New government figures show that one in five decisions to find someone “fit for work” made by the company that carries out the controversial disability benefit test is wrong.
The statistics, released this week by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) show that “healthcare professionals” employed by Atos Healthcare are far more likely to make a mistake when finding someone fit for work than when finding someone not fit for work.
Of the claimants Atos found fit for work (for claims starting between October 2008 and November 2011), 20 per cent of those decisions were overturned either by DWP staff or appeal tribunals.
This means that, of the 771,100 people Atos decided were “fit for work”, 150,500 were later found – whether by DWP officials or a tribunal – to be eligible for employment and support allowance (ESA), the replacement for incapacity benefit.
Of those 150,500 people, 13,800 disabled people were placed in the support group, for those disabled people with the highest support needs, who are not expected to carry out any work-related activity at all.
But Atos has been much more accurate with its assessments when recommending that claimants should be placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG) – for those disabled people eligible for ESA but expected to move gradually towards work – with 97 per cent of its decisions found to be accurate, and when placing people in the support group (99 per cent accurate).
The figures suggest that Atos is straining to find as many disabled people fit for work as possible.
Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP and chair of the Commons work and pensions select committee, said: “This is evidence that whatever is happening, whether it is the contract [between Atos and DWP] that is at fault or indeed the way the [assessment] is being interpreted by Atos staff, they are getting it wrong in a very high proportion of cases.
“And to find out that almost 14,000 people were found fully fit for work when they should have been in the support group… that is a lot of people.”
An Atos Healthcare spokeswoman said: “All benefit decisions are made by the DWP. We apply their criteria and policy to all of the assessments we provide which is why they are in line with the final decisions made in the majority of cases.”
The DWP has so far not been able to say whether it is concerned by a failure rate of one in five.
But a DWP spokesman said: “As the table shows, 80 per cent of Atos fit for work recommendations are agreed with at the final outcome.
“The final outcome figures include both the decision maker making a different decision and the decision being overturned at a tribunal. Previous appeals figures have shown that, overall, 15 per cent of all fit for work decisions are overturned at a tribunal.
“Very few people would appeal a support group or WRAG decision, so there is bound to be a difference in the numbers.”
Atos has faced repeated complaints and protests by disabled activists over its performance in carrying out the contract to perform work capability assessments, first introduced in October 2008.
Campaigners and some Labour politicians have criticised Atos for finding many people with serious health conditions “fit for work”, and so ineligible for ESA.
Last month, the user-led grassroots campaigning organisation Disabled People Against Cuts held a week-long series of protests to complain at Atos’s sponsorship of the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
13 September 2012