Disabled activists have raised concerns about the human rights record of the outsourcing company that defeated Atos in the battle for a multi-million-pound disability benefits assessment contract.
Disability News Service (DNS) reported last week that the government decision to award Serco the final regional contract – worth £338 million over five years – meant an end to 20 years of Atos delivering assessments on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Atos earned more than £465 million over seven years from delivering work capability assessments (WCAs) before it withdrew from the contract in 2015, following years of negative publicity and multiple links between its actions and the deaths of disabled claimants.
Its healthcare professionals have also repeatedly been accused of dishonesty in the provision of personal independence payment (PIP) assessments.
But disabled activists have this week questioned Serco’s credentials and whether it is an appropriate organisation to be carrying out assessments of disabled people, many of whom will be in significantly vulnerable situations.
They highlight how Serco has made millions delivering Home Office contracts to provide asylum accommodation, and particularly how it was linked to an abuse scandal at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre in Bedfordshire.
Serco insisted this week that it would with treat disabled claimants with care and would provide high quality assessments, and that it was proud of its “good track record of delivery”.
Under the new Functional Assessment Service being developed by DWP, Serco will now carry out both PIP assessments and WCAs in the south-west of England from September 2024, although a Conservative government will eventually phase out WCAs if it wins power at the next general election.
But DNS has spoken this week to the grassroots disabled women’s organisation WinVisible about its concerns over Serco’s track record.
Claire Glasman, co-founder of WinVisible, told DNS this week: “They were telling us that at Yarl’s Wood this predatory regime of sexual abuse by their guards was allowed to continue for many years.
“We are worried that Serco will have the same contempt for claimants that they showed to the women in detention.
“We have many women in our group who are refugee women and many women claim disability benefits because we are survivors of traumatic experiences: war, rape, abuse as children, various traumatic things.
“We are worried that they are just going to be contemptuous of claimants in the same way as they were with the immigration detention.”
She said she believed that Serco would be “no improvement on Atos”.
Rebecca Yeo, spokesperson on refugees for Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), also raised concerns about Serco.
She said: “Serco’s past failure to respect the human rights of disabled people must cast doubts on whether they are a suitable organisation to be delivering assessments in a situation where we know claimants’ rights have repeatedly been breached over very many years.
“Serco are already making millions from their Home Office contracts to provide asylum accommodation.
“The company profits from providing substandard accommodation and depriving people of access to some of the most basic human needs.
“Now the company’s reach is being extended yet further to have even greater impact on the wider population of disabled people.”
Announcing its success in securing the assessment contract, Serco’s group chief executive, Mark Irwin, said last week: “We will focus on ensuring all claimants are treated with care and respect and our employees are fully supported and trained to provide high quality and consistent health assessments.”
A Serco spokesperson told DNS this week that Serco delivered services in 20 countries and across five sectors and was proud of its “good track record of delivery”.
He said: “We are committed to looking after the people in immigration removal centres with dignity and respect during what is an extremely difficult period in their lives.
“Wherever complaints or allegations are raised they are thoroughly investigated and, if appropriate, actions taken.
“We have not had a substantiated allegation of sexual abuse at Yarl’s Wood since 2012.”
He added: “Serco provides accommodation for asylum seekers on behalf of the Home Office in two of the six regions of the UK.
“Our teams are committed to supporting the asylum seekers accommodated by Serco with compassion, dignity and respect.
“All the accommodation we provide is regularly inspected and complies with the terms of our contract with the Home Office and with all appropriate housing standards.
“As with any housing, faults do occur. These are repaired by our teams in line with our contract, which sets strict time limits for the completion of repairs.”
He said Serco would draw on its “existing knowledge and capabilities supporting the DWP and partner with existing supply chain providers in the region.
“We will also draw on our international expertise in this area of work, including managing a large workforce of health professionals in support of the Australian Defence Force, delivering the National Disability Enquiry Service in Australia, and supporting eligibility determinations for citizens in the US under the country’s Affordable Care Act.”
He added: “In the development of our proposals to the DWP we proactively sought to engage with disabled people’s organisations, advocacy groups and people with lived experience to look to address some of the challenges faced by people going through the process to ensure this fed into a better claimant experience and to build a more appropriate solution.
“This included using universal design principles to make the services easier to access and navigate the system, both physically and digitally.”
But there are other concerns about Serco’s track record in the UK and internationally.
In 2019, the company was fined more than £19 million after admitting fraudulently understating profits from Ministry of Justice electronic tagging contracts.
Serco said this week that this “related to issues from 2013 and before” and that it “undertook an extensive corporate renewal programme”, and the company “today bears no relation to that at the time with processes, culture, management, and governance all considerably strengthened”.
There are also historic concerns over Serco’s actions at detention centres in Australia, including allegations of excessive force and harassment.
A Serco spokesperson said: “All Serco employees working in immigration detention in Australia are bound by local law, the Australian Public Service code of conduct and Serco’s own code of conduct.
“We take any complaints or reports of inappropriate activity seriously.
“Alleged breaches are investigated, and appropriate action taken, including reporting to the Australian Border Force and legal authorities.”
Although this is Serco’s first benefit assessment contract in the UK, it has secured other DWP contracts, including delivering employment programmes such as Restart.
Last year, DNS reported how Serco – which was running a DWP helpline – told a disabled patient to leave hospital to visit a jobcentre when he was severely ill with a condition that later killed him and who was “very vulnerable to infection”.
DWP later claimed it had not been aware of the severity of his illness at the time.
Meanwhile, DPAC and allies will be protesting outside DWP’s Caxton House offices in Westminster from noon on Monday (30 October) over “horrendously dangerous” government proposals to tighten the WCA.
The protest takes place on the final day of a DWP consultation on its plans, which DPAC says will lead to many disabled people losing both out-of-work disability benefits and protection from conditionality and sanctions.
Under the plans, DWP would no longer take any account of whether a disabled person has a mobility impairment when deciding if they are fit for work or work-related activity.
Ministers are also suggesting removing the absence of bowel or bladder control, the inability to cope with social interaction, and the inability to access a location outside the claimant’s home, from the list of activities and “descriptors” used in the WCA.
They have argued that the “rise in flexible working and homeworking” provides “new opportunities for disabled people to manage their conditions in a more familiar and accessible environment”.
They are also considering removing protective guidance which states that a claimant should be found eligible for the highest rate of support – with no conditions or potential sanctions – if work or work-related activity would create a substantial risk to their health.
Picture by Google
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