Harper dodges questions over delays in closing assessment centre


newslatestThe minister for disabled people is facing awkward questions over why he has delayed responding to concerns about the government’s pledge to close an inaccessible assessment centre.

Mike Penning promised in June that the government would shut the centre used by government contractor Atos Healthcare in Norwich, but it is still being used for assessments of benefit eligibility.

Penning – who has since been replaced as minister by Mark Harper – was reported as describing the use of the building for work capability assessments as “wholly unacceptable”, after he heard that disabled people from the Norwich area were being forced by the access problems to make long journeys to alternative centres.

The decision to shut St Mary’s House in Duke Street, Norwich, followed a 30-month campaign led by disabled people, who highlighted the unfairness of a centre used to assess disabled people for their “fitness for work” that was not accessible to many of them.

But six months on, the government has failed to announce a timetable for moving assessments to a new, accessible venue in Norwich.

Mark Harrison, chief executive of Equal Lives (formerly Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People), who has led the campaign to force the centre’s closure, wrote to Harper in October.

But he has still not had a reply to his concerns, even though he has been told by a civil servant that a letter has been sitting on Harper’s desk awaiting his signature since at least the middle of last month.

Harrison said: “As far as we know they are still expecting disabled people to travel to other parts of the region and country because they have an inaccessible building.

“This government has got all its priorities wrong when it comes to disabled people.”

He said he believed the closure announcement was “a complete con” because both Atos and the landlord, Telereal Trillium, were “still being paid and making profits on the backs of disabled people”.

Telereal Trillium boasts on its website how the National Audit Office estimated that its “partnership” with DWP would save the government £780 million.

A spokeswoman for the company said: “We can confirm that there are on-going discussions to overcome the existing difficulties currently faced at St Mary’s House. However, we feel the DWP would be better placed to answer your query.”

An Atos spokeswoman said: “The [DWP] is in charge of estates in the WCA contract, not Atos Healthcare.”

DWP has so far failed to comment on why Harper has not yet sent the letter to Harrison.

18 December 2014