Questions have been raised over a government minister’s failure to listen to serious concerns about the controversial “fitness for work” test.
The concerns emerged after the airing of two prime-time television documentaries this week, both focusing on the operation of the test used to assess eligibility for the new out-of-work disability benefit, employment and support allowance (ESA).
A Channel 4 investigation through its Dispatches strand on Monday evening was immediately followed by a Panorama expose on BBC Two, and both heavily criticised the work of Atos Healthcare, the company which carries out the work capability assessments (WCA) for the government.
Panorama interviewed several disabled people who had been found “fit for work” following WCAs carried out by Atos “health professionals”, despite serious health conditions.
Among those interviewed was the family of a man with a heart condition who was found fit for work, successfully appealed against that decision, but was then called in for another assessment.
His family told how, on learning that he had been found fit for work a second time, he had decided Atos must be right and had vacuumed his car, before collapsing and dying minutes later.
During the programme, Chris Grayling, the Conservative employment minister, said it had become clear “in the last few months” that the government had been “calling people back too regularly” for assessments, and so he had told civil servants to “make sure we leave a much more sensible interval”.
But Grayling’s admission has been called into serious question by two leading Labour MPs.
The disabled MP Dame Anne Begg said the work and pensions committee that she chairs told Grayling in the spring of 2011 of its concerns that people who had won appeals against being found fit for work were then almost immediately called in for another WCA.
She has recently received an email from a man with Huntington’s disease who had been called in for his third assessment in three years, was “absolutely feeling persecuted”, and has been told by Atos that if he fails to fill in the necessary form his ESA will be stopped.
The Labour and Co-op MP Tom Greatrex, who has led moves in the Commons to probe Atos’s performance through scores of written questions to ministers, said he had been raising concerns about repeat assessments since last year.
Greatrex said: “It is wrong for Chris Grayling to claim he is only now being made aware of this problem.
“I met him last year [on 7 December], along with Parkinson’s UK, to highlight concerns that people were being trapped in a seemingly never-ending cycle of assessment-appeal-reassessment.
“For many people with progressive incurable conditions they are never going to get better.
“The continuous reassessment is a waste of their time and energy, as well as a waste of taxpayer money.”
A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokeswoman said: “We are aware that very shortly after appeal, some individuals are being asked to attend a reassessment.
“We have strengthened guidance to ‘decision makers’ to ensure claimants are recalled after appropriate periods of time and are working to get better feedback from the Tribunals Services on their reasons for overturning decisions.”
But DWP has so far been unable to say why Grayling has taken so long to respond to the concerns.
The Dispatches programme, which was watched by 1.3 million people, followed a GP as he trained to become an assessor for Atos.
His Atos trainer was shown admitting that the WCA was “toxic” and “very, very tough”.
She then warned the GP that any assessor who allowed too many disabled people to join the ESA support group – for those not expected to carry out any work-related activity – would be told this rate was “too high”.
Campaigners pointed to the admission as proof that Atos had been given targets for the number of disabled people it should find “fit for work”, a claim the Department for Work and Pensions continues to deny strenuously, although it says Atos has “contractual arrangements they need to adhere to in terms of quantity and quality”.
Dame Anne said she was “shocked” by some of the statements made by the Atos trainer and her apparent “harsh interpretation” of the WCA rules.
She said: “It gives the lie to the assertion that those who are most disabled are protected and have nothing to fear.”
She said DWP must investigate the training being given to new Atos assessors to find out “whether it is so harsh and unforgiving and unbending as it appeared in Dispatches”.
Atos this week refused to answer a series of questions from Disability News Service (DNS) about the two documentaries, declining to say which key facts and conclusions it disputed.
An Atos spokeswoman instead emailed a statement, which claimed the company spends “a great deal of time and resource in training and reviewing the work of our medical professionals to ensure that those assessed are treated both professionally and sympathetically”.
She said: “It is important to underline that the assessment forms an important but single part of the information used by the DWP when it makes its decisions on benefits.”
She refused to say whether Atos was investigating any of the issues raised by the two programmes.
2 August 2012