Contractors likely to be bidding for new five-year contracts to test eligibility for disability benefits are still producing a “shockingly high” number of sub-standard assessment reports, nine years after they first won contracts to carry them out.
An audit of assessment reports written by outsourcing giants Atos and Capita shows that more than one in five (22 per cent) had to be amended because of significant flaws.
Another 2.4 per cent were found by the August 2022 audit to be so flawed that they were considered “unacceptable”.
The two companies need to ensure that fewer than three per cent of assessments are found unacceptable to meet the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) contractual requirement.
In all, only 66 per cent of assessment reports reached the highest A grade, with another nine per cent classed as acceptable but requiring “learning” from the assessor, and 22 per cent seen as acceptable but still needing amendment.
The audits were carried out by DWP, even though the audit process is described by the department as “independent”, with the figures obtained through a freedom of information request.
Further figures obtained through a parliamentary question by Labour’s Kate Osamor found that – through 2021-22 as a whole – both Atos and Capita failed to meet the three per cent target, with the DWP audit finding 3.1 per cent of the assessments carried out by each company were of an “unacceptable” standard.
Atos and Capita are both likely to be among companies bidding for a share of £2.8 billion to carry out health and disability benefit assessments across five areas of the UK over five years from April 2024*, in a long-delayed process that is likely to see the new providers announced in the next couple of months.
When they are awarded, the contracts will see a single supplier providing both WCAs and PIP assessments in each of the five areas.
This could mean Atos once again carrying out WCAs, eight years after it withdrew from the contract following years of negative publicity and links between its actions and the deaths of disabled benefit claimants.
The audit results also show that just 80 per centre of assessments carried out by DWP’s third provider – Maximus – were considered to have “fully conformed” to the company’s professional standards.
Maximus carries out work capability assessments, testing eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA) and the equivalent element of universal credit.
Another 4.8 per cent of Maximus assessments – just inside the contractual requirement of five per cent – were found to have failed to meet “key requirements”.
Campaigner John Slater, who has spent years using freedom of information laws to hold DWP to account for its failings, said he believed the proportion of PIP assessment reports that needed to be amended by Capita and Atos remained “shockingly high”.
He said this level of flawed reports could partly explain the high rate of success of PIP tribunal appeals.
He told Disability News Service: “The fact that only two-thirds of reports are considered acceptable [at the highest quality level] in the audit after both contractors have been doing the job for so long and have probably bid for the next contract is worrying from my perspective.
“With the changes that will be required for the new assessment regime why should the public have any confidence that either Atos or Capita will be up to the job?”
He said similar figures for Maximus suggested a “significant number” of claimants will have been refused benefits because of flawed reports, which again “may go some way to explaining the high appeal success rates” for ESA and the disability-related part of universal credit.
Slater said: “It remains deeply disappointing that Atos, Capita and Maximus appear unable to produce accurate, high-quality reports that impact the lives of so many people.
“Given that all three of these multinationals are likely to be bidding for parts of the new £2.8 billion assessment contracts it seems that failure is not a bar to be awarded massive public sector contracts.”
He also said that the decision of disabled people’s minister Tom Pursglove to describe the audits as “independent” in his response to Osamor was “potentially misleading”, as the department has previously admitted to him that the audits are carried out by DWP.
Buckinghamshire Disability Service (BuDS) said: “It’s important to note that the DWP’s contract requirements are pretty basic and set a low bar for quality.”
BuDS said that the figure of 34 per cent of Atos and Capita reports not meeting basic requirements [the highest A grade] was “a shocking indictment of the quality of the assessments.
“It’s no wonder so many disabled people don’t get the PIP they need and are entitled to.”
A DWP spokesperson declined to say why Pursglove had described the audit process as “independent” when it was carried out by DWP.
DWP also declined to say if the continuing levels of unreliability and the poor-quality reports suggested the three companies were not fit to win new contracts, or whether the audit results partly explained the high level of successful tribunal appeals against both WCA results and PIP findings.
But the spokesperson said in a statement: “We support millions of people with disabilities each year and always work to provide a supportive and compassionate service.
“We have made improvements to our decision-making process and in the majority of cases make the right decision.
“We have robust systems in place for spending public money and departments always seek to achieve value for money for the taxpayer.
“As with all our contracts, performance is kept under constant review.”
A spokesperson for Atos, which carries out PIP assessments under the name Independent Assessment Services (IAS), said: “IAS regularly meets the assessment report quality target set by DWP of over 97 per cent reports meeting an acceptable grade.”
He declined to explain what Atos meant by “regularly”.
He added: “Less than 0.2 per cent of consultations result in a complaint and we have consistently exceeded our customer satisfaction target of over 90 per cent as measured by an independent survey.
“We do not, however, comment on commercial matters or live tenders.”
A Maximus spokesperson said: “We are currently meeting all of our quality targets and have been doing so for some time.
“We have also achieved record levels of customer satisfaction by working in collaboration with charities and expert partners, seeking feedback and continuously improving the service we provide.”
He declined to say how long Maximus had been meeting its targets, or to provide any more detail on the customer satisfaction levels.
But he added: “Since we took over delivery of work capability assessments [in 2015], we have invested in specialist training for our healthcare professionals, reduced the amount of time a customer spends in the assessment process, and provided additional support to make the process more accessible.
“We remain focused on delivering a sensitive and respectful service.”
A Capita spokesperson said: “We can’t comment or speculate on potential contract bids.”
Their wider failings have been exposed through research and direct action by grassroots groups of disabled people, inquiries by parliamentary committees, concerns raised by individual MPs, the release of government statistics, television documentaries, and a lengthy investigation into the PIP assessment practices of Atos and Capita by Disability News Service.
Atos, Maximus and Capita have so far declined to say if they are bidding for any of the new DWP assessment contracts.
*The Scottish government will continue to take responsibility for its replacement for PIP, adult disability payment
Picture: (From left) Jodey Whiting, whose death has been linked to the failings of Maximus; Stephen Carré, whose death has been linked to the actions of Atos; and Philippa Day, whose death has been linked to Capita’s failings
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