The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is set to hand profit-making organisations another £2 billion to assess disabled people for their benefits over just five years, government documents have revealed.
The new details are contained in a contract notice published by DWP last Friday, which provides fresh information about DWP’s plans for its assessment system over the five years from 2023.
Outsourcing companies will soon be submitting bids to win five regional contracts covering Great Britain and Northern Ireland, although one of those contracts will be managed by Northern Ireland’s Department for Communities.
The other contracts will be split into northern England and Scotland; the Midlands and Wales; south-west England; and London, south-east England and East Anglia.
The successful supplier in each region will be expected to carry out both personal independence payment (PIP) assessments and work capability assessments (WCAs), although in Scotland PIP will be replaced by the new adult disability payment, which will be run by the Scottish government.
As reported by Disability News Service (DNS) two months ago, DWP’s decision to commission a single supplier to provide all assessments in each part of the country means the discredited government contractor Atos could soon be carrying out “fitness for work” tests again.
Six years ago, Atos withdrew from its WCA contract following years of negative publicity and multiple links between the actions of the company and its staff and the deaths of disabled claimants.
Information released to DNS last year showed that, between April 2010 and April 2019, DWP paid its three PIP and WCA contractors – Atos, Capita and Maximus – nearly £2.3 billion over nine years, although significant sums were not spent on PIP assessments until 2014-15.
Atos, Maximus and Capita have all faced significant and repeated criticism over their performance through the last decade.
In 2018-19, the government paid the three contractors about £400 million.
The new contract notice shows that the new northern England and Scotland contract will be worth £648 million over five years; the Midlands and Wales contract will be worth about £475 million; the south-west England contract £340 million; the London, south-east England and East Anglia contract will be worth about £400 million; and the successful bidder for the Northern Ireland contract will be paid about £105 million.
These figures suggest that spending on assessments will not rise significantly and may even fall slightly in real terms.
This could be because of a greater use of virtual rather than face-to-face assessments, and an increasing proportion of assessments carried out only on the paperwork.
The government’s Shaping Future Support green paper suggested in July that DWP wanted to make greater use of “triaging”, making early decisions on more “straightforward” claims so claimants only have to go through face-to-face assessments “if absolutely necessary”.
It also said that it would test a simplified application process for those disabled people who are not terminally ill, but who have “severe and lifelong conditions that will not improve”, are “unlikely ever to work again”, and will “always need extra financial support to live independently”.
Both these moves could potentially cut the amount DWP will need to spend on the assessment process.
But the green paper also strongly hinted at the need to cut spending on disability benefits so that the system was “more affordable in the future”.
And work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey admitted to DNS at her party’s annual conference last month that merging PIP with universal credit as a further cost-cutting measure was also “on the table”.
Meanwhile, the new minister for disabled people, Chloe Smith, has provided further details about a pilot programme that is testing how to bring the services that deliver the WCA and PIP assessments into a new, single digital service, presumably in time for the start of the new contracts in 2023.
The assessments in the pilot area are being carried out by healthcare professionals employed by the Australian multinational outsourcing giant Advanced Personnel Management, whose founder Megan Wynne was described only last week as Australia’s newest billionaire after her company was floated on the Australian stock exchange.
Smith told her shadow, Labour’s Vicky Foxcroft, that the pilot was being carried out in a small area of north London, and currently involved 71 employment and support allowance claimants, 810 universal credit claimants and 1,422 PIP claimants.
DWP told DNS yesterday (Wednesday) that the claimants live in the E5, N2, N3, N4 and N6 postcode areas, which cover two areas of north and north-east London.
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