New official figures appear to have borne out fears that misleading information used by the IT company Atos to win a disability assessment contract would lead to longer queues for disabled benefit claimants.
Disability News Service (DNS) revealed last year that Atos Healthcare 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 the government’s new personal independence payment (PIP), which is replacing working-age disability living allowance (DLA).
Concerns about the Atos PIP tender document were first raised in a joint investigation by DNS and the disabled journalist Richard Butchins.
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.
Figures published this week by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) suggest that the lack of assessment centres in some parts of the country may have increased delays and backlogs.
Across Britain, since PIP was launched in April 2013, there have been 490,400 new claims – those not from people who already receive disability living allowance – registered with DWP.
Of these, 200,000 – or 41 per cent – have been dealt with through a decision to award PIP, not award PIP, or through the claim being withdrawn.
But in some parts of north London, almost as few as a quarter of new claims registered have been dealt with, including in Tottenham (26 per cent), Brent Central (26 per cent), and Islington South and Finsbury (26 per cent).
In Slough, about 20 miles west of London, which has no assessment centre, the “clearance rate” is 29 per cent. Claimants have to travel instead to Reading (15 miles away), Ealing (11 miles away) or Neasden (17 miles away).
Slough’s Labour MP Fiona Mactaggart has previously called for Atos to be stripped of the right to bid for government contracts because of its broken PIP pledges.
She said she was convinced that the lack of an assessment centre in Slough was one of the reasons for the low clearance rate.
She said: “One of the reasons people do miss appointments is because they can’t get to Reading. It is too expensive and all sorts of people have conditions which mean rail travel is very challenging.
“I speak to people who say they cannot possibly go to Reading because of their mobility issues, or because they are agoraphobic or they can’t afford to.
“This is supposed to be an independence payment, but the way it is administered means that people are excluded rather than included, and that is just shocking.
“In practice it reinforces dependency, exclusion and humiliation.”
DWP said it needed more time to check on the DNS claims.
The figures released this week leave many other questions unanswered, such as the average length of time it takes to reach an assessment centre for PIP claimants in different parts of the country, and the average waiting time from registering a PIP claim to the government making a decision on that claim.
18 September 2014