Members of the Commons public accounts committee were quizzing senior civil servants in the Department for Work and Pensions and top executives from Atos and Capita about the implementation of personal independence payment (PIP).
But it was Lisa Coleman, an Atos senior vice president, who bore the brunt of the committee’s anger, thanks to concerns DNS had passed to the committee about the way the company won the contract to assess PIP claimants across London and the south of England.
The concerns have been raised over the last 18 months in a joint investigation by DNS and the disabled journalist Richard Butchins.
DNS supplied the committee’s chair, Labour MP Margaret Hodge, with the tender document used by Atos to win the contract, and copies of stories run by DNS.
Atos – whose reputation has already been destroyed by its record in assessing people for out-of-work disability benefits – was confronted about the PIP contract concerns in public for the first time.
Hodge – who was also briefed by Butchins earlier this week – accused Atos of lying in the tender document, including over a claim that it had agreements in place with 16 NHS trusts to carry out PIP assessments.
Atos had won the contract by boasting of its “extensive” network of 16 NHS trusts, two private hospital chains, and four physiotherapy providers, all of which it said would provide sites where the PIP tests would take place.
But in the months after the contract was awarded, all but four of the NHS trusts and both of the private hospital chains dropped out.
Coleman told the committee that at the point the tender was written in 2012, it was too early to put agreements in place with NHS trusts and private healthcare providers.
But the Conservative MP Richard Bacon then pointed out to Coleman that the tender document stated clearly that Atos did have these agreements in place.
Coleman insisted that Atos “didn’t lie in that tender document”.
Hodge pointed out to Coleman that the tender document states that the 22 partners had “contractually agreed” to provide assessment centres, with the document provided by DNS stating: “Each partner has contractually agreed to providing accommodation to the required specification.”
She also quoted Freedom of Information Act responses obtained by Butchins that showed a string of the trusts denying they had ever had contractual agreements in place with Atos.
Hodge said: “In the [tender]document, you misled DWP as to where you were in getting contractual agreements to be able to run the contract. You misled people, didn’t you, Miss Coleman?”
Coleman denied Atos had misled DWP.
Another Labour MP, Fiona Mactaggart, pointed out that Atos had stated in the tender that it had a network of 740 assessment sites across London and the south of England.
But after the contract was signed, it only managed to secure 96 assessment centres, including not a single one covering a vast sweep of north London, and only one in Suffolk and one in Cambridgeshire.
Because there are so many fewer centres, thousands of disabled people are facing delays in being assessed, and longer and more complicated journeys to reach their assessments, often by inaccessible public transport.
Hodge told Coleman: “You were claiming in your tender documents that you were ready to go with 700-odd locations which would have been close to where people had to go [for assessments].
“You hadn’t got those agreements… You’ve only managed to work with a quarter of the [NHS] trusts you named in the document.”
Coleman admitted to the committee that only 40 per cent of claimants were travelling less than 45 minutes to reach their PIP assessment, with another 20 per cent of disabled people travelling less than 60 minutes.
When pushed by the committee, she admitted that the remaining 40 per cent of claimants were taking more than an hour on public transport to travel to their assessment centre.
Bacon pointed out that Atos had promised that between 75 and 90 per cent of claimants would be within 30 minutes of their assessment centre, with the others travelling less than an hour.
Hodge, who was visibly furious with Coleman’s answers, also asked her: “It’s usual to lie in a tender document, is it, Miss Coleman?”
Coleman denied Atos had lied and said it was “not unusual” for a tender document to be different from a contract that was agreed and signed later.
The Labour MP Nick Smith also accused Coleman of lying, telling her: “It seems to me that you’ve been playing fast and loose with the truth.”
Hodge told Robert Devereux, DWP’s permanent secretary, that Atos had stated in the tender document that it had a string of NHS trusts and private hospitals that had committed to carrying out PIP assessments.
She said: “It has been put to me that DWP knew they didn’t have that… and that you suggested to them to put it in anyway because it would make the tender look better.”
Devereux said: “I have not heard that allegation. I would be astonished if it were true. It’s not in my interests to have a supplier falsify information.”
She told Devereux that Atos had won £750 million of DWP contracts since 2005, including PIP assessment contracts worth £207 million (to test claimants in Scotland and the north of England) and £184 million (the London and south of England contract).
But she said that Atos had “walked away” from the contract to carry out work capability assessments.
She said: “What on earth was going through the brain of people in DWP responsible for advising ministers on who to give contracts to, that you think Atos, who were failing in one area of work… would then be ready to provide an effective service [on PIP assessments], which they clearly haven’t, on another area?
“What went through your brain? I just don’t get it.”
Devereux said DWP had assessed the bids on “quality and price” and had decided that the Atos bids were “better” than those of its competitors, and he added: “We were making a judgment based on the bids in front of us.”
But Hodge said: “It is the worst ad for using private contractors to deliver a public service. It’s awful, it’s awful. It’s a real dereliction right the way through.”
20 March 2014