Private sector contractors are deliberately putting lifts out of order and removing cups from beside water coolers as part of “covert” attempts to trick disabled people waiting to be assessed for their benefits, MPs have been told.
Conservative MP Dr Ben Spencer said he had been told that staff working for government contractors were setting traps at assessment centres to try to test claimants’ mobility.
Chloe Smith, the minister for disabled people, who was giving evidence to the Commons work and pensions select committee yesterday (Wednesday), has promised to carry out an urgent investigation into his claims.
Spencer, a member of the committee, said he had been at an event that was taking evidence from disabled people who had been through the assessment process when he was told of “their perception that they were being covertly assessed”.
He said one claimant described to him how there had been water available at the assessment centre, but the water cooler did not have any cups, although the cooler at the end of the corridor did have cups, which Spencer said was a test “to see if the person was able to walk beyond the first water cooler to get some water”.
Another claimant said the lifts at the assessment centre had been “deliberately” broken, to assess whether claimants were able to use the stairs.
A third claimant described the healthcare professional who was assessing them dropping a pen to see if they would pick it up “as part of a covert assessment, effectively, of their mobility”.
It is not clear which private sector contractors were carrying out these assessments.
But Smith confirmed that she did not recognise these tactics as legitimate parts of the assessment process and said she was “concerned” to hear of the examples Spencer had provided.
Katie Farrington, director general for disability, health and pensions in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), said she was also concerned at what the committee had heard.
She said the DWP contractors that had previously given evidence to the committee, as part of its inquiry into disability benefits assessments – Maximus, Atos and Capita – had said that their individual assessors “would look at the customer and how they present, how they walk, but would also be expected to ask more general open questions”.
But she added: “I certainly do not think we should be in a place where people are going away feeling that the lift is deliberately broken, nor the water cooler is deliberately broken.
“I do think what you’re raising is an important issue, is about whether people have the right confidence in the process.”
Smith said she was also concerned that all assessment centre facilities should be “properly accessible”.
She said: “It would be unacceptable to have a deliberately broken lift, so yes, we will look into those.”
Picture: Dr Ben Spencer (left) and Chloe Smith at the evidence session
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