MPs warn of 'serious failings' in disability benefits assessments
Disability benefits assessments by private contractors suffer from “serious failings”, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has warned in a report.
Charities such as Mind, the Citizens’ Advice Bureau and the Disability Benefits Consortium told the committee that they’ve received complaints of claimants having to travel 60 to 70 miles for assessments, provided by companies such as Atos, MAXIMUS and Capita; appointments being overbooked; and claimants suffering stress, anxiety and financial hardship as a result.
Between September 2014 and August 2015 only 13% of targets for Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment reports met the contractual quality standard. Between July and September 2015, only 40% of 13,584 PIP decisions and 41% of 11,347 ESA decisions were upheld at appeal.
Meg Hillier MP, chair of the PAC, said: “The troubled history of this programme hammers home the importance of getting contracts right—and the importance of then holding contractors properly to account.
“In this case, poor performance has had a tangible human impact. We have seen some improvements but there is a long way to go before people being assessed can be confident of getting the service they deserve.
“These are serious failings that must be dealt with rigorously. We will expect to see evidence of a more enlightened approach to the needs of claimants, greater transparency over contractor performance and a renewed focus on improving the quality of assessments."
The PAC has previously warned of ‘grave flaws’ in the ESA system.
The Work and Pensions Committee warned in 2014 that disability benefit waiting times are ‘unacceptable’, with less than 40% of those who tried to claim the payments receiving them.
However, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has made efforts to reduce the problem. Outstanding PIP assessments fell from 242,000 in mid-2014 to 57,000 in August 2015, and ESA assessments from 724,000 in early 2014 to 410,000 in August 2015. The average time for completing a report also fell from 29 weeks to four weeks for PIP assessments between 2014 and 2015, and from 29 to 23 weeks for ESA assessments.
The department has also increased its contract management staff from 48 people in 2013 to 80 in 2015.
In 2014-15, there were 700,000 applications ESA and 526,000 for PIP, and the DWP is expected to spend £1.6bn on contracts for seven million assessments between April 2015 and March 2018.
The cost of assessments is expected to more than double from £275m in 2014–15 to £579m in 2016–17.
A DWP spokesperson said: “As highlighted in this report, we have made good progress to improve health and disability assessments; greatly reducing the backlog and cutting waiting times.
“But we know there is more to do and remain committed to working with our providers to ensure claimants get the best possible level of service, and taxpayers the best value for money.”
MAXIMUS also said that they would not meet their target of 911,000 ESA assessments in 2015-16, and Atos’ contracts with the government are currently under review following a PAC report. Only MAXIMUS employ doctors to carry out assessments, with Atos and Capita relying on nurses and other professionals such as occupational therapists, although government doctors said that it was not necessary to involve doctors in assessments.
The PAC recently criticised the government for struggling to achieve value for money with contract management.
The National Audit Office has also warned that the cost of outsourced assessments has risen by 65%, and the handling of PIP payments causes distress and financial difficulties.
Iain Duncan Smith recently resigned from his post as work and pensions secretary, where he oversaw many of the controversial assessments. Benefits changes for claimants have also been linked to suicides.