The government has awarded five-year disability assessment contracts worth more than £560 million to the outsourcing giant Capita, on the same day that a safeguarding review linked the company to the death of a young disabled mum.
Last week, the safeguarding review into the death of Philippa Day in October 2019 found the actions of Capita had had a “profound impact” on the 27-year-old and caused her “debilitating anxiety”, thanks to systemic problems in the personal independence payment (PIP) assessment system.
A coroner later found that flaws in the PIP system – many of them due to Capita’s actions – were “the predominant factor and the only acute factor” that led to Philippa taking her own life.
Also on the same day, 25 May, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) raised concerns about two serious data protection breaches linked to Capita, one following a cyber-attack and the other relating to allegations that it left data unsecured online.
Capita also failed to meet DWP’s target for the proportion of assessment reports considered to be of an acceptable quality in November last year, more than nine years after it started providing PIP assessments.
Capita has also been linked previously to widespread reports of dishonesty by its healthcare professionals while assessing PIP claimants.
But despite the safeguarding review, the data protection concerns, missing its quality target, and the previous reports of dishonesty by its staff, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has awarded Capita two five-year contracts to carry out assessments of disabled people, one across Wales and the Midlands (£450 million), and the other in Northern Ireland (£110 million).
In each of five UK regions, private sector contractors will carry out both work capability assessments (WCAs) and assessments for PIP*, as well as assessments for other disability-related benefits, from 2024 to 2029.
The Wales and Midlands contract means Capita will continue to provide assessments in Nottingham, where Philippa Day lived.
The US company Maximus has been awarded the contract to carry out assessments in the north of England and Scotland, worth an estimated £650 million over five years, and it will work as a “delivery partner” to Capita in Wales and the Midlands, worth another £150 million.
Maximus has also been linked to the deaths of disabled claimants, including Jodey Whiting, Alan McArdle and Philip Pakree, through its provision of work capability assessments (WCAs) since 2015 and its actions as a Work Programme contractor.
The fourth contract has been awarded to Ingeus, which provides employment, skills and health services in the UK and has so far not been associated with the provision of benefit assessments in this country, although it is part of the Australian multinational APM Group which delivers assessments in Australia.
This contract, across south-east England, London and East Anglia, is worth £400 million over five years.
So far, no contracts have been awarded to the discredited outsourcing company Atos, although one assessment contract – covering the south-west of England – has yet to be awarded.
Atos has an even worse reputation than Capita and Maximus, having earned more than £465 million from delivering work capability assessments before it withdrew from the contract in 2015, following years of negative publicity and multiple links between the actions of the company and its staff and the deaths of disabled claimants.
Atos healthcare professionals were also repeatedly accused of dishonesty in the provision of PIP assessments, following a Disability News Service (DNS) investigation.
In all, the five assessment contracts will be worth more than two billion pounds over the five years from 2024 to 2029.
Announcing the award of the four contracts, Tom Pursglove, the minister for disabled people, said: “These important new contracts have been subject to a rigorous and competitive process in line with public contract regulations.”
DWP said the bids were assessed on a combination of quality and pricing.
But a DWP spokesperson declined to answer questions about the process, including whether Pursglove was comfortable awarding contracts to Capita and Maximus in the light of their respective track records.
The wider failings of Atos, Capita and Maximus 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 the lengthy DNS investigation into the PIP assessment practices of Atos and Capita.
Performance figures released to DNS in January showed that all three current providers are continuing to provide a significant number of sub-standard assessment reports.
Independent audits carried out on behalf of DWP show that less than 80 per cent of WCA reports carried out by Maximus “fully conformed” to “professional standards” between September and November 2022, with the figure falling below 78 per cent in November 2022.
With Capita, nearly one in four (24.4 per cent) PIP assessment reports sampled in November 2022 were found to need amendments because of significant flaws, with another 3.3 per cent said to be of “unacceptable” quality, breaching DWP’s three per cent target.
Asked if it believed it was a suitable organisation to be providing assessment services to disabled people, a Maximus spokesperson said: “We are pleased to be continuing our partnership with DWP to deliver health and disability assessments.
“Through our delivery of the [WCA] since 2015, we have delivered significantly reduced waiting times, improved assessment quality and achieved record customer satisfaction.
“We remain committed to providing a sensitive, respectful and expert service to customers, working with disabled people and their representative groups to deliver improved customer experience.”
Neither Capita nor Atos had responded to questions by noon today (Thursday).
*Except in Scotland, where the Scottish government will continue to take responsibility for adult disability payment, its replacement for PIP
Picture: Philip Pakree (left), Tom Pursglove and Philippa Day
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