DWP said the move was needed to provide extra capacity and “drive down waiting times”, as it copes with a huge backlog of the work capability assessments (WCAs).
The move has been seen by many as a sign of government frustration with the performance of Atos, the company which currently carries out all of the tests, although a DWP spokesman said it was “too early” to say if Atos would now be providing fewer assessments.
This frustration was highlighted when the DWP also announced that there had been a reduction in the quality of written reports produced by Atos assessors.
The quality of the Atos assessment reports are graded A-C and an audit carried out this spring showed more than two-fifths of those checked – all written between October 2012 and March 2013 – were given a C-grade.
DWP stressed that the reports that failed the “rigorous quality standard” were no more likely to result in the claimant being found fit for work or appealing against the decision.
But it warned that the audit result was “contractually unacceptable” and that it was considering all its options under its assessment contract with Atos, although it would not say what those options were.
A DWP spokesman said: “I don’t think I can give you an exhaustive list of what options are being considered. Considering all the options is reasonably self-explanatory.”
The disabled activist and blogger Sue Marsh, a leading campaigner for WCA reform, said she believed the DWP move to take on new providers was not about improving the quality of assessments, but about “trying to force more and more people” through the WCA system.
She believes the government wants to complete the reassessment of about 1.5 million people claiming old-style incapacity benefit, which was due to be completed next spring but appears to be months behind schedule.
Marsh believes the government are deliberately “dragging their feet” over implementing recommendations from the three reviews of the WCA carried out by Professor Malcolm Harrington – such as allowing audio recording of assessments and introducing mental function champions – so that they can find more IB claimants fit for work.
DWP hopes the new contractors will be delivering assessments by next summer, only one year before the current Atos contract ends in 2015.
An Atos spokeswoman said the company continued to “support the need to increase the number of health professionals on the ground to minimise waiting times and improve the system for those going through it”, but added: “We have always known that this contract will end and there will be a re-tender.”
She insisted there had been a number of improvements to the assessment, but added: “There is certainly more capacity needed and we do support that.
“[Our assessors] are not supposed to rush through assessments and they don’t rush through assessments but there are a lot more people going through the system.”
She said this was why Atos was now carrying out assessments in the evenings and at weekends.
The new regional contracts are likely to be divided up in the same way as assessments for the new personal independence payment, with one contract covering London and the south, another for central England and Wales, and a third covering Scotland and the north of England.
Meanwhile, new DWP figures show that the number of disabled people benefiting from the government’s Access to Work (AtW) scheme increased last year.
The figures show that the number of people receiving support from AtW rose from 30,790 in 2011-12 to 31,400 in 2012-13.
Esther McVey, the Conservative minister for disabled people, admitted last October that AtW spending had plummeted from £107 million in 2010-2011 to just £93 million in 2011-12, while the number of disabled people claiming funding had fallen from a peak of 37,000 in 2009-10.
Last week, McVey announced that AtW would now be available for all young disabled people on traineeships and work experience.
25 July 2013