One of the two outsourcing giants that won contracts to assess people for the government’s new disability benefit could make a fifth of its assessment staff redundant, months after recruiting them to clear a huge claims backlog.
Capita has about 400 disability assessors, whose job is to test disabled people for their eligibility for personal independence payment (PIP), the replacement for working-age disability living allowance (DLA), and has warned about 80 are at risk of redundancy.
There was no public announcement of the likely job losses, which were only revealed after a furious assessor contacted Disability News Service (DNS).
Rachel* said Capita was “an absolute disgrace”, and that she and fellow assessors felt they had been “used and lied to continuously and treated appallingly” and had “worked extremely hard just to be cruelly discarded and subsequently unemployed”.
The gradual introduction of PIP began in April 2013, although its implementation has been hit by delays and backlogs – with some claimants waiting more than a year just to be assessed – and most existing DLA claimants will not be asked to apply until at least October 2015.
Last year, Capita embarked on a huge recruitment drive to cope with the delays, tempting many staff from stable jobs in the NHS with a promise of better conditions and long-term work.
At one point last summer, Capita was reportedly offering staff up to £300 per test – four times the initial rates – and encouraging them to carry out as many assessments as they could.
Rachel said she and colleagues believed that Capita “deliberately over-staffed to catch up with the backlog then just tossed us aside”.
She said: “None of us did this job for the money. We were all professionals that took great pride in our work and treated people with empathy and respect.
“We are all educated to degree level and I personally was hoping to do this work until I retired, after many years of working for the NHS.
“We were told during training that there was a minimum of five years’ work but this was obviously another untruth.
“I have personally received continued thanks from claimants for making the assessments understandable and less stressful, especially with mental health patients, which I find very rewarding.”
Capita originally claimed staff were being laid off because it had completely eliminated the backlog of claims across central England and Wales, where it has responsibility for delivering the assessments.
But it then amended its response and told DNS it had merely “made good progress” towards clearing its backlog.
The latest government statistics on PIP, published in December, showed only 352,100 new PIP claims were cleared by 31 October 2014, out of 592,900 applications since April 2013. And only 29,900 reassessments of DLA had been dealt with, out of 76,300 claims. This meant there was still a backlog of about 287,000 claims.
In September, the Conservative minister for disabled people, Mark Harper, told MPs that the government was “moving in the right direction” with the PIP delays and pledged that by the end of the year “no-one will have to wait more than 16 weeks for their assessment”.
A Capita spokeswoman said staff were told last Friday (16 January) that they were at risk of redundancy, although they “expect to lose less than 20 per cent of roles and hope to achieve much of this through redeployment, not issuing new contracts and normal attrition”.
She said: “Last year, it was very much heads down, trying to clear that backlog. We have made extremely good progress and we have now moved into ‘business as usual’ on PIP. That’s the reason behind the decision.”
She said that a review of its resources “suggests that Capita needs to reduce the number of disability assessors and support staff, as well as introduce a new type of disability assessor role to offer more flexibility to claimants and employees”.
“We are therefore consulting with impacted employees to discuss a range of options, including redeployment within Capita and transfer to similar roles on other, similar contracts.”
The position of the other contractor, Atos Healthcare, is not yet clear.
But there are now concerns about the speed with which Capita and Atos have been clearing the backlog.
Kate Green, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, has received figures from Harper showing nearly a third of 158,500 PIP claims turned down between April 2013 and October 2014 were rejected because the claimants had not returned their PIP2 forms in time.
Green fears the PIP system has been distorted by ministerial pressure to clear the backlog.
She said: “The government have admitted almost a third of disallowed PIP claims have been from people who did not submit information within DWP time limits.
“As a result, up to 48,000 people could have to reapply for PIP purely due to a bureaucratic side-shuffle.
“Ministers said they would tackle the backlog. But it does not help to force people out of the process only for the same people to make new claims and re-join the back of the queue.”
A DWP spokesman said that both Capita and Atos had “made good progress in reducing the backlog and improving processing times”, with new government figures due to be published on Wednesday (28 January), when Harper will also be giving evidence on PIP to the Commons work and pensions committee.
The DWP spokesman said Capita had “delivered a number of significant changes” to its PIP assessment operations, which had “provided better insight [into] the delivery model they require to ensure they meet and exceed their contractual obligations to the DWP”, and had led to Friday’s announcement.
He said the progress in reducing the backlog was “positive and good news for claimants”, with the number of claims processed increasing four-fold to 66,000 a month between January and October last year.
He said: “Returning the PIP2 within deadline is a legal requirement and not doing so will result in a claim being disallowed, but we have a process in place to provide additional support to those who need it and haven’t returned the form.
“This is not a case of ‘distorting’ the system – rather it’s about applying it correctly and in line with the law.”
He added: “Suggestions of people being ‘forced out’ of the process are without basis.
“In some cases a person may have failed to return their PIP2 because, having seen the questions on the form, they have concluded that PIP is not an appropriate benefit for them.”
Atos declined to comment on its own progress in addressing the PIP backlog.
*Not her real name
23 January 2015