THE Scottish Government has angered staff by hiring the controversial fit-for-work benefit tests company Atos to run its counselling service.

The award of a £720,000 contract to the French firm was the subject of a meeting between union officials, managers and Atos staff on Friday.

It has also prompted complaints on the Government's internal computer network.

One member of staff wrote: "Cannot believe that any public contract was given to this company after recent adverse publicity."

Another said: "Atos are an interesting choice given growing public concerns about their approach to disability testing."

Atos – the subject of widespread criticism over its handling of tests to determine whether those claiming sickness and disability benefits are fit for work – took over the Scottish Government's round-the-clock Employee Assistance Service on November 1.

The service, which staff can access free of charge, offers support for "emotional, practical, health and social issues", and includes a team of welfare and counselling practitioners. Atos Healthcare will run the service for two years, with a possible four-year extension.

Union sources say staff are concerned people who are unwell may be forced back to work before they are fully ready to return.

Atos has a £110 million-a-year deal with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to conduct Work Capability Assessments – which decide whether the ill and disabled are fit to work immediately, in the medium term or not at all – plus a £400m contract to assess mobility benefits next year.

Critics say the tests are flawed, degrading and are driven more by the Coalition's cost-cutting agenda than a desire to help the needy.

Hundreds of gravely ill people who lost benefits after Atos passed them as fit to work have died within months, and about one-sixth of all those assessed as fit to work by Atos successfully appeal, costing taxpayers £50m a year.

Despite disability campaigners criticising its sponsorship of the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, Atos was unveiled as a key sponsor of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games this year. Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon called the firm's involvement "a significant step forward".

However, Atos has been regularly criticised by SNP backbenchers, almost 30 of whom signed a parliamentary motion last month condemning the DWP for awarding contracts with the firm to carry out more benefits tests in Scotland.

Cheryl Gelding, head of the Scottish Government group for the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, which represents civil servants, said: "We are aware of the comments on the intranet and members have raised directly with the PCS specific concerns about Atos. We held a meeting on Friday and raised these concerns with Atos, and our dialogue is continuing."

Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie added: "The hypocrisy from the SNP is astonishing. With one face they have condemned Atos for working with the UK Government, but with the other they are awarding them contracts. The SNP Government need to be straightforward and consistent."

Atos Healthcare said: "We are one of the largest occupational health providers in the UK and won this contract after a competitive tender."

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: "Atos is a provider of occupational health services to a large number of public and private sector across the UK. It was awarded this contract as the result of a rigorous procurement process in which Atos scored highly."