The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has admitted that its system for assessing disabled people for their eligibility for benefits is “fragmented” and “inefficient”.
The comments about the system were contained in documents shared earlier this year with companies seeking to win new assessment contracts from the department, and now released to Disability News Service (DNS) under the Freedom of Information Act.
Under the heading “why we need to change it”, one of the documents says there is a “lack of trust in the system” that is “exacerbated by a perceived lack of transparency in how decisions are reached and how evidence is collected and used”.
The DWP briefing document sent to would-be contractors describes the “fragmented, inefficient processes and ways of working, reliant on paper and clerical activity”, and points out that its assessment system currently relies on “multiple IT systems owned and operated by a number of suppliers”.
The assessment process – both for employment and support allowance (ESA) and personal independence payment (PIP) – has been linked to countless deaths of claimants and other serious harm over the last decade.
It has been repeatedly criticised, including through research and reports by disabled people’s grassroots groups, MPs and the National Audit Office.
Only last week, Channel 4’s Dispatches revealed the results of a survey of more than 3,500 disabled people who have been through the assessment system, which found that nearly a third of them (1,154 individuals) said their dealings with DWP had caused them to plan to take their own lives.
The survey was part of a documentary (see separate story), produced in association with DNS, which revealed how the system had led to the deaths of four disabled claimants.
And earlier this month, an expert who carried out two independent reviews of the ESA assessment system in 2013 and 2014 told MPs that the “operational” side of DWP had constantly resisted his ideas for improvements, and that the department was characterised by “inertia”.
The briefing document released to DNS, sent out to would-be assessment contractors in April, before the publication of a disability benefits green paper, provides details of the government’s plans for reforming the system, some of which have since been released or hinted at publicly by ministers.
It says the “long term intention” is to develop a single assessment service, supported by a “single, digital platform” owned by DWP that would “enable a more integrated claimant experience”.
The majority of the assessments dealt with through the service will be for ESA and the disability-related aspects of universal credit, through the work capability assessment (WCA), and for PIP, while the contractors will also be expected to assess disabled people for 14 “other smaller benefits”, such as the industrial injuries disablement scheme.
DWP has already announced that, from August 2023, the successful contractor in each of five regions will be carrying out all disability assessments – including those for both ESA and PIP – in that area.
The only exception is that PIP is being replaced in Scotland by the new adult disability payment, which will be run by the Scottish government.
The contracts will be split into northern England and Scotland; the Midlands and Wales; south-west England; London, south-east England and East Anglia; and Northern Ireland, which will be managed by Northern Ireland’s Department for Communities.
The contracts will be worth a total of £2.28 billion over five years.
The three current assessment providers – Atos, Maximus and Capita – have all faced significant and repeated criticism over their performance through the last decade.
DWP refused in the freedom of information response to name the organisations that have so far expressed an interest in tendering for the assessment contracts because it said this information was “commercially sensitive”, so it is not known which of the three current providers will be seeking new contracts.
Significant chunks of the documents released to DNS were redacted, for the same reason.
The tendering process should end with contracts being signed in September 2022, with the new providers taking over assessments from 1 August 2023.
The document also provides further details of the pilot programme that is testing how to bring the administration of the assessments into a new, single digital service.
The Departmental Transformation Area (DTA), where this is being built, tested and developed on a “small scale”, started dealing with claims in April across five north and north-east London postcode areas: E5, N2, N3, N4 and N6.
The pilot programme will not be completed by August 2023, but DWP says the new assessment contracts will be flexible enough to allow “any lessons learned” through the DTA to be implemented within the “lifetime” of the five-year contracts.
Another document released to DNS – sent to potential contractors in July – says that DWP does not expect “full roll out” of the single digital service until 2028.
While DWP works on its single digital service, it will provide one IT service for PIP assessments, and another for the WCA and “specialist benefits”.
July’s green paper strongly hinted at the need to cut spending on disability benefits so that the system could be “more affordable in the future”.
Work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey later admitted to DNS at her party’s annual conference in October that merging PIP with universal credit as a further cost-cutting measure was also “on the table”.
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