A court has forced a discredited government contractor to pay £2,500 compensation to a disabled woman, after a negligent disability benefit assessment left her in debt and experiencing significant mental distress.
Atos, which failed to defend the case, originally ignored the order to pay the compensation awarded by the county court but was eventually forced to pay up after being visited by debt enforcement officers.
Rebecca*, from Stockton-on-Tees, had decided to seek compensation from Atos for negligence and a failure of its duty of care because of the two-year ordeal she was put through after a face-to-face personal independence payment (PIP) assessment in April 2018.
The assessment led to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) removing all her PIP daily living support, which meant she also lost linked benefits including severe disability premium and council tax discount, although she did continue to receive a payment for PIP mobility.
She and her partner, John, who had accompanied her to the assessment, had been astonished when they read the report written by the nurse who assessed her.
Rebecca had described in detail the impact on her daily life of epilepsy and a resulting heart condition, anxiety, depression and memory problems.
She had told the nurse how she cannot manage her own medication, needs independent living aids to dress and wash, forgets what she has read before finishing a passage, needs help to pay her bills, and becomes anxious when mixing with people she does not know.
But despite the oral and written evidence she provided, the nurse assessor awarded her zero points for the daily living component of PIP.
Fortunately, John had recorded the assessment using specialist equipment he had provided himself – although Atos had twice forced Rebecca to postpone the test because the assessor was apparently not “qualified” to be recorded – and he says the recording showed how the nurse repeatedly misreported the information she was told.
Despite the recording being available to DWP, a mandatory reconsideration confirmed the decision to remove the daily living part of Rebecca’s PIP claim.
The decision plunged her into debt and left her needing counselling.
When her case was finally heard by an appeal tribunal in December 2019, the panel listened to the recording of the assessment and compared it with the nurse’s written report, and found unanimously in Rebecca’s favour.
They restored her entitlement to the enhanced daily living component of PIP, and extended her award to 2023. She was already in the support group of employment and support allowance.
It was the third time Rebecca had been forced to appeal to a tribunal after an inaccurate Atos assessment and DWP decision on her claim.
She eventually received a payment from DWP for the arrears she was owed for unpaid PIP and severe disability premium.
Even then, she was called for another face-to-face assessment just days later, and had to rely on an intervention from her MP, Alex Cunningham, to secure an admission from DWP that her PIP award was now not due to end until 2023, and an apology “for any distress the confusion may have caused”.
Rebecca said this week that she was angry and frustrated at “having to explain every two to three years that my epilepsy is a chronic condition, with no known cure, and how it effects my day-to-day existence, while knowing that whatever I say I will once again have to go through another appeal and tribunal.
“The whole process of PIP assessments leaves me traumatised, humiliated, fearful and in a state of anxiety.”
She and her partner were so angry at the treatment she had received that they decided to seek damages through the county court system for the “mental distress, anxiety and hardship” the assessor had caused, and when Atos failed to defend the claim, the court awarded her compensation.
The court awarded her compensation at eight per cent of the arrears she had been owed, as well as another £1,000 in damages.
But Atos failed to pay the compensation and so John arranged for enforcement officers to visit the company’s offices in London.
The extra costs of paying for the enforcement officers meant Atos’s final bill for the negligent assessment reached about £4,500.
An Atos** spokesperson said this week: “We do not comment on individual cases.”
A DWP spokesperson declined to say if the case showed there were still problems with many assessors failing to carry out PIP assessments accurately and honestly, and with the overall PIP assessment system.
He also failed to say why the DWP decision-maker did not listen to the recording of the assessment at the mandatory reconsideration stage, even though Rebecca was claiming the assessor had lied in her assessment report.
He declined to apologise to Rebecca for her lengthy ordeal.
But he said in a statement: “We’re committed to making sure that people receive the support they are entitled to.
“Decisions are made using all the information that’s available to us at the time, including from a person’s GP or medical specialist.
“If someone disagrees with that decision then they have the right to ask for a review, as was the case here with [Rebecca].
“We have apologised to [Rebecca] for incorrectly scheduling a further assessment for her PIP claim. Her award remains in place until June 2023.”
John also lodged a complaint with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), but it has refused to launch a full investigation into the nurse’s conduct.
NMC told him the allegations were that the nurse had “failed to consider a substantial amount of medical evidence which had been provided, had failed to request any medical evidence and completed an incorrect assessment”, while her report was “negligently prepared” and she had “failed in her duty of care”.
It concluded that the allegations were so serious they could result in harm to patients if not put right.
But NMC was unable to obtain a copy of the recording of the assessment from Atos, while Rebecca’s copy had been destroyed by the tribunal after the hearing for data protection reasons.
NMC concluded that it was unable to prove the allegations and so would not investigate further.
John said he hoped the action they had taken would “do some good for some other person in the same position as Rebecca”.
He said: “Our last experience was just the last straw and I thought I’d have to try to do something about it.
“I feel many people who are successful at a tribunal would also be able to do this and get reimbursed for their poor treatment.
“If Atos or Capita had to be financially responsible for their actions, they may be a bit more particular with the process.”
Meanwhile, the minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson, has confirmed that Atos’s two PIP assessment contracts, and the contract for American outsourcing giant Maximus to carry out work capability assessments, will be extended until 2023 because of the pandemic.
DWP had been due to retender the contracts, with the successful providers due to take over from 1 August this year.
But Tomlinson told Vicky Foxcroft, the shadow minister for disabled people, on Monday that the “impact of COVID-19 meant that it was not possible to launch that procurement”.
This means, he said, that the Atos and Maximus contracts will be extended by two years, while negotiations were ongoing with Capita over a similar extension to its PIP assessment contract.
DWP published its intention to extend the contracts last July.
*Not her real name
**Atos delivers its PIP assessment contracts through Independent Assessment Services, a trading name of Atos IT Services UK
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