A senior opposition MP is to write to the minister for disabled people to ask how she plans to penalise government contractors Atos and Capita, following last week’s “devastating” revelations about their “shocking” failings in delivering disability benefit assessments.
Stephen Lloyd, the work and pensions spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said last week’s revelations by Disability News Service (DNS) were “utterly devastating” and raised “serious questions” over the performance of the two outsourcing giants.
Last week, DNS ran three stories revealing fresh evidence of failings by Atos and Capita in how they deliver assessments for personal independence payment (PIP) across England, Wales and Scotland.
The reports were based on data released to campaigner John Slater by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) under freedom of information laws, as well as analysis by Disabled People Against Cuts researcher Anita Bellows and DNS.
The data included management information (MI) provided by Capita and Atos, showing how they had performed in meeting certain contractual requirements set by DWP while delivering PIP assessments during 2016.
One story revealed how Atos and Capita had been failing to request the vital “further medical evidence” (FME) from GPs, consultants and social workers that would help disabled people secure the PIP they were entitled to.
Another described how up to 180 PIP assessors – mostly from Atos – were the subject of at least four complaints each from PIP claimants in three-month periods in 2016.
And the third story showed how nearly one in three PIP assessment reports completed by Capita between April and December 2016 were significantly flawed.
Lloyd (pictured) highlighted the “shocking failure in not securing medical evidence from claimants’ GPs, which they’re supposed to do under the terms of their DWP contract”.
He said: “The scale of failures on all these are frankly unbelievable, proof, were it needed, that my call to strip the assessment contracts from both Atos and Capita and bring the whole regime in-house as a public service needs to happen sooner rather than later, before even more damage is done to disabled people’s lives.
“Why should tax-payers continue to enrich these two companies on the backs of disabled people?”
He said the DNS reports showed that the service disabled people were receiving was “simply sub-standard if not actually downright illegal”.
He added: “I will be writing to the disabilities minister, Sarah Newton, to ask how the DWP proposes to penalise both Atos and Capita in the light of these clear contractual breaches.”
Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, Marsha de Cordova, said the issues raised in the three stories last week were “very consistent” with her own concerns.
She said: “Poor contract management feeds poor practice, as the contracted assessors draw the lesson that poor performance will not too greatly trouble the client (the DWP).
“This in turn leads to poor decisions, as assessments are generally rubber-stamped by DWP decision-makers and then, if challenged by the claimant, rubber-stamped again at ‘mandatory reconsideration’ stage.”
Although decisions can be corrected at appeal tribunals, she said, many claimants will not appeal because they “do not realise there is a problem or they cannot face the struggle”.
She said the DNS reports, together with this week’s damning report by the Commons work and pensions committee (see separate stories), criticisms made by the senior president of tribunals and “the stream of complaints from disabled people and disability organisations”, should mean the government finally “admits that the game is up and ‘business as usual’ (when the fuss dies down) is not an option”.
She added: “We must make sure that the fuss doesn’t die down and insist on detailed plans for change – plans that centrally involve disabled people.”
Slater has this week sent a link to the data to the work and pensions committee, as it was preparing to publish its report into the PIP and employment and support allowance (ESA) assessment systems.
The committee has promised to continue to investigate flaws in the PIP and ESA systems.
Meanwhile, neither Capita nor DWP has been willing to comment on figures which appear to show that Capita’s failings on FME became even more serious last year.
The figures, released to the SNP’s Drew Hendry by Newton earlier this month, showed the number of individual requests for FME by Capita fell from about 94,000 in 2015, to 48,000 in 2016 and then dropped below 21,000 last year.
Asked why FME requests had fallen so drastically between 2015 and 2017, a Capita spokeswoman said: “Each case is considered on an individual basis and we will request further evidence where it is necessary and appropriate, taking into account the information that has already been provided.”
Asked if this showed that Capita had been cutting corners in fulfilling the PIP assessment contract, she said: “No. We are fully committed to delivering a high quality service for people applying for PIP.”
Last week, Capita said: “Individuals are encouraged to provide further evidence to the Department for Work and Pensions when starting their PIP claim and this, along with our assessment report, is taken into consideration alongside all other evidence when the DWP, not Capita, makes the decision about the level and length of award.”
But Bellows said: “Capita’s response does not make sense. How does that explain the huge drop in FME requests, from over 60 per cent to two per cent within a few months?
“Did all claimants, in all regions, and in the same proportion decide at the same time to produce the medical evidence necessary for Capita to give an opinion and for DWP to decide on a PIP claim?
“The likelihood of this happening is close to zero.”
She said the downward trend was confirmed by the 2017 figures released by Newton to Drew Hendry.
DWP declined to say why the Capita numbers had continued to fall and were so low last year; whether this showed Capita had been cutting corners; and whether it was concerned by the figures.
But a DWP spokeswoman said in a statement: “As we explained last week, it is not always necessary to seek further medical evidence to assess an individual’s eligibility for PIP.
“In the vast majority of cases, the evidence provided by the claimant on their PIP application form, the evidence claimants send in to support their claim and the evidence provided during their assessment is sufficient for DWP to make a decision.
“As Paul Gray pointed out, primary onus of responsibility for providing functional evidence should lie with the claimant.
“They are in the best position to supply what evidence is available.”
But Gray, DWP’s own independent reviewer of PIP, also said that DWP and its providers “should also be proactive in gathering Further Evidence where they identify sources that are relevant and reliable”.
And this week’s work and pensions committee’s report reveals that Maximus – which carries out ESA assessments – requests FME in up to 46 per cent of cases each year.
DWP documents drawn up in May 2012, before the award of the PIP contracts, show the department expected its contractors would need to request FME in about half of all PIP cases.
In DWP’s own PIP handbook, it says: “The face-to-face consultation will be conducted by a health professional who considers the evidence provided by the claimant, along with any further evidence they think is needed.”
And in DWP’s PIP Assessment Guide, it makes clear that, in order for a report to be graded as “acceptable”, the assessor must ensure that “sufficient further evidence” has been “appropriately sought and referenced”.
Slater said: “I’m delighted that the previous stories have generated so much interest and that people can now start to have discussions about what’s actually going on with PIP.
“I hope the MI data will help organisations like the work and pensions committee to hold the DWP to account.”
He added: “I’m very disappointed that the DWP hasn’t responded to me about what appears to be incomplete disclosure of the PIP MI data and I am pursuing the matter via the information commissioner.”