Disabled activists reacted with horror this week after learning that the discredited government contractor Atos could soon be carrying out “fitness for work” tests again, six years after withdrawing from its assessment contract.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is introducing a major change to the way it commissions private sector companies to carry out health and disability benefit assessments, and campaigners fear it could lead to Atos once again carrying out work capability assessments (WCAs) in some parts of the country.
Atos earned more than £465 million from delivering WCAs 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.
DWP currently pays one company – Maximus – to carry out WCAs, which test eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits.
It pays two other companies – Atos and Capita – to assess eligibility for personal independence payment (PIP), which contributes to the extra costs of living with an impairment.
About two million health and disability assessments are carried out every year under the contracts.
But DWP has now decided that it wants a single supplier to supply all assessments – both WCAs and PIP assessments – in each part of the country from August 2023.
The change could mean, for example, that one company would carry out all WCAs and PIP assessments in London and southern England, and another company would carry out all assessments in central England and Wales, although it is not yet clear how the country would be divided up.
Information released to Disability News Service (DNS) by DWP last year showed that, between April 2010 and April 2019, Capita was paid more than £300 million, Atos more than £1.34 billion, and Maximus more than £620 million, to deliver assessments.
Atos has so far failed to say if it will be bidding for any of the new contracts, but disabled activists have said the possibility is “an absolute outrage”.
Atos, Maximus and Capita have all faced significant and repeated criticism over their performance over the last decade.
Their failings 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 a lengthy investigation into the PIP assessment practices of Atos and Capita by DNS.
A “prior information notice” announcing the move to a new system was issued by DWP in April, but has so far not been widely publicised, and was not mentioned in DWP’s disability benefits green paper, Shaping Future Support, which was published in July.
It was also not mentioned by the minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson, when he gave evidence to the work and pensions select committee yesterday (Wednesday).
But the green paper did discuss DWP’s plans to create what it calls an “integrated health assessment service”, which would bring the two assessments onto a single digital system.
The prior information notice says the plan to “provide functional health assessments through a single supplier in each geographical lot” was part of DWP’s “long term plans” to develop an integrated health assessment service.
But there will also be concerns that moving to a single assessment “supplier” in each part of the country could make it easier for ministers to merge PIP with out-of-work disability benefits (employment and support allowance, and the disability-related aspects of universal credit), a possibility also raised in the green paper.
The situation in Scotland will be different from England and Wales under the new assessment system, as the Scottish government is due to take over responsibility for a replacement for PIP next year, although DWP will still be responsible for providing WCAs in Scotland.
It is not yet clear what will happen with assessments in Northern Ireland.
Atos was replaced as the provider of WCAs by the US outsourcing giant Maximus in March 2015, after years of concerns over links between its actions and relapses, episodes of self-harm, and even suicides and other deaths among those being assessed, including those of Stephen Carré, Michael O’Sullivan, Mark Wood, David Barr and a woman known only as Ms D E.
Paula Peters, a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, which helped to force Atos’s withdrawal from the WCA contract six years ago, said: “It’s an absolute outrage that Atos could be carrying out work capability assessments again.
“We must never forget the names of Mark Wood, Linda Wootton, and all the disabled people who died as a result of the dreadful fear and distress these assessments have caused.
“Many have taken their own lives after being found fit to work.”
She said there were “countless stories”, backed up with research and evidence, to show that Atos, as well as Maximus and Capita, were “not fit for purpose”.
Peters said that if Atos was being considered to carry out WCA assessments again, it would be “a further stain on DWP’s appalling reputation”.
John McArdle, co-founder of the grassroots group Black Triangle, which also played a significant part in raising concerns about Atos when it was delivering the WCA contract, said: “If they were to be brought back, it would be an absolute affront to the grieving families who have lost loved ones, and whose lives will never be the same.”
He added: “The disability assessment regime by for-profit companies continues to be a grave and systematic violation of the fundamental human rights of sick and disabled people in the UK.
“Nothing has changed.”
Neither Maximus nor Atos had said by noon today (Thursday) whether they would be bidding for any of the assessment contracts.
A Capita spokesperson said: “Capita doesn’t comment on any potential future bids and so we will not be commenting on this occasion.”
A DWP spokesperson confirmed the department was moving towards using a single contractor for all assessments in each geographical area.
He said: “Last July the department announced its intention to extend current contracts with assessment providers for up to two years to ensure continuity of service for customers.
“The department intends to re-procure health assessment services contracts during this extension period and anticipates that the procurement will start later this year.”
DWP said it would continue to keep the most appropriate method of delivering assessments under review, but that it believed private providers would continue to have an important role.
And it said that it set its providers challenging targets and monitored their performance closely to ensure they delivered the best possible service to customers.
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