Delivery of the government’s new disability benefit appears to have been plunged back into crisis, after reception staff were sent scripts telling them how to explain to benefit claimants why their appointments have been cancelled.
Disabled people across the country are turning up for pre-booked appointments to be assessed for their eligibility for personal independence payment (PIP) – which is replacing working-age disability living allowance (DLA) – only to be told that their appointment is no longer available due to “assessor availability”.
Because of a shortage of assessors to carry out the tests, Capita is having to recruit 90 more healthcare professionals, just five months after making an estimated 80 of its 400 assessors redundant.
Disability News Service (DNS) revealed those job losses in January, which themselves took place only months after Capita had launched a recruitment drive to clear a huge PIP claims backlog last summer.
The revelations of further problems with the PIP assessment programme come at an embarrassing time for the minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson, who issued a public statement on Tuesday (9 June) boasting of the “massive improvement” in the system.
He claimed ministers had taken “swift action” to correct earlier problems, and “drove the assessment providers to make radical improvement to their service”.
And he insisted that he remained “absolutely committed” to the further rollout of the programme of reassessment of DLA claimants for PIP continuing as planned from October.
He had been responding to last week’s high court ruling that work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith had been “unreasonable”, “irrational” and acted “unlawfully” by delaying PIP payments to two disabled people for up to 13 months.
Capita’s public relations department appeared to be in meltdown today (Thursday), as – three days after DNS emailed a series of questions to the outsourcing giant – its press office produced five different versions of a statement, two of which referred to Capita no longer having a backlog of PIP claims, while three made no reference to there being a backlog.
By the end of March 2015, according to new figures published in advance of the court hearing, nearly 23,000 disabled people had been waiting longer than 20 weeks for their new PIP claims to be decided. Of those 23,000, more than 3,000 had been waiting longer than a year.
Last year, Capita embarked on a huge recruitment drive to cope with the delays and backlogs, tempting many staff from stable jobs in the NHS with a promise of better conditions and long-term work.
At one point last summer, Capita was reportedly offering staff up to £300 per test – four times the initial rates – and encouraging them to carry out as many assessments as they could.
The assessor who told DNS about the redundancies in January said then that she and colleagues believed that Capita “deliberately over-staffed to catch up with the backlog, then just tossed us aside”.
But Capita has now made so many staff redundant that it is having to recruit again.
And so many claimants are being turned away when they turn up for their PIP assessment that Capita has drawn up a “receptionist overbooking script”.
Receptionists are told to explain to PIP claimants: “Due to assessor availability we may not be able to see you today; however we will do our best to get you seen.”
If the claimant questions why there is no-one to assess them when they had an assessment booked, the receptionist is told to say: “Due to unforeseen circumstances there has been a last minute change to the appointment schedule.”
And if questioned further, they have to say: “Calls regarding appointments are managed by another department. Primarily the enquiry centre manages appointments.”
The final version of the statement sent by Capita to DNS today (Thursday) reads: “We regularly review our resourcing plans so that we can remain confident that we have the right level and type of staffing needed to meet the requirements of the claimants and department.
“We are looking at the number of assessors required to support the introduction of the changes that are expected later this year.
“If we have to reschedule a claimant’s appointment it is usually possible for the individual to still be seen on the same day, or if not we will arrange another appointment as early as possible, or if appropriate offer the option of a home- or paper-based assessment.
“We apologise to any claimants who have had their assessments rearranged and all travel expenses are reimbursed.”
A Capita spokesman refused to comment on the receptionists’ script.
The Department for Work and Pensions refused to comment.