Scores of healthcare professionals may have been able to continue carrying out disability benefit assessments despite being the subject of multiple complaints about their behaviour, competence and honesty, confidential new documents have revealed.
The official reports, prepared by outsourcing giants Capita and Atos for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), show that up to 180 personal independence payment (PIP) assessors were the subject of at least four complaints each in three-month periods in 2016.
The documents, released under the Freedom of Information Act, show that 161 assessors working for Atos had more than three complaints made against them in a three-month period.
And 19 Capita assessors were also subjected to at least four complaints in a three-month period in 2016.
Neither Atos nor Capita, nor DWP, will say what action was taken against these assessors and whether they are still carrying out face-to-face assessments of disabled PIP claimants.
The revelations provide fresh evidence of failings by the two private sector outsourcing giants in delivering PIP assessments across England, Wales and Scotland.
Disability News Service (DNS) has been investigating claims of widespread dishonesty by PIP assessors for more than a year, and has now heard from about 300 claimants who say their assessment reports contained clear lies.
The new reports include details of the “management information” (MI) the two companies were contractually obliged to provide every month to DWP, so it could check their performance and take action when they needed to improve.
They show how they performed during 2016 in certain areas, such as how long face-to-face assessments took on average; how many face-to-face assessments were carried out; and how many assessments reports were graded as unacceptably poor.
They were released to campaigner John Slater, as part of his efforts to secure confidential DWP information that he believes will expose widespread failings by Capita and Atos, as well as DWP’s failure to manage the contracts properly.
He has been working with Disabled People Against Cuts researcher Anita Bellows, and DNS, to analyse the data since its release last month.
in a letter to Frank Field, the chair of the Commons work and pensions select committee, in December 2017, Atos boss David Haley said his company had received more than 5,800 complaints connected with the PIP contract in 2016.
Atos is likely to have completed about 800,000 assessments that year.
According to the MI reports, Capita completed about 240,000 assessment reports in 2016 and received more than 3,000 complaints in just the 11 months from February to December (there are no figures for January).
Slater said the information released by DWP showed there had been “serious failings in key areas”, such as complaints against the assessors, the quality of assessment reports, and the number of cases where Atos and Capita asked for further medical information (see separate stories).
He said: “It is important to remember that these failings are not simply about producing documents or following processes.
“These three areas directly impact the outcome of people’s PIP claims.
“It is almost certain that people will have been denied PIP or given a reduced award due to an assessment report that wasn’t good enough, because further medical evidence (FME) wasn’t obtained or because of assessors who shouldn’t be doing the job.”
He said DWP had now been managing the contracts for almost five years.
He said: “Problems of the magnitude uncovered by the disclosure of the MI shouldn’t exist after nearly five years if the DWP was doing its job properly.”
He said DWP should have learned the lessons from the “debacle” of the contract with Atos to deliver the work capability assessment, which saw DWP and Atos repeatedly criticised and Atos forced to pull out of the contract.
Bellows said the figures revealed by the reports obtained by Slater were “absolutely shocking”, and she pointed to the number of complaints filed against disability assessors, “and astonishingly against the same assessors”.
Other figures revealed the failure of Atos and Capita to request vital “further evidence” from GPs and social workers, and the number of Capita assessment reports that were found to be flawed.
Bellows said: “This is failure at every stage of the assessment process, and gross incompetence from DWP in overseeing and managing its contracts.”
Slater added: “When I asked for this information to be disclosed I suspected it would confirm the problems regularly reported by people claiming PIP and that the DWP was managing the three contracts poorly.
“The data did indeed confirm this, but I was shocked by what else we uncovered.
“In addition to the deplorable data on FME and the scale of the problem with unsatisfactory assessment reports, I was shocked by the fact that so much of the management information specified in the contract either wasn’t disclosed by the DWP or simply doesn’t exist*.
“I hope that the both the work and pensions committee and the public accounts committee will put the DWP under considerable scrutiny as a result of what has been uncovered.”
Atos has refused to answer a series of questions about the data released to Slater, including what action it took with the assessors who received at least four complaints in a three-month period, and how many of them were still working as assessors for Atos.
But an Atos spokesman said: “Throughout our relationship with the DWP around the delivery of the PIP contract, we have listened carefully to feedback provided by those being assessed and continually adjust our service to help deliver an enhanced experience for all involved.
“Less than one percent of the 844,000 cases we cleared and returned to DWP in 2016 resulted in a complaint.”
Capita also refused to answer the questions, but a spokeswoman said in a statement: “Our assessors are healthcare professionals who are equipped with the required skills and knowledge to carry out PIP functional-based assessments in a professional and empathetic manner.
“We are committed to delivering an excellent service and continue [to] improve this by heavily investing in our training, support, and audit processes to ensure accurate and quality reports.”
A DWP spokeswoman said: “We expect the highest standards from assessment providers, and we work closely with them to ensure PIP is working in the best way possible.
“We always aim to provide the very best service, and this is why assessments are carried out by qualified healthcare professionals who need to have at least two years of practical experience and must be registered with a medical body.
“Anyone falling below the required standards faces having their contract terminated.
“During the period you’ve outlined above, [Atos] and Capita completed a combined total of 945,000 PIP assessments.
“The total number of complaints that assessment providers received was less than one per cent of the total number of completed assessments.
“The PIP assessment providers thoroughly investigate all complaints and take appropriate actions.
“In addition, the PIP assessment providers have a target for customer satisfaction of 90 per cent, which they have consistently met since it was introduced in 2016.”
*DWP finally released this information to Slater last month, more than a year after he asked for it, following a ruling by the information commissioner.
But he has now been forced to complain again to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and DWP because DWP appears to have failed to provide key sections of the reports.