A “pervasive lack of trust” among disabled people in the method of assessing their welfare claims risks undermining the operation of the Government’s flagship benefits, MPs have warned.
Since 2013, 290,000 rejected claims for Personal Independence Payments or Employment and Support Allowance have been granted on appeal – a total of 6% of all those assessed.
The Department for Work and Pensions has spent “hundreds of millions of pounds” of taxpayers’ money over that period checking and defending decisions made on the basis of reports by private contractors, said a report by a cross-party committee.
The House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee said there was evidence that the companies carrying out assessments – Atos, Capita and Maximus – have produced reports “riddled with errors and omissions”.
Noting that quality targets set for them had been “universally missed”, the committee said ministers should consider taking the process back in-house when contracts come up for renewal in 2019 and 2020.
The committee received an “unprecedented” number of responses from PIP and ESA claimants, with almost 4,000 detailing “shocking and moving, credible and consistent” accounts of the failings of the system.
Their recurrent complaint was that they did not believe the companies’ non-specialist assessors could be trusted to record evidence of their conditions accurately.
Assessors were viewed as “at best lacking in competence and at worst actively deceitful”, while many claimants reported experiencing “a great deal of anxiety and other deleterious health impacts”.
One claimant was said in her assessment report to walk her dog, despite not owning one and being barely able to walk at all.
Another, who remained in bed throughout her interview at home, was reported to have risen from a chair “without any difficulty” even though the only chair in the room was the one the assessor was sitting in.
Committee chairman Frank Field said shortcomings in the system were causing “untenable human costs to claimants and financial costs to the public purse”.
And he said: “No-one should have any doubt the process needs urgent change.”
All face-to-face assessments should be recorded and a copy sent to the claimant along with the assessor’s report, not just the notification of the department’s decision which they currently receive, said the report.
Mr Field – a former social security minister – said it “beggars belief” that assessments are not already routinely recorded. It was “bewildering” that the DWP had resisted this step.
Maximus took over the contract for ESA assessments in 2014, after Atos negotiated an early exit from its contract.
Worth £595 million when awarded for the period up to 2018, it has now been extended to early 2020.
Contracts for PIP assessments are held by Capita in Wales and the Midlands and Atos in the rest of England and Scotland and were worth a combined total of £512 million when initially awarded for the period 2012-17. They have since been extended to mid-2019.
None of the contractors has ever hit their quality performance target, despite the “low bar” set by DWP, the report found.
In the case of Capita, the number of reports deemed “unacceptable” peaked as high as 56% at one point in 2015, though all of the contractors have got closer to hitting targets in recent months.
Figures obtained by the Press Association through a Freedom of Information request show DWP has spent £108.1 million on direct staffing costs for ESA and PIP appeals since October 2015.
Mr Field said: “The current contracts have not made the system fairer, have not made it more transparent and have not made it more efficient. They are up for review, and market interest appears limp.
“The existing contractors have consistently failed to meet basic performance standards but other companies are hardly scrambling over each other to take over. The Government should be prepared to take assessments in-house.”
The question of whether a more fundamental overhaul of welfare support for disabled people is required “remains open”, the committee said.
A DWP spokesman said: “As the Work and Pensions Select Committee highlights, assessments work for the majority of people, with 83% of ESA claimants and 76% of PIP claimants telling us that they’re happy with their overall experience.
“However, our aim has to be that every person feels they are treated fairly, with respect and dignity.”
The spokesman said DWP had already accepted more than 100 recommendations from five independent reviews of the Work Capability Assessment and commissioned two independent reviews of PIP assessments.
A Capita spokesman said: “We remain firmly committed to delivering a high-quality service for people applying for PIP, and fully recognise the importance and sensitivity of our role in providing assessments.
“Since taking on the contract, there has been a continuous focus on improving the assessment process for individuals working alongside advocacy groups and with the Department.
“All of our qualified healthcare professionals are fully trained and are dedicated to delivering professional and empathetic assessments for all claimants.”
A spokesman for the Maximus-operated Centre for Health and Disability Assessments said: “Since we took over the contract in March 2015, we have set out to improve the experience at every stage for those attending assessments.
“We have delivered year-on-year improvements across the service, hiring more medical professionals, halving the time people spend in the assessment process and hitting the large majority of quality targets.
“In January 2018, we achieved all of our quality standards. We take the findings of this report very seriously and remain fully committed to making further improvements.”
A spokesman for Independent Assessment Services – formerly known as Atos Healthcare – said: “We are extremely conscious of the important role we perform within the claimant process, which is why our focus has consistently been on providing a professional and compassionate assessment service.
“We have also looked at continually improving by listening to claimant feedback, which has led to a number of improvements.”