforce people’s fears.”

Last night it appeared the CarerWatch site may be restored. In a statement, an Atos spokeswoman said: “It was never our intention to close down the CarerWatch forum. Our request was that the libellous content relating to Atos Healthcare and our employees be taken down in order to protect the reputation of our employees and company.

“We fully support the right of people to express their opinions within the boundaries of the law.”