The government has given a mixed response to a report by a committee of MPs that concluded that the disability benefit assessment system was being undermined by a “pervasive culture of mistrust”.
Ministers have agreed in their response to make the recording of personal independence payment (PIP) assessments “a standard part of the process”, because of the “lack of trust in the assessment process”.
They said they were “currently exploring potential options to test the recording of assessments, including video recording”.
The pledge was made in the government’s response to the work and pensions select committee’s report on disability assessments, which was published in February.
But they did not offer a similar promise with the work capability assessment – which tests eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits – where claimants can already ask to have their assessment recorded, although such requests are only “accommodated where possible”.
Ministers have rejected another recommendation, that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) should provide written copies of their assessment report to all claimants of PIP and employment and support allowance (ESA).
The committee had called for a copy of the reports to be sent to every claimant alongside the decision on their claim.
An investigation by Disability News Service (DNS) during 2017 produced hundreds of accounts from PIP claimants who described the dishonesty of written reports produced by healthcare professionals from government contractors Atos and Capita.
But those claimants only discovered how dishonest the assessors had been after they requested a copy of their reports.
Ministers say that providing claimants with the points they scored on each part of the WCA and PIP assessments, and “a summary of the reasons that informed our decision”, was “the best way to explain to claimants how a decision has been reached”, rather than “providing claimants with material that they do not want”.
Despite the sheer weight of an “unprecedented” response to the inquiry from claimants who had submitted evidence, with nearly 4,000 submissions from ESA and PIP claimants, the committee still backed away from concluding that there was dishonesty in the system.
Of 11 recommendations made by the committee in its February report, DWP appears to have rejected five, accepted four and partially accepted two more*.
Another recommendation ministers accepted was for DWP to commission and publish independent research into the impact of the ESA and PIP application and assessment process on claimants’ health, focusing initially on improvements to the claim forms.
Ministers say they will now commission research to identify “whether, how and what aspects of the ESA/PIP claim forms could have the potential to cause distress” and will then revise and amend the forms “in light of these findings”.
But they have rejected a key suggestion that the government should consider ditching Atos, Capita and Maximus – which delivers the work capability assessment – and move the assessments back “in house”.
Rejecting that suggestion, DWP said it would instead “continue to work closely with our current providers, and with any future providers to ensure we continue to make improvements”.
Philip Connolly (pictured), policy manager for Disability Rights UK, said: “Confidence in the assessment process for disability benefits is scant and threadbare.
“Given that, we welcome the government’s commitment to recording PIP assessments, which will help disabled people feel more positive about the accuracy of them.
“But we were very sorry to see the government refuse the recommendation that all claimants should be sent a copy of their assessment report as a matter of course.
“This would be a huge step forward in helping disabled people understand what is being said about them, and why, in relation to benefit claims.
“Overall, the current assessment providers offer poor value for money for the tax payer and we urge the government to consider very seriously the option of returning the assessment process in house, given the contracts are up for review.”
He also pointed out that PIP and ESA were “not well-designed benefits, and fail to meet the needs of many disabled people” and that there are “wider issues which need to be addressed” other than the assessment processes.
Margaret Greenwood, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, said the government’s response “falls far short of the urgent action needed to end the unnecessary stress and anxiety being inflicted through both the ESA and PIP assessment processes”.
She said: “Under private contractors these processes are getting worse, not better, often damaging the health and well-being of the very people who need support.
“The government should scrap the current assessment regime, put an end to the privatisation and work to deliver a social security system in which people can have confidence.
“Labour will replace this failing system with personalised, holistic support, responsive to individual needs.”
Frank Field, who chairs the committee, said that recording PIP assessments as a standard procedure was “a tremendous step forward” and “should go a long way to restoring trust and driving up the quality of assessments”, while the commitment to improve the “gruelling” application forms was “also very welcome”.
But he said the government response “falls short in several areas”, including its refusal to provide assessment reports alongside all PIP and ESA decisions, and he said the committee was “concerned that the government lacks the levers to get value for money out of its private contractors”.
*DWP’s response was not always clear whether it accepted or rejected some of the recommendations