One of the previous Labour Government’s worst decisions was to give a French IT company called Atos a contract to perform Work Capability Assessments on people claiming state benefits due to illness or disability. Atos isn’t good at its core business of IT, so quite why HMG thought they’d be any use in such a sensitive field is baffling.

And useless they were. They got a bounty for everyone they certified fit to work, so they certified almost everyone fit to work. This included the terminally ill, bedridden people dependent on oxygen masks, and in one case, someone in a coma.

And so the useless Atos are not going to be doing Work Capability Assessments any longer. The Government decided to bow to relentless pressure to get rid of them. At the last moment, Atos declared they didn’t want the contract any longer, like a jilted lover saying “you can’t dump me, because I am dumping you”.

There was rejoicing throughout the land. But then it was announced that Atos was to be replaced by Capita. The sweetmeats of victory turned to ashes in our mouths.

To say Capita are useless would be a disservice to useless companies throughout the world. And I say this not because of negative coverage in them in the media, but due to direct experience.

Once upon a time, Government work was done by the Civil Service. I was a Civil Servant myself. We muddled through in typical British style, but got the job done for a reasonably low cost.

Then a toxic creed promoted by Thatcher and her successors, and sadly by Blair too, led to a lot of work that should be done by Civil Servants being done by private companies. This was a bad idea from the start, as Civil Servants are subject to Parliamentary oversight, which private companies are not, even when doing Government work. Also, the same few useless companies always got the contracts, and never delivered on time or on budget, but made huge sums of money from the taxpayer.

So the Government gives companies like Capita huge contracts to do high-volume data-related and printing tasks. Capita has a lot of mainframe computers. They used to do a lot of printing, but then they started outsourcing that to other companies.

And that’s where I come in, because I worked for a company that did high-volume printing for Capita, among many other clients.

Traditionally, a mainframe would be connected directly to a giant printer with a channel cable – that’s a huge cable as thick as my arm. Then mainframe operators started outsourcing, but changing anything on a mainframe is a hassle, so the trick is to trick the mainframe into thinking nothing has changed.

So we just saw through the channel cable, attach a box that shoots the printer output over a Wide Area Network link, translate it into something understandable to a printer designed after the Dark Ages, and print it. The mainframe is none the wiser. Which figures, because they’re huge and dumb.

So for us to print for Capita, we had Capita install their routers in my comms room. They insisted on managing the routers themselves, because they deluded themselves they knew what they were doing. They did not.

And one day, suddenly we could not print a major Capita job, because they’d changed something at the mainframe end without bothering to think through the implications. We urgently needed a configuration change on one of their routers, otherwise we couldn’t print. And the contract would have penalised us for it even though it was their fault.

All hell broke loose. I collared a Capita man who was on site and told him we needed this change done immediately. He said “it doesn’t work that way, you have to submit a request, the change management team has to have a meeting about it, we have to do a security survey and a change impact study, then we might consider it”.

I said “no, we need this doing right now or we can’t print this thing”. He smirked and said “watch my lips: it doesn’t work that way”.

At this point I got cross and wanted to wind him up. I said “You lot at Capita are just shit, aren’t you?” It didn’t have the desired effect. He grinned and said “you have no idea just how shit we are”.

I asked “so why does the Government keep giving you these contracts?”

He shrugged and said “who else is big enough to do them? Cap Gemini? ICL? We’re all as shit as each other. And you lot are shit too, we only use you because hardly anyone else has enough print capacity for us and the only ones that do are even worse than you”. Touché.

My chairman was going mental. So I just hacked Capita’s router, which took about 3 minutes, reconfigured it myself, and we were printing again. Capita were happy, and their security was so weak they never noticed what I’d done, and their procedures were so lax that they never wondered how come their router suddenly started talking to a different system without them changing anything.

And this was Government data, about residents of the United Kingdom. That’s the company entrusted with your private information, your financial records, your legal history. And that is the company about to be trusted with the Work Capability Assessment. God help us all.

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