The three companies that carry out disability benefit assessments for the government have made almost no progress in the last year on alerting local authorities to concerns about claimants whose safety is at risk, according to a disabled campaigner.
Last year, freedom of information responses from more than a third of councils across England, Scotland and Wales showed that Atos, Capita and Maximus had made just four safeguarding referrals to those local authorities over the previous three years.
Now a fresh series of freedom of information requests has shown the three outsourcing giants appear to have taken barely any notice of those concerns.
Maximus healthcare professionals assess eligibility for employment and support allowance, while Capita and Atos carry out personal independence payment (PIP) assessments, and all of them carry out hundreds of thousands of face-to-face assessments every year.
But despite repeated warnings about the need to inform social services departments when there are clear and significant concerns about a claimant’s safety or welfare, they issued a total of just two referrals each during 2019 and the first month of 2020 across 89 councils.
The figures have been compiled by former safeguarding expert Mike Owen, and they relate to the 89 local authorities that have so far responded to his freedom of information requests.
This is nearly half of the local authorities across England, Wales and Scotland with social services responsibilities.
He said it was clear the three companies were “not doing enough” to safeguard the claimants they were assessing.
A Maximus spokesperson said in a statement: “We regularly make safeguarding referrals to GPs and the 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 fraction of local authorities and do not include referrals to other authorities.”
Owen said it was not appropriate to refer safeguarding concerns to a claimant’s GP because it could delay any urgent action.
Capita refused to comment on the new figures.
Atos said in a statement: “We take the safety of claimants seriously and follow DWP guidance which is to alert their GP to any concerns we identify.”
It was unable to point to this guidance by noon today (Thursday), after Owen questioned whether this claim matched the contents of DWP’s safeguarding guidance.
DNS reported last year that DWP 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”, staff 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”.
Atos claimed later this week that it had made five referrals between December 2019 and March 2020 to social services, which appear to be figures covering the whole of England, Wales and Scotland (about 200 councils), although it has declined to clarify this.
Last year, Owen’s figures showed the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) itself made referrals to just 25 councils over three years (out of the 80 councils that responded to his questions).
The latest figures show an improvement, with 32 of 89 councils receiving at least one safeguarding referral in 2019 and the first month of 2020.
In total, there were an estimated 152 safeguarding referrals by DWP to the 89 councils in 2019 and January 2020 (compared to 111 over three years last time)*.
In some areas, councils received a significant number of referrals from DWP, including 33 to Sunderland City Council, 22 to Sheffield City Council and 17 to Essex County Council.
DWP admitted last year that it had kept no central record of how many safeguarding referrals it made to local councils, because they were “made locally by staff on a case by case basis”.
DWP also pointed out last year that it did not know how or if each council recorded such data and therefore the freedom of information responses could not be an accurate portrayal of how many referrals were made.
And it said it had “clear guidance on making referrals to local authorities for all DWP staff dealing with claimants, to ensure vulnerable claimants get the support they need”.
Despite the improvement, Owen said he believed DWP had to do much more and that there was still a need for it to collate information on safeguarding referrals centrally to ensure accountability and transparency.
Because DWP is carrying out numerous urgent changes to the social security system, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and because it appears to have shown some improvement during 2019, DNS did not ask it for a fresh comment this year, but it did alert the department to this story.
*Exact figures are not possible as a small number of councils declined to give precise numbers if they had received a low number of referrals
Picture: Atos and Capita executives give evidence to a Commons committee in 2017
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