At least one of the private sector companies delivering the government’s new disability assessment has already been financially punished for falling below the required standards, just months after the programme was launched.
Members of the work and pensions select committee were told of the fine as they heard evidence for the first time from Mike Penning, the new Conservative minister for disabled people.
He admitted there had been problems with the performance of both Atos Healthcare and Capita – the two providers – in delivering the assessment for the new personal independence payment (PIP).
And when Labour MP Glenda Jackson told him that “the real burden is being borne by the claimant”, Penning said the only way to improve that situation was to “hold the contractors’ feet to the fire”.
He told the committee: “The one thing they do not like is me instructing my civil servants to invoke penalty clauses.”
When Jackson asked when this would happen, he replied: “Well, it’s happening now.”
But when Disability News Service tried to confirm afterwards which of the two contractors had been fined, a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokesman declined to clarify the position.
He said: “The PIP contract contains service-level expectations, and credits are applied if providers fail to meet these standards.
“What the minister said during the committee stands and we won’t be commenting further on these commercial matters.”
Penning’s evidence confirmed reports by DNS of lengthy delays, both in parts of the country where assessments are carried out by Atos and in those where Capita are assessing claimants.
Penning said he had made the decision in October to delay the rollout of the new benefit – which was launched this April – because he was “concerned about quality… and I wanted to make sure we were getting the decisions right”.
He said there had been particular concerns with assessments in areas covered by Atos, already notorious for its failings in delivering the assessment for out-of-work disability benefits.
Penning said: “I do appreciate that it is hard for people waiting for a decision and I am personally driving as hard as I can to get the decisions made quicker but to get them right.”
He also said he intended to bring in the “top bods” from both Capita and Atos to “talk to them about compassion”.
And he spoke of complaints from his constituents in Hemel Hempstead that they were just treated “like a number” when they asked for information about the state of their claim.
Committee members told him of their own constituents who had waited months for their claims to be dealt with, while others had not received letters telling them of their assessment until it was too late to attend.
The Conservative MP Nigel Mills said that some of his constituents were finding it difficult to arrange assessments with Capita, and that “when you do it gets cancelled and then you can’t get another one booked”.
He said: “It’s extremely hard to get any information out of Capita about what is going on and when they can fix these problems.”
Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP who chairs the committee, said that one of her constituents had started a PIP claim in June but had still not had a decision.
Jason Feeney, benefits director at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), told the committee that some terminally-ill claimants had had “awful experiences” with delays in the early days of the new benefit, although most such claims were now being dealt with within 16 days.
But Feeney also said that there had not been many complaints about the way claimants were being treated during the assessment, or the nature of the test itself.
The committee also heard the first figures showing how many people were being awarded the new benefit.
Of about 200,000 PIP claims lodged since April, only 30,000 decisions have been made by DWP, with about half of those successful in their claim.
But the committee was told that these were probably not typical figures, as more than half of the claims that have been decided have been for people with terminal illness.
Feeney also told the committee that there had so far been “very small numbers” of appeals, which he said reflected the care taken in designing the assessment and training DWP decision-makers, although Penning warned that it was too early to draw any firm conclusions.
The minister also confirmed that the government still intended that 55 per cent of the current 1.75 million DLA claimants would either receive a lower award or lose their benefit entirely once they had all been reassessed.
Most existing DLA claimants will not be reassessed until 2015 at the earliest.
12 December 2013