A disabled teacher has told how a government contractor apologised to him for a dishonest benefit assessment, and then had to apologise again after it ordered a replacement assessment which was even worse.
He says his experience is a damning indictment of the assessment process introduced by the government for its new personal independence payment (PIP), and raises fresh concerns about one of its key social security reforms, just a day before the general election.
The teacher, David*, has accused the government of “institutional discrimination” over the way it dealt with his PIP claim.
Disability News Service (DNS) has seen both of the letters written by the discredited outsourcing giant Atos, in which the company apologises for the failings in each of the two assessments.
Despite a lengthy investigation into widespread dishonesty within the PIP assessment system, which has now produced more than 200 cases of concern, this is the first time DNS has heard of a PIP contractor apologising for its failings in both an initial face-to-face assessment and a second assessment ordered because of the flaws in the first one.
David has now finally been awarded PIP at the enhanced rate for both mobility and daily living for the next 10 years, following his eight-month struggle in the face of what he says has been institutional discrimination by both the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and its contractor, Atos.
His battle began last August, when there was a significant worsening of his health (he has ME).
He was claiming the standard mobility rate of PIP at the time and asked DWP to review his award.
As a result, he and his wife attended a face-to-face assessment in November, which was carried out by a nurse.
David said: “The so-called health professional fired one leading question after another at me.
“When he did not get the response he wanted, he would repeat the question again and I would try and repeat my initial answer.
“The question would be asked again until he got a response that he wanted.”
After half an hour, David was so exhausted that he had his head in his hands, resting on the nurse’s desk, and he had to ask for a break to take medication.
He said: “The questions continued unabated. By the end of the assessment, I felt as if I’d been in a fight, and just had one desire: to go home to bed and take more painkillers.”
Despite the ordeal, when he received DWP’s decision he was told he did not qualify for any level of PIP, even though his condition had worsened since his last assessment.
He complained in writing, and then had to complain again after DWP said it had no record of his original letter. In the meantime, DWP turned down his initial appeal through the mandatory reconsideration process.
In February, Atos admitted that David’s assessment had not been up to standard and that he would be given a second assessment.
The second assessment took place the following month, this time at his home, and was carried out by a paramedic.
But when David – who lost his job earlier this year as a result of his health condition – received a copy of the report two weeks later, it left him in tears.
He said: “I could not believe the lies, distortions and omissions of things I had told her.
“The consultants’ reports that I had given her were not even mentioned.
“She did, however, mention that the report from the November assessment, which had been described by two Atos managers as unsatisfactory, was part of the evidence that she had considered.
“I felt incredibly upset at not being believed a second time. I thought the first rule of medicine was to do no harm.
“Obviously, the health professionals working for Atos seemed to have forgotten what the word ‘ethics’ means.”
Again, DWP found him ineligible for PIP, based on the Atos assessment report.
For several weeks, David was too ill to think about his PIP claim. But when his health improved, he took the new report apart line by line and submitted a four-page complaint to Atos.
A few weeks later, he received written responses from Atos to both of his complaints, one about the first assessment and the other about the second, both apologising for their errors.
One letter noted that David had found the first assessment report to be “inaccurate and misleading” and that he had stated that the assessor had “attempted to lead your answers by asking questions a number of different ways”.
The letter informed him that a senior Atos medical advisor had concluded that it had been “insufficiently detailed and based upon information which dated from 2014 and earlier dates”, and offered “sincere apologies for any distress which may have been caused”.
The second letter was even more damning, noting that the first assessment should not have been considered as evidence by the second assessor, that the paramedic ignored consultants’ reports she had been shown by David, while other documents “have not been fully considered”.
It also concluded that the assessor had made other “mistakes and contradictions”, although “there is no evidence to suggest this was deliberate”.
The letter then concludes that there were “many inaccuracies and omissions within the report and [further medical evidence] has not been fully considered”, while there were “clear inconsistencies and contradictions within the report”.
Three days later, David received a letter from DWP, telling him he had been awarded PIP at the enhanced rate for daily living and mobility for 10 years.
A DWP spokeswoman claimed yesterday (Tuesday) that there was “no evidence that any of the assessment reports were dishonest” and that the department expected “the highest standards from the contractors who carry out PIP assessments.
“We do not accept it to be the case that there is dishonesty amongst them.”
DWP has declined to apologise to David or express any regret for his experience, but the spokeswoman said: “Atos has apologised to [David] and acknowledged that the assessment reports for his claim were not suitable.”
She said that there had been more than two million PIP decisions since its launch in 2013, of which seven per cent had been appealed and three per cent overturned, while 26 per cent of claimants were receiving the highest rate of support, compared to 15 per cent under disability living allowance, the benefit PIP is replacing for working-age claimants**.
However, these appeal figures are likely to be seen as highly misleading, because DWP’s own figures show there have been more than 550,000 mandatory reconsiderations – the internal DWP process that all claimants have to go through before appealing to an independent tribunal – registered since PIP’s launch.
The DWP spokeswoman said: “As we’ve previously said, our providers are committed to providing a high-quality, sensitive and respectful service by conducting fair, accurate and objective assessments.
“Independent audit is in place to ensure advice provided to DWP decision makers is of suitable quality, fully explained and justified.
“We expect the highest standards from the contractors who carry out PIP assessments and we work extensively with them, and disability representative groups, to make improvements.”
She said DWP’s response to Paul Gray’s second independent review of PIP “will be published in due course”.
But David believes his experience highlights the government’s “war” on poor and disabled people, and shows the need for widespread reform of PIP, an end to the use of private outsourcing companies to carry out assessments, and an inquiry into the rampant dishonesty by Atos and Capita healthcare assessors that the DNS investigation has uncovered.
And he has called on other PIP claimants to “never give up fighting”.
He said: “No matter how many times you are turned down, no matter what lies are said about you in Atos reports, don’t let it get you down.”
He said claimants should turn their “dejection, anxiety, stress and anger” over a dishonest assessment report into action by writing a letter of complaint, and ensuring it is sent by recorded delivery.
He said: “You cannot expect to be treated with respect. You cannot expect fair treatment.
“You can expect: to be treated with disdain, to not be believed, the medical evidence you provide to be ignored.”
He added: “The benefits system is on the front lines of the class war against the disabled poor.
“We must stand together to give disabled people the help, encouragement and support necessary to fight for the benefits that they are entitled to.”
*Not his real name
**DWP figures obtained by DNS in April showed that nearly half of claimants subject to “planned reviews” of their PIP eligibility were having their existing award either cut or removed completely, while DWP figures last year showed that only seven in 10 people previously claiming DLA were being found eligible for PIP when they were reassessed for the new benefit, which was announced in 2010 by George Osborne as a cost-cutting measure.