The proportion of disability assessment reports completed by government contractor Atos that were found to be significantly flawed has soared by more than 40 per cent in the last two years.
The percentage of substandard Atos* personal independence payment (PIP) reports rose from about 25 per cent in 2016-17 to more than 36 per cent in 2018-19, according to Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures.
They show the results of government audits carried out on thousands of Atos reports over the two years from 2016-17.
They were provided to the SNP MP Marion Fellows in May in response to a written parliamentary question, but have only just emerged.
And they show how the performance of Atos – which has been the target of angry protests by disabled activists for most of the last decade over the way it carries out benefit assessments – has worsened over the last two years, despite a public pledge to improve.
The figures emerged after data secured through the Freedom of Information Act by campaigner John Slater showed that the proportion of substandard PIP reports completed by the other assessment contractor, Capita, reached 37 per cent in the 2018 calendar year.
In December 2017, a senior Atos executives told a committee of MPs that quality was the company’s “absolute prime target and prime focus” and that he would be “not happy at all until 100 per cent of the cases are deemed to be acceptable and pass those criteria”.
Although the proportion of audited reports that were of such poor quality that they were rated “unacceptable” fell slightly the year after those comments, the figures show Atos is still failing to meet its DWP target of ensuring that a maximum of three per cent of reports are unacceptable, six years after it first began carrying out PIP assessments.
In 2016-17, 4.7 per cent were unacceptable, the following year that rose to 5.3 per cent, and in 2018-19 it fell to 4.3 per cent, still well above three per cent.
But the figures also show how many reports were graded as not being bad enough to be unacceptable but still so flawed that there was “learning required” by the healthcare professional who wrote it, and those where the report needed to be amended because of even more serious flaws.
The proportion of reports that were unacceptable, “learning required” or needed amendments rose from 25 per cent in 2016-17, to 32 per cent in 2017-18 and again to 36 per cent in 2018-19.
The Capita figures secured by Slater showed 3.9 per cent of its audited reports in the 2018 calendar year were graded unacceptable, with 17 per cent learning required and 16 per cent needing to be amended, giving a total of 37 per cent substandard (against 36 per cent in 2018-19 for Atos).
Capita has previously refused to say if its audit data showed there were still serious concerns about its performance, and if this was deteriorating, and it has refused to comment on the audit results.
Capita carried out about 220,000 face-to-face assessments in 2018, compared with more than 730,000 by Atos.
If the audit results were representative of all the assessments carried out by Atos and Capita, then an estimated 375,000 disabled people would have had their claims decided in 2018 based on assessment reports that were significantly flawed.
And about 40,000 of those would have been decided on reports that would have been declared “unacceptable” if they had been audited.
Slater said: “Considering that Capita and Atos promised to improve the quality of their reports, these figures don’t reflect organisations that have delivered on their promises.
“It’s likely that both have tried to improve the quality of reports but have failed to do so.”
He said he believed this was due to poor retention of assessors, trouble with recruiting staff with the correct attitude and experience, and the need to make its PIP assessment contracts profitable.
Slater said there were also “time pressures” to “keep up with the volume of referrals [from DWP], which means that assessors are put under extreme pressure to turn around reports quickly and so quality suffers.
“This would also explain why retention is an issue as people don’t last long in these environments.”
He added: “Obviously we don’t know what pressure the DWP is applying to Capita and Atos but improving the quality of reports doesn’t seem to be top of the list.”
Anita Bellows, a researcher for Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “What is revealed by these audit figures is that a large number of unacceptable reports, of reports so bad that learning is required from the assessors who compiled them, or which need to be amended to rectify serious flaws, have been used to inform decisions about disability benefit entitlement.
“That should go a long way to explain why so many PIP initial decisions are overturned by tribunals.
“The DWP should make sure that all reports are of an adequate standard, as the consequences of using sub-standard reports can be devastating for claimants.”
DWP refused to say if it accepted that the quality of PIP assessment reports had deteriorated between 2016 and 2018; why it believed this had happened; and what action was being taken to correct it.
But a DWP spokesperson said in a statement: “We want the PIP assessment process to work well for everyone and are continuously improving the service delivered.
“We set providers challenging targets and regularly monitor their performance in order to ensure that they are delivering to the highest possible standard.
“The majority of people assessed for PIP are satisfied with their experience and the number of complaints received by providers equates to less than one per cent of the total number of people assessed.”
An Atos spokesperson refused to say if the company would apologise for the deterioration in quality since it promised to improve; or explain why this had happened; or what action it would take to improve.
But he said in a statement: “The majority of these cases are deemed as acceptable by DWP and the proportion of cases found ‘unacceptable’ is decreasing, therefore conflating categories that are classed as acceptable with those that are not is unhelpful and misleading.”
*Atos delivers its PIP assessment contracts through Independent Assessment Services, a trading name of Atos IT Services UK
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