National DPO criticised over Maximus ‘fitness for work’ agreement


newslatestA national disabled people’s organisation has defended its decision to agree to work with the controversial US company handed a government contract to assess disabled people’s “fitness for work”.

Disability Rights UK (DR UK) is set to provide disability equality training to staff working for the US outsourcing giant Maximus, and to help with providing independent advice and information to disabled people about the notorious work capability assessment (WCA).

A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) press release, announcing the award of the contract – which is believed to be worth £500 million over three-and-a-half years – stated that DR UK would be providing “disability awareness training” to all the Maximus staff.

The decision to work with Maximus is controversial because the WCA is seen as a harsh and inflexible instrument that has been used to deny support to hundreds of thousands of sick and disabled people since its introduction under the Labour government in 2008, but also because of the outsourcing giant’s track record in the US.

Over the last seven years – and even further back in its corporate history – Maximus has faced a number of scandals relating to discrimination, incompetence and alleged fraud while delivering public contracts.

John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, which campaigns for the WCA to be scrapped, described the decision by DR UK to work with Maximus to deliver the contract as “a despicable betrayal of the cause of disability rights in this country”.

He said he was “equally concerned” that DR UK was working with Maximus, which he said had “an atrocious background”, and that the charity was helping to deliver the notorious WCA, which meant that it would be “complicit in the harm that is being done to disabled people”.

In a statement, the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts said: “DR UK’s involvement with Capita in putting personal independence payment in place certainly doesn’t seem to have worked to the benefit of disabled people, so their involvement in this doesn’t seem to offer any hope to claimants either, and is no doubt just another money-making venture.”

Pat Onions, founder of Pat’s Petition, said: “The news that DR UK will be working with Maximus is a huge shock to us all at Pat’s Petition and beyond.

“DR UK claims to represent disabled people and as such should have our interests at heart. We certainly don’t feel this is the case. We all feel betrayed.”

And Rick Burgess, co-founder of the campaigning organisation New Approach, said DR UK had “long been a source of despair” and that “to hear they will be helping Maximus sell their iteration of the WCA really only confirms the parlous state of establishment practice in regard to disabled people’s lives, which I would term institutionally ableist.

“I would say the establishment that implements the WCA and thus anyone who assists with that is part of an institutionally ableist agenda.”

DR UK claimed that it campaigns “vigorously” for “radical reform” to “both the content and the process of the WCA”.

Liz Sayce, chief executive of DR UK, said no agreement had been signed, although the charity had told Maximus before the contract was awarded that “we would potentially work with them”, while it had also talked to other companies bidding for the contract.

She said DR UK wanted to help provide “completely independent information and advice to disabled people” and improve the accessibility of the WCA process, although it would not be working in any way on the actual assessment itself.

She said: “We have a duty to disabled people, given the incredibly dehumanising and inaccessible processes that millions of disabled people are going through, to try to improve those issues.

“Literally millions of disabled people are going through it and we do believe there is a job to be done to make it less traumatic… and try to avoid some of those problems that people have been describing.”

She said that arguing that DR UK should not work with Maximus, because of its track record in the US, would imply that the company “should work with no disabled people’s organisations at all”.

She added: “Would that really further the interests of disabled people who are going through the process?”

30 October 2014