A trio of outsourcing companies that have faced repeated criticism over their links to deaths and serious harm caused to disabled benefit claimants have made almost no attempts in the last year to alert local authorities to serious safeguarding concerns.
Responses from about 120 local authorities show that Atos*, Capita and Maximus** between them contacted the councils just eight times in total between January 2020 and February 2021 with safeguarding concerns about the disabled people they were assessing, despite carrying out hundreds of thousands of assessments during that period.
Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) guidance says its own staff should contact social services or the police if they believe a claimant faces a significant risk of injury or abuse.
The figures have come from disabled campaigner and former safeguarding expert Mike Owen, who collected them through freedom of information requests to every relevant local authority across England, Scotland and Wales.
It is the third year that Owen has collated the statistics, and this year about 120 local authorities responded with figures.
Although face-to-face assessments have been suspended for much of the relevant time period because of the pandemic, paper, telephone and even video assessments have still been taking place.
Atos and Capita have been continuing to carry out assessments for personal independence payment (PIP) and Maximus has been conducting work capability assessments to test eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits.
But between January 2020 and February 2021, Atos made just one safeguarding referral, Capita four and Maximus three to the local authorities that provided figures to Owen.
Between them, the three companies have been paid more than £2.5 billion by DWP to carry out benefit assessments since 2010.
DWP itself appears to be continuing to make slow progress on safeguarding, with the local authorities reporting 225 referrals from the department in their responses to Owen.
This compares with 111 referrals from DWP in the three years to February 2019 across 80 local authorities.
Many of the DWP referrals in the last year were made to a small number of councils, such as Sunderland (30), Bristol (18), South Tyneside (22) and Stoke-on-Trent (14), although the reason for these safeguarding clusters is unclear.
DWP offices in other areas still appear not to be carrying out their safeguarding duties, with no referrals to Nottingham City Council, none to Warwickshire County Council, and just one to Liverpool City Council.
DWP’s own internal guidance says that if a claimant who is at greater than normal risk of abuse or neglect “faces clear and significant risks to their welfare or safety”, such as the risk of injury, ill-treatment, abuse, neglect or exploitation, staff should “take any reasonable steps which [they] feel are necessary in order to address these risks… without any undue delay”.
The guidance adds: “You should volunteer information which is directly relevant to the issue of concern to Social Services, Social Work Department in Scotland or the police, as appropriate, without the customer’s or individual’s consent.”
As well as about 120 councils that have provided details of which organisations made safeguarding referrals to them, about another 50 declined to do so, usually on the grounds of cost or because they do not record the source of safeguarding referrals.
Owen believes there needs to be an inquiry into the lack of referrals from assessment providers, particularly because of the years of evidence that show how much harm can be caused to disabled people during the assessment process.
He said: “I will not stop collating this information on a yearly basis because it is just another way in which the DWP can be held accountable and I believe that we all deserve to be protected from harm.”
Capita refused to comment or answer questions about the figures.
Atos refused to confirm the content of its staff safeguarding guidance and whether it followed DWP’s internal guidance.
But in response to the figures showing just one safeguarding referral to about 120 local authorities, an Atos spokesperson said in a statement: “Working closely with the Department for Work and Pensions we are committed to safeguarding and carry out wide-ranging activities in support of best practice.
“A significant number of safeguarding referrals to social services have in fact been recorded over this period.”
But he refused to say what he meant by “significant” and whether this included those referrals made by DWP.
A Maximus spokesperson refused to confirm the content of its staff safeguarding guidance and whether it followed DWP’s internal guidance.
But in response to the figures showing just three referrals to about 120 local authorities, he said in a statement: “We make safeguarding referrals to GPs, the emergency services and other appropriate authorities, in line with our safeguarding policy.
“All of our doctors, nurses and physiotherapists are trained to identify safeguarding concerns and refer them appropriately.
“We do not recognise the figures that Disability News Service has provided, which only cover a proportion of local authorities and do not include other authorities that we refer to.”
DWP was unable to respond in detail because of the pre-election period, but it said: “While the department does not have a statutory safeguarding duty, we engage with, and can help direct our claimants to agencies where appropriate, including the police, local authorities and social services who have a duty of care and can provide appropriate support.”
*Atos delivers its PIP assessment contracts through Independent Assessment Services, a trading name of Atos IT Services UK
**Maximus delivers its WCA contract through the Centre for Health and Disability Assessments
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