Nearly one in three of the disability benefit assessment reports completed by a private sector contractor were significantly flawed, confidential Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) documents suggest.
The figures were revealed through a government audit of personal independence payment (PIP) assessment reports that had been written by staff working for under-fire outsourcing giant Capita in 2016.
The audit, which examined more than 4,000 of the 190,000 assessment reports completed by Capita from April to December 2016, found that about 7.5 per cent of them were so poor as to be deemed “unacceptable”.
But with another 14 per cent of assessments, DWP concluded that the report was so flawed that there was “learning required” by the healthcare professional who wrote it, although the report was of an “acceptable” standard.
And in a further 12 per cent of cases, the report needed to be amended because of even more serious flaws in the assessor’s report, although again the report was still said to be of an “acceptable” standard.
In all, nearly 33 per cent of the Capita reports audited during 2016 were found to be of an unacceptable standard, to need changes, or demonstrated that the assessor had failed to carry out their role properly.
If the findings of the audit – which examined just over two per cent of all reports – were applied to all 190,000 of the assessments completed by Capita in that eight-month period, more than 14,000* PIP claimants could have had their claim decided on the basis of a report that was of an unacceptable standard.
And more than 62,000* could have been based on a report that was of an unacceptable standard or at least significantly flawed.
This and other data was sent to DWP by Capita and Atos, the two private sector outsourcing giants being paid hundreds of millions of pounds to deliver PIP assessments across England, Wales and Scotland.
Data on how many Atos reports were deemed to be unacceptable has not yet been released, although the Commons work and pensions committee heard in December that at one point since PIP was launched in 2013, about 30 per cent of Atos assessment reports completed in Scotland and the north of England were being judged “unacceptable”, with Capita even reaching 60 per cent at one stage in the contract.
This week’s revelations provide fresh evidence of failings by the two companies.
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.
The reports 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.
Slater said the information released by DWP showed there had been “serious failings in key areas”, such as the quality of assessment reports, complaints against the assessors, and the number of cases where Atos and Capita asked for further 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.”
Bellows said the figures revealed by the reports obtained by Slater were “absolutely shocking”.
Other figures revealed the failure of Atos and Capita to request vital “further evidence” from GPs and social workers, and the number of complaints filed against disability assessors.
Bellows said: “This is failure at every stage of the assessment process, and gross incompetence from DWP in overseeing and managing its contracts.”
Slater 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 eventually forced to pull out of the contract.
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.”
A Capita 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: “The department holds our assessment providers to a very high standard to ensure that claimants receive a high-quality assessment.
“There is a ‘No Pay’ policy in place for when our assessment providers do not meet the target of no more than three per cent of audited reports being unacceptable, with providers not paid for the proportion of reports graded ‘unacceptable’ over the three per cent target.
“In addition to identifying if the report is of an acceptable standard or not, DWP provides feedback to assessment providers when an assessment report is acceptable with feedback or with amendment.
“This feedback supports the assessment providers’ continuous improvement activity to improve the quality of their assessment reports.
“Both PIP assessment providers are committed to delivering high quality assessment reports and have increased their activity to improve the quality of their assessment reports.”
*The reports that were subject to the audit – about two per cent of them – and found to be flawed are likely to have been amended and improved as a result of the complaints highlighted in the audit
**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 DWP and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) because DWP appears to have failed to provide key sections of the reports.