Disabled people have backed up an MP’s claims that government contractors are deliberately putting lifts out of order and attempting other “covert” attempts to trick claimants waiting to be assessed for their disability benefits.
Last week, Conservative MP Dr Ben Spencer said he had been told that staff working for government contractors were setting traps at assessment centres to try to test claimants’ mobility.
One claimant told him there had been water available at the assessment centre, but the water cooler did not have any cups, although the cooler at the end of the corridor did have cups; and another said the lifts at the assessment centre had been “deliberately” broken, to assess whether claimants were able to use the stairs.
He told the Commons work and pensions committee last week that a third claimant had told him the healthcare professional who was assessing them had dropped a pen to see if they would pick it up “as part of a covert assessment”.
The minister for disabled people, Chloe Smith, promised to carry out an urgent investigation into the claims, and confirmed that she did not recognise these tactics as legitimate parts of the assessment process.
The three private sector contractors that carry out the work capability assessment and the assessments for personal independence payment – Atos, Capita and Maximus – this week strongly denied all claims that any of their staff practise the “covert” tricks described by Dr Spencer.
But following a Disability News Service (DNS) report on last week’s evidence, disabled people have come forward to back up the allegations.
One claimant, M, said they had twice been told on the day of their Atos PIP assessment that the lift was out of order, and had been asked if they wanted to attend anyway.
On both occasions, after being told there were no ground floor rooms available, M said no.
But M also said they were asked leading questions by a member of Atos staff who was leaving for a lunchtime sandwich, and then returned, including quizzing them on whether the weather was better than the previous day.
M told DNS that another assessment centre, run by Maximus, deliberately placed the chairs with armrests, for those who need more support when sitting down, further away from the entrance, which they believed was another trick.
Another claimant, L, told DNS they had been told by an Atos assessor in about 2018: “There’s no available offices on the ground floor, let’s just got up here.”
The assessor then began to walk up the stairs.
When L failed to follow them, the assessor returned and suddenly found an empty ground floor office.
Despite her not falling for what she believes was an attempt to trick her, the assessment still initially led to her enhanced rates of PIP for both mobility and daily living being reduced to standard rates, before she won easily at a tribunal, following an “exhausting” appeal process.
Another claimant said on social media that the chair in the room where the assessment took place was put deliberately in a position where it had to be moved before they could sit down.
Even though they had not claimed they could not move a chair, it was noted in their assessment report that they had moved the chair.
Other claimants pointed out on social media how assessment companies used tactics that they considered were underhand.
One spoke of how one assessment company always seemed to ensure that the room where they were assessed was at the end of a long corridor, while others reported centres with no accessible parking spaces, or that had steps at its entrance.
Asked about the allegations passed on by Dr Spencer at last week’s committee meeting, all three of the assessment contractors denied any such tricks were being used by their staff.
A Capita spokesperson said: “We wholly reject these unevidenced and anonymous characterisations of PIP assessments and assessors.
“These allegations run counter to our values as a business and would breach the legislation all providers work within.
“We are proud of our assessors, who are all qualified medical workers, such as nurses.
“They use their professional judgement to take hundreds of prospective claimants through assessments every day, enabling claimants to get the support they need.”
A spokesperson for the US outsourcing giant Maximus, which carries out WCAs as the Centre for Health and Disability Assessments, said: “Any suggestion that these types of practices take place during the work capability assessment process are completely inaccurate.
“We are committed to delivering a sensitive and respectful service to all of our customers, allowing them to share fully how their health condition or disability impacts their day-to-day life.
“Our highly trained doctors, nurses and physios uphold the highest clinical and customer service standards.”
A spokesperson for Atos, which carries out PIP assessments under the name Independent Assessment Services, said: “The practices described are unacceptable to us and not something we employ in our consultation centres.”
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