The government and its contractor Atos Healthcare have strongly denied claims by an alleged whistleblower that civil servants ordered assessors to make it harder for disabled people to claim the coalition’s new disability benefit.
Scores of disabled campaigners saw an email this week that described information apparently leaked by an Atos manager.
The email had been intended for a few leading activists, but mistakenly ended up on a website before its contents could be checked.
The email warned that a group of Atos managers had been briefed by Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) civil servants, who told them how they were supposed to interpret new guidance for personal independence payment (PIP), the replacement for working-age disability living allowance.
The email – based on a conversation with the Atos whistleblower – described how she and her colleagues had been summoned to a meeting, but before entering the room had been searched by security guards to ensure “that no-one entered with any recording device, mobile phone, tablet, pen, paper etc”.
The email then detailed how they were told about a number of alleged “clarifications” to the PIP process that would make it harder to claim the new benefit.
One “clarification” was that assessors should now ignore previous instructions that claimants must be able to carry out all activities “safely, reliably, repeatedly and in a reasonable time period”.
This was one of the claims that horrified many of the campaigners who read the email this week.
Earlier this year, DWP gave permission for assessors to carry out more paper-based assessments of claimants, in order to try to address the huge PIP backlog.
But the email claimed that all those who have been given a paper-based assessment over the last three months would now be recalled – and their PIP payments put on hold – and forced to have a face-to-face assessment.
They could even be asked to repay the money they have already received, if their needs did not match the tough new guidelines.
The email also made a number of other claims about “clarifications” to the PIP assessment rules that were allegedly passed on by the DWP civil servants in the meeting, all of which would have made it harder for disabled people to claim the benefit.
The email also warned that the backlog of disabled people waiting for their PIP claims to be assessed had grown to nearly 150,000.
Disability News Service (DNS) has reported cases of disabled people who have had to wait as long as nine months, and even a man who had to wait more than a year to hear whether he would receive PIP.
And this week, DNS spoke to a carer whose husband, who has dementia, has been waiting nearly 11 months for a PIP assessment.
But despite the persuasive detail contained in the email, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Atos have insisted that its entire contents are untrue.
A DWP spokesman told DNS: “None of the points you raise below are true.
“The reliability criteria and the assessment criteria, including the descriptors [which describe how able someone is to carry out an activity], are contained in legislation and therefore cannot be and definitely are not ‘ignored’.”
And an Atos spokeswoman added: “No such briefing took place and none of the below is true.”
New DWP guidance for PIP assessors, published this week, showed no obvious, extreme tightening of the rules.
Several disability websites which had reported the email later described it as a “hoax”, while it was denounced as “misinformation” and “false” on Twitter, but without any apparent proof.
DNS has spoken to Mrs X, the disabled carer who sent the email that caused the controversy. She has asked for her identity to be kept secret.
She said she had intended that the information should not be published until further research was carried out to confirm how accurate it was. She was appalled when it started to appear on websites without her permission and with no attempt to check its accuracy.
The information in the email came from a friend of Mrs X who told her how she had attended the Atos briefing session and subsequently passed on what she and colleagues had been told.
Mrs X said that information previously passed on to her by her friend about the PIP assessment process had subsequently turned out to be true.
She said her friend had been highly upset and distressed about the alleged PIP changes when she spoke to her, because of the impact they would have on disabled people.
She added: “Why would somebody do this and put their livelihood and well-being at risk if it was not true? What motivation could they have other than altruism?
“I would not have stuck my neck out to report what was told to me if I didn’t believe that this lady’s grief and distress were absolutely genuine.”
Mrs X said her friend had made it clear that the PIP rules themselves had not been changed, but had just been “clarified”.
She said: “She kept saying: ‘It’s not about changing the descriptors, it’s about ‘clarification’. It’s not about ‘changes’ to the law.’ She was clear that this was guidance from the DWP about how the descriptors should be applied.”
29 May 2014