Disabled people are being prevented from having their “fitness for work” assessments recorded because staff working for the coalition’s private sector contractor claim all of the 11 recording devices bought by the government are “broken”.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) bought 11 dual CD interview recorders, one for each region of the country, so claimants of employment and support allowance (ESA) – the replacement for incapacity benefit – could have their work capability assessments (WCAs) recorded.
They bought the machines because many disabled claimants were complaining that “healthcare professionals” working for Atos Healthcare, the company that carries out the tests for the government, failed to record the evidence they were given accurately.
Following a recommendation by Professor Malcom Harrington, who has been reviewing the WCA for the government, the Conservative employment minister Chris Grayling promised MPs in February that Atos would “offer everyone who wants it the opportunity to have their session recorded”.
Jayne Linney, from Leicester, has tried seven times to have her assessment recorded but each time her WCA has had to be postponed because recording equipment was not available.
She has now been told twice by Atos staff that all 11 of the interview recorders are broken and that Atos had decided it would no longer offer a recording option.
Linney, who worked in community development for 30 years before she was forced to retire, has health conditions that cause extreme fatigue and chronic pain, and says the continuing battle with Atos to have her WCA recorded was causing her “a whole load of grief”.
She has twice had assessments carried out by Atos – although for disability living allowance rather than ESA – and on both occasions the “healthcare professional” made serious mistakes.
She said she wanted to be sure she had a recording of her WCA in case her claim was refused and she needed to appeal.
Linney said: “Any evidence that you can get on your side [is useful]. You must have some evidence that you did go to your assessment and told them what you needed to say but that it was disregarded.”
She added: “My experience has shown me that they do not get it right. Whether it’s their listening skills or their computer I am not entirely sure.
“I have been called by different names, had my birth date changed, I have absolutely no trust in them whatsoever.”
The Labour and Co-operative MP Tom Greatrex, who has led moves in the Commons to probe Atos’s performance through scores of written questions to ministers, said: “In February, Chris Grayling promised me in the House of Commons that anybody who wants their WCA to be assessed would be able to. Yet anecdotal evidence now suggests that isn’t the case in practice.
“The government must be clear with people. Either claimants can have their assessment recorded or they can’t – which is it?
“If it is the case that a multi-billion pound company aren’t able to provide this service because of a few broken machines then it would be laughable were it not so serious.
“Time and again we hear stories of Atos not being able to provide the level of service people deserve. It may be that the government must consider whether Atos are the best organisation to carry out the assessment.”
An Atos spokeswoman said DWP was responsible for supplying the recording equipment.
She said Atos made “every effort” to ensure that recording equipment was available when requested in advance of an assessment, but she added: “We are working with DWP to make that system better.”
When asked if all 11 machines were broken, she said: “We have not heard anything along those lines. We have recording equipment available. It is being used.
“When people request [that their assessment is recorded] we do our very best to accommodate that and we are working with DWP to increase that availability of audio recording.
“A lot of people are getting their assessments audio-recorded at the moment.”
The company that produces the recording devices declined to comment because it said it had signed a “non-disclosure agreement” with another company that had sourced the machines for DWP.
DWP has so far refused to comment.
5 July 2012