The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been forced to abandon an investigation into claims that its contractors were carrying out covert attempts to trick benefit claimants, after the Tory MP who sparked the probe failed to co-operate.
Dr Ben Spencer, the Conservative MP for Runnymede and Weybridge, told a minister in July how staff working for its benefit assessment companies were setting traps at assessment centres to try to test claimants’ mobility.
He told Chloe Smith, the minister for disabled people at the time, that staff were deliberately putting lifts out of order and making other attempts to trick claimants waiting to be assessed for their disability benefits.
Smith promised to carry out an urgent investigation into his claims.
DWP has now told Disability News Service (DNS) – in response to a freedom of information request – that Smith wrote to the committee a month later asking Spencer to “provide more details of the assessment centres where the alleged activity occurred”.
She said she would instruct DWP officials to investigate the allegations if he passed on the information.
But DWP told DNS in its freedom of information response that – more than two months after Smith wrote to the committee – Spencer had failed to provide those details.
DWP added in the letter: “To date we have not received any further details from Dr Ben Spencer MP.
“Without this detail we have not been able to conduct any investigation, which is why we do not hold any information on the investigation, the steps to carry out such an investigation, what form it took and its progress/completion.”
Spencer, first elected in 2019, has so far refused to comment on his failure to provide the information.
A member of his staff said on Tuesday morning that Spencer would be able to comment “if you are able to share a copy of your article”.
When DNS explained that the news story had not yet been written, she claimed it was for the committee to respond to questions about “the publication of material from Committee enquiries”.
DNS explained that the enquiry related to a DWP investigation and not a committee inquiry, but she failed to respond further by noon today (Thursday).
Sir Stephen Timms, the Labour chair of the committee, had also failed to comment by noon today on Spencer’s failure to provide DWP with the information.
One disabled claimant had told Spencer that the lifts in the assessment centre had been “deliberately” broken, to assess whether claimants could use the stairs.
A second claimant told him that the healthcare professional who was carrying out the assessment had dropped a pen on the floor to see if they would pick it up “as part of a covert assessment”.
Another had told Spencer that there had been water available at the assessment centre he attended, but the water cooler did not have any cups, although the cooler at the end of the corridor did have cups.
Smith told the committee that these tactics were not 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 – have all strongly denied claims that any of their staff practise the “covert” tricks described by Spencer.
Picture: Dr Ben Spencer (left) and Chloe Smith at the evidence session in July
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