The proportion of disabled people stuck in the queue to be assessed for the government’s new disability benefit is more than five times higher in parts of the country managed by Atos Healthcare, Disability News Service (DNS) can reveal.
Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures produced in response to a DNS freedom of information request show that nearly a third of new personal independence payment (PIP) claimants in Atos areas – Scotland, the north of England, London and southern England – waited longer than 20 weeks for a decision.
This compares with only six per cent of claimants in those parts of the country – Wales, central England and Northern Ireland – managed by rival outsourcing company Capita.
On 31 March 2015, there were 22,000 new PIP claimants who had been waiting longer than 20 weeks for a decision in Atos areas. This was 32 per cent of those waiting for an Atos assessment.
But on the same date, there were just 500 new PIP claimants who had been waiting longer than 20 weeks for a decision on their claim in Capita-run parts of the country. This was just six per cent of those waiting for a Capita assessment for PIP, which is replacing working-age disability living allowance.
Until now, it has been unclear which of the two companies was most to blame for the huge delays and backlogs that have blighted the PIP assessment system since it was launched in April 2013.
The figures raise fresh questions over the decision of work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith to award two PIP assessment contracts to Atos when the company had been heavily and repeatedly criticised over its failings in delivering the “fitness for work” test, the work capability assessment (WCA).
It was allowed to pull out early of its WCA contract after being hounded by disabled campaigners (pictured, a protest against the WCA and Atos in 2013) and MPs over its performance.
Activists had pointed to links between the way Atos carried out the WCA – now carried out by the equally controversial contractor Maximus – and relapses, episodes of self-harm, and even suicides and other premature deaths among those being assessed.
The PIP figures appear to have borne out fears raised in an investigation in 2013 by DNS and the disabled journalist Richard Butchins.
That investigation suggested that misleading information used by Atos to win the two PIP assessment contracts would lead to longer queues for claimants.
DNS revealed in 2013 that Atos had broken a series of firm pledges that helped it win a £184 million contract to assess people across London and the south of England for PIP.
Atos had promised to provide 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.
This meant thousands of disabled people faced longer delays in being assessed, and longer and more complicated journeys to reach their assessments, often by inaccessible public transport.
There were particular concerns that Atos had not provided a single PIP assessment centre across a vast sweep of north London.
This week, Atos said it was unable to explain why the proportion of claimants waiting longer than 20 weeks in its parts of the country was so much higher than in Capita areas.
An Atos spokeswoman said: “I am not going to go into comparisons, because I can’t do that. I don’t know anything about the Capita account.”
She also said DWP had “made clear” it had not been misinformed about the number of assessment sites it would provide.
She said: “We completely refute any allegation of misinformation during the procurement process for personal independence payment.”
An Atos spokesman said in an earlier statement that the “average” wait time for its part of the PIP assessment process had fallen since 31 March 2015 and was now “around six weeks”.
He said: “We are sorry that anyone has had to wait for their PIP claim and we, along with all other parties involved, have been clear that this has been unacceptable.
“We have done all we can to reduce delays quickly, whilst also making sure that we give each individual the time they need during an assessment.”
Capita had not responded to a request for a comment by 10pm tonight (Thursday).
DWP has refused to comment.