More from Conservative Party conference
As the debate over the extent and cost of the welfare state rumbles on, a particularly unhinged idea was aired in a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference last week, by a Vice President of Atos – a controversial company that gets paid by the government to run welfare schemes.
Speaking on a Tory conference fringe panel with Minister Francis Maude MP, Philip Chalmers, Senior Vice President of Atos "Public Sector and Health", asked people to "imagine everyone is walking around like 'Sims' or 'Second Life' and you can see a little thing above their head that says "£25,000 a year on GP visits, £30,000 a year on Adult Social Care." So a young single person in good health would be skipping along with a big green diamond of virtue, whereas an old woman who is constantly in and out of hospital would have a flashing red diamond, indicating to everyone that she is a drain on the community's resources. I definitely can't see that resulting in the public stigmatisation of society's most vulnerable and therefore least financially viable individuals. The fact that this would make needing to visit a doctor a big minus sign (–) on your personal record would hopefully not cause a public health emergency, or lead to demands for drastic cuts to health budgets.
Chalmers told the 60 or so delegates at the breakfast meeting, paid for by Atos, that he thought "Open Data" should mean that we could "understand the personal budgets of everyone walking around in a community". This would give citizens the opportunity to say: "That Mrs Miggins over there, she goes to her GP ten times a month, and she goes to her social worker four times a month. Actually, she gets meals on wheels ten times a week as well."
This would create "an opportunity for people in her community to start interacting and replacing some of those services and trying to create some community coherence by providing those services in place of the state". With the spending on "Mrs Miggins" exposed, the community could step in leading to "reduced function of the state and spending".
Obviously the idea of people walking around with floating orbs that change colour depending how much you need in benefits is, for now, technically impossible. In any case, Chalmers said it was just a "silly example". Perhaps a more practical suggestion would be to simply tattoo "SCROUNGER" on the foreheads of the chronically ill, and subsidising the laser removal for the few who make a full recovery.
According to Chalmers, people who use a lot of state support would actually be really up for his idea. There would also be a "double whammy", he said, of "Mrs Miggins enjoying it better because it is her local people doing it, and some employment for somebody who's staying at home as a mother but might be able to do bits and pieces".
Chalmers described this as "Empowering community groups and third sector organisations" by "better use of data".
WATCH: Talking to the Directors of the Austrian Horror Film 'Goodnight Mommy'
Maybe I'm being too cynical and Philip Chalmers is some kind of genius. So who is he?
In 2000 he was a Scottish Labour Spin Doctor, in charge of strategic communications. He quit the job after being arrested twice in Glasgow's Red Light District. Chalmers, who helped launch Scotland's anti-drink-driving message was arrested while drunk in charge of a stationary car, allegedly with a 21-year-old prostitute as a passenger (he apparently denied this, but accepted that the woman was not his wife, leaving quite a lot of questions unanswered). In 2005 he began working for Atos, working on their proposals for the abortive ID Card.
Chalmers put forward the idea at a Tory Conference fringe meeting on a panel with Tory Minister Francis Maude – although Maude rushed off to catch an aeroplane before he could hear Chalmers launch his bizarre plan.
While Maude wasn't present to hear the "Sims" plan, he did happily listen to Chalmer's talk about the "softer experience" Atos believed in for health services. Maude cheerfully spoke about the government "mostly using a burgeoning eco-system of innovative providers" for services, without making any criticism of Atos' very public failures. Atos has already been heavily criticised for their government welfare contracts: The firm exited early from their £500 million contract to run Work Capability Assessments – testing the sick and disabled to see if they could be judged "fit for work" for the DWP – after public protests. Atos were accused of judging the manifestly unable to work as job-ready, leading to benefit cuts for the vulnerable. Horror stories of people dying of terminal diseases shortly after they were judged "fit to work" abounded.
Atos still have a contract to test disabled people for how much "Personal Independence Payments" they should receive. The government rewarded the contract with an intention of reducing the payments.
With their large government contracts, the French IT firm has a strong interest in keeping close to the government. Paying for the conference meeting, organised by Conservative-linked think tank Policy Exchange, is one way of keeping that relationship ticking over. Policy Exchange was founded by Nick Boles, currently a Local Government Minister and one of the modernising "Cameroons". Atos Vice President Philip Chalmers was joined on the platform by Maude and by Mark Thompson, formerly George Osborne's Senior Adviser for IT.
VICE asked Atos if their Senior Vice President's scheme for exposing individual spending on the frail and sick was their official policy, and the language he used. Their spokesperson said, "This was a debate on the role digital advancements can play in Government and how good use of data can provide better and more efficient services to the citizen. The particular future use of Big Data Philip was discussing was how it can allow community groups to link with social care and NHS services in order to provide the best care. A fictional example was used to illustrate this idea, it was not based on any policy we deliver and was in no way intended to cause offence and we apologise if it has."