The company paid £100 million a year to test disabled people’s “fitness for work” has refused to cooperate with an “effective” new way of improving how disability benefit decisions are reached, MPs have heard.
The first independent review of the work capability assessment (WCA) by Professor Malcolm Harrington called for government “decision-makers” to improve communication with staff from Atos Healthcare – the much-criticised company paid to carry out the tests – over “borderline cases”.
But despite a successful trial in which Atos staff were deployed in benefits centres, which the government found was “an effective way of improving communications to discuss borderline cases”, Atos decided it would not be able to continue with the initiative because of its own “capacity pressures”.
Instead, decision-makers now have to use a new telephone helpline if they want to speak to an Atos healthcare professional about a borderline decision on whether to allow a claim for employment and support allowance (ESA), the replacement for incapacity benefit.
The information emerged in answers to parliamentary questions submitted by the Labour MP Tom Greatrex, who secured a parliamentary debate this week on the WCA.
He told fellow MPs: “The fact that government policy is not being followed by a company in receipt of £100 million of taxpayer funding a year will startle many of my constituents and, I am sure, the constituents of many other [MPs].”
Greatrex told the debate that the process of reassessing about 1.5 million claimants of old-style incapacity benefit, which began last spring, was in “chaos”, while the cost of WCA appeals was set to rise by £20 million to £60 million a year for 2011-12, and there was a “huge backlog” of such appeals.
Greatrex accused the government of giving the go-ahead for the national rollout of the reassessment before dealing with the “defects” of the WCA, which had caused the system to become “clogged”.
He added: “My constituents, and many people in the country, do not object to an assessment to determine someone’s fitness to work.
“They do, however, object to a system that seems more concerned with hounding those who cannot work, rather than helping those who want to work.”
Chris Grayling, the Conservative employment minister, said the government had tried to create a “more humane, careful and thoughtful system” as a result of the Harrington recommendations.
He said contact between Atos and DWP decision-makers would be carried out by telephone, because “what matters is not the contact between a single person and a block of decision-makers, but trying to phone up the decision-maker themselves”.
He claimed the reassessment process was now “on time”, and that Atos was “chasing through” to clear the backlog of new ESA claims.
Greatrex also referred in the debate to information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by disabled activist Paul Smith.
The DWP has told Smith that disabled people can now request that their WCA is recorded by Atos.
Smith, of the Atos Victims Group, said many disabled people had tried unsuccessfully to have their assessments recorded, but “all sorts of excuses have been given for that not being possible”.
He said both DWP and Atos should publicise the fact that it was now possible to request that a WCA is recorded.
2 February 2012