MPs are calling for an urgent government investigation into the use of “covert surveillance” of disabled people by the private sector companies paid to assess eligibility for disability benefits.
It comes in a report by the Commons work and pensions committee, following its lengthy inquiry into the assessment system.
The committee received anonymous accounts from disabled people claiming they had been “tricked or tested” by their assessors.
These included claimants who were made to park further away than necessary from the assessment centre to check how far they could walk, and lifts being placed out of order to force claimants to climb the stairs.
DWP told the committee that it has no policy that allows assessment providers Atos, Capita and Maximus to engage in “covert surveillance”.
But DWP guidance does allow assessors to make “informal observations” to check if there are any “discrepancies between the reported need and the actual needs of the claimant”.
The committee’s report says the evidence it heard suggests that, too often, DWP guidance is not followed correctly, which “points to fundamental weaknesses in the Department’s quality control over its contractors”.
Atos and Capita assess claimants for personal independence payment, and Maximus carries out work capability assessments.
The committee is now calling for an urgent government investigation into the use of covert surveillance by assessors, working alongside organisations that support claimants “to establish whether this practice is widespread” and with the three assessment providers “to ensure claimants are treated fairly and in line with the guidance”.
Last summer, the then minister for disabled people, Chloe Smith, promised to launch an urgent investigation after a committee member, Conservative MP Dr Ben Spencer, revealed that disabled people had disclosed to him their own experiences of covert surveillance.
One claimant told Spencer that lifts in the centre where they were assessed had been “deliberately” placed out of order to check whether disabled people could use the stairs, while another told him the healthcare professional who was carrying out the assessment had dropped a pen on the floor to see if they would pick it up.
A third claimant told Spencer that although there had been water available at the assessment centre, the water cooler did not have any cups, although the cooler at the end of the corridor did have cups.
Smith later wrote to the committee to ask Spencer to “provide more details of the assessment centres where the alleged activity occurred”, but he failed to co-operate with the investigation, claiming this was to protect the identity of the disabled people who had spoken to him.
A DWP spokesperson said in a statement: “This government is committed to ensuring people can access financial support in a timely and supportive manner and therefore reducing processing times and further improving the claimant experience are key priorities for the DWP.
“The proposals set out in our recent health and disability white paper will make it easier for people to access the right support and improve trust and transparency in our decisions and processes.”
Picture: Dr Ben Spencer and Chloe Smith at last summer’s evidence session
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