The minister for disabled people has defended plans that will see huge private sector companies fighting over contracts to carry out the new medical assessments that will determine disabled people’s eligibility for vital benefits.
Maria Miller was speaking at a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on disability (APPDG), just four days after the Department for Work and Pensions published a list of the companies that are set to be approved to bid for the contracts.
Although the companies that have been approved will not be confirmed until 30 April, the preliminary list does include Atos Origin, which has faced widespread and angry criticism from disabled people over its delivery of “fitness for work” tests for the government.
The contracts to carry out the new assessment for the personal independence payment (PIP) – the replacement for working-age disability living allowance – have been split into four regional “lots”, with a fifth covering the whole of the UK.
Seven or eight companies are set to be approved to bid for each of the five contracts.
The companies include private sector outsourcing giants such as G4S – which sent its head of public affairs to the APPDG meeting as an observer, and is better known for providing security services – Capita, Vertex and Serco.
But Rahel Geffen, chief executive of Disability Action in Islington, warned Miller of the “horrific experiences” disabled people had had with Atos, and said she was shocked that the government was now giving the go-ahead to companies like G4S and Vertex.
She said: “I don’t care how good an occupational therapist is, if they are employed by these companies, I really think I have a problem telling service-users they are safe in the hands of their PIP assessors.”
Miller insisted that the use of such companies was “quite a usual way of doing things” and that “the only people who will carry out the assessments are people who are qualified and have the right training”.
She said that many of the companies that have “put themselves forward as part of the procurement process” already provide services in the health sector.
Geffen said after the meeting that she feared the process of contracting different providers would make it harder to hold companies to account for their performance in delivering the assessments.
Anne McGuire MP, Labour’s co-chair of the APPDG, had led a minute’s silence at the meeting in memory of Lord [Jack] Ashley, who died on Friday. Jack Ashley set up the group in 1969 when a Labour MP, and was its chair for 40 years.
26 April 2012